The sun is shining, the water is crystal clear, and a fresh breeze is buffeting the ferry. Ahead, there is a glimpse of virgin forest, small cottages and a profusion of fairytale turrets sparkling in the sun. Above is a vast, luminous sky, and all around is the limitless blue of the White Sea.
With its UNESCO-listed monastery and unspoiled forests and lakes, the Solovetsky archipelago is a place of almost ethereal beauty, and arriving by boat today is an uplifting experience. Yet during the 1920s and 1930s, this was a journey into a nightmare—and one from which vast numbers never returned.
For centuries, the archipelago's remote location and isolation from the mainland also made it the ideal dumping-ground for criminals and political prisoners. Under Soviet rule, the islands acquired the unwelcome distinction of becoming the site of the very first Soviet corrective labor camp, or Gulag.
Named the Solovetsky Lager Osobogo Naznacheniya (SLON), the Solovetsky Special Designation Camp was established in 1923 by a decree of Vladimir Lenin. It was established as a place where criminals and people who opposed the ideology of the new Soviet state were to be rehabilitated and could “redeem” themselves through hard labor.
The SLON camps, located in the “Solovki” and around the White Sea port of Kem, became the early prototype for a web of brutal prisons that spread its sinister tentacles to the farthest corners of the country—a network that dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn solemnly christened the “Gulag Archipelago.”
Here, the Soviet authorities developed and tested the methods that would come to be synonymous with the concentration camp—security, the organization of living quarters, rationing, work production norms, and different forms of torture, repression and execution.
Prisoners would be shipped north via a series of transit camps, and, on arrival in the Solovki, they would be put to work building roads and barracks, logging, digging peat or working in a brick factory.
The heart of the Solovetsky camp was the Solovetsky Monastery itself, overlooking the harbor. This 16th-century fortress—the center of the archipelago's monastic life for centuries—was closed down after the Bolsheviks seized power and turned it into the administrative center for the newly-formed SLON. The chambers of the monastery were put to new uses: Monks' cells were used as prisons, the altars were stripped out and the stove was used as a kiln for firing bricks.
The monastery was reopened in the early 1990s, and an exhibition in the great halls on the monastery's upper floor provides a gruesome summary of the moral catastrophe that befell the nation during the era of the Gulag—trials, execution orders, mass graves, smashed churches, the doomed priests who were the first to face the firing squads.
Elsewhere around the archipelago's sole settlement, which is known simply as Solovetsky, the visitor will notice signs of its Gulag past everywhere: Many of the buildings are cottages and barracks built by prisoners; the network of roads and tracks was largely built using prison labor; and many of the settlement's modern-day residents are the descendants of men who were imprisoned here.
Behind the monastery is the Gulag Museum, appropriately housed in a former prisoners' barrack in the center of the settlement. Visitors accustomed to the dusty chambers and faded displays typical of provincial museums in Russia will be pleasantly surprised by the bold, contemporary design of the interior and the presentation of the exhibits.
There are photographs, maps, letters, drawings, items of clothing, numerous documents and other items in the museum. Of particular interest are the detailed statistics relating to escapes, including seven cases of successful breakouts—all from camps on the mainland, or from work expeditions. Most escapes were doomed to failure, as escaping the islands themselves was a near-impossibility. Nonetheless, attempts were common.
Elsewhere, a series of recollections from prisoners sheds light on the grim realities of daily life in the camp. Prisoner Boris Shiryayev was on the logging detail during the winter of 1923: “The production norm in the forest was to chop down, cut off the boughs and drag to the road 10 tree trunks. Very few could manage this. It often meant having to stay out in the forest in the freezing cold for several hours, or even all night. Many froze... On the work sites, especially at night, they often shot people.” Nearby is a display of the rudimentary saws and axes prisoners were expected to use to carry out this work. They are all blunt.
From Solovetsky settlement, a dirt track leads through the forest for 7.5 miles to Sekirnaya Gora (Hatchet Hill)—the highest point in the archipelago at 320 feet above sea level. “Sekirka” is visible from many points around the island, its summit crowned by the white building of the Ascension skete (a small church), which was the world's first lighthouse church.
The hill offers sweeping vistas of the lakes and forests of Bolshoi Solovetsky Island and the White Sea; it is undoubtedly one of the archipelago's most beautiful places. However, this tranquil spot was the scene of some of the most savage punishments to take place under the jurisdiction of SLON—brutality on a scale that was so excessive it shocked even the Soviet authorities.
The Ascension skete was transformed into an isolation unit for prisoners, to which they could be sent for periods of up to a year for a variety of offenses, including breaking camp rules, counter-revolutionary activity, sabotage, refusing to work, conspiring to escape and associating with women.
Behind the Ascension skete, a vertiginous 294-step wooden staircase descends the steep hill. Known as the “Torturers' Stair,” the steps are the site of one of the cruelest punishments meted out at Sekirka—prisoners would be tied to a log and then pushed down the stairs.
At the foot of the “Torturers' Stair,” a large cross has been erected in the forest to commemorate those who perished here. In 2005, excavations were carried out at the foot of the hill, and the discovery of a number of mass graves testifies to the site's gruesome past as the site of large-scale executions. Sekirnaya Hill can be reached from Solovetsky settlement by minibus, by bike, or on foot. Several kilometers further on from Sekirnaya Hill is the skete at Savvatyevo. This contained political prisoners and was the site of the first mass shooting in the archipelago in 1923.
There are a number of other Gulag sites in the archipelago, but they are harder to reach and require more time and effort. On Bolshaya Muksalma Island are the remains of Sergeyev skete, where women prisoners were confined. Today, all that remains is an eerily derelict wooden building and an area of rubble where the church once stood. Bolshoi Zayatsky Island and Anzer Island are accessible only as part of guided tours.
The Solovetsky camp was closed in 1939, as its proximity to Finland and the unstable political climate in Europe meant its location was no longer suitable. Over 80,000 Soviet citizens passed through SLON from 1923-1939, and it is estimated that around half of those died in the camps. Today, a monument to the victims of the Gulag stands on Moscow's Lubyanka Square—tellingly, it is made of a boulder from the Solovetsky Islands.
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