The Solovetsky archipelago is a group of islands shrouded in a deep and rich history, completely tied to its closeness to Russia. Located in the White Sea in Northern Europe, these islands are far-flung and hard to reach; yet this has stopped few intrepid travelers from stumbling upon the majestic landmasses. Among these travelers were Russian monks, who used the island as a religious home-base of sorts. A large cathedral, with onion domes and great granite walls, pink in color, is the symbol of Russian Orthodox religion. There you’ll find bell towers, minarets and cupolas within the pentagonal ramparts. There are two ways to get there: by air and by sea. It is far more interesting to traverse the wild and unforgiving sea routes that the monks and invaders had to use back in the 15th century.
The ramparts played a huge part in monastery’s survival. In the latter half of the 17th century, during the Crimean War, the English navy attacked by the sea. Not only that but the Russians themselves attacked because they refused to accept ritual and liturgical reforms.
The geography of most of the Solovetsky islands is standard for a Northern Europe island. There are large amounts of tundra, lakes that freeze over in Winter, and groups of trees like spruces and ash trees. With the snowy season comes the omnipotent Aurora Borealis. In the Summer, there are groups of songbirds, such as the Willow Warbler, which famously stays near the monastery and sings to the monks, possibly to serenade them. There is a large botanical garden in the monastery, of which has introduced many trees and flowering plants to the island, such as the Fireweed, Meadowsweet, Angelica, and wood Cranesbill. Many of the lakes are actually connected by canals hand-dug by the monks. When Winter comes, the birds again leave. The Warbler, in particular, goes to Africa during migration, as do many of the other bird species that live on the island.
The economic backbone of Solovetski is salt which is extracted and processed. In addition, they trade fish and harvest birds and eggs to sustain the community.
There are a large number of labyrinths on the island, which have an uncertain purpose. Stone labyrinths are actually quite common in Northern Europe, but most are now gone, leaving Solovetsky as one of the few remaining examples. It was rumoured that they were representations of the underworld borders or used in rituals to aid in the soul’s passing from this world to the next. However, they probably had a less magical purpose such as fish traps. When the high tide would come in it would bring all the fish with it. Then as it went back out all the fish would get stuck in the maze and the fishermen could easily retrieve them. Nowadays, the water doesn’t come anywhere near the labyrinths due to the change in water levels from the last Ice Age. Mosses, lichens, crowberry, bilberry and other plants currently cover the stone labyrinths.
The sea is a large part of Solovetski’s history. Harbor porpoises and common seals thrive in the waters, but none are as prolific as the beluga whale, or the sea canary, as it is known informally. The sea canary’s number are extremely high in the White Sea, and they live as permanent residents of the island. Sadly, this great number of belugas has only been exploited over the centuries, but that is to be expected; and happily, they are not close to being extinct because of man. Whales are so integral to the area’s history that there is a petroglyph that shows a shaman communicating with the creatures, showing man’s interest in understanding the magnificent creatures.
Solovetski also has a dark history. Stalin used this place as a jail. Stalin’s GULAG was a government agency that overlooked the labor camps of Russia. Solovetski was one of the locations of these labor camps. The prisoners were treated awfully, tortured and exterminated, often just to amuse the guards who watched over them. For example, they were forced to walk 500 yards to reach the bath-house naked, in Winter. Many of them died from frozen exhaustion while many were just shot by the guards on a whim. Others, of course, ended their own lives. In Summer, many were tied to trees with a blanket of mosquitoes covering them, either killing them or rendering them unconscious.
In 1990, the monks returned and in 1992 Solovetski was determined a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being one of Russia’s architectural jewels.
~by Amanda, Justin & Topher