The Solovki Labyrinth.


Text and photos by Yuri Brodsky especially for "Solovki-tour"

The Solovki Islands, or simply Solovki, can be found on the map of the world between the 35th and the 36th meridians, next to the southern border of the North Polar Circle, in the White Sea that the ancient Scandinavians called Gandwick - the Gulf of Monsters. Viewed from the sky, the outline of the islands resembles a warped cross.

From the mainland Solovki, look likes a hardly visible strip of land next to the horizon, where the waters seem to connect with the sky. However, in summer, when the atmospheric phenomena of light refraction, which is frequent in high latitudes, give rise to mirages, the islands seem to rise up into the sky in a tremulous haze, as if showing themselves to the world.

The location of Solovki is such that they lie at the crossing of both sea currents and air currents. The warm air currents from the tropics, rising up above the warm zone of the planet, start their journey round the globe, but on the way, they clash with the cold arctic air. The clash of the air currents results in powerful turbulence in the atmosphere, known as cyclones. The Solovki Islands lie on the path of at least half of all cyclones of Europe. The cyclones above Solovki resemble whirlpools, or rotating spiral-shaped labyrinths on photographs taken from Space.

In winter, the magnificent polar lights above the archipelago are amazing with their diverse and quickly changeable shapes. Vertical pillars change into wide horizontal arches, flames freeze into halos or crowns, glimmering nebulae join into a trembling light curtain 500 kilometers long. The streams of cosmic energy frequently take the shape of a snake-like figure twisted into a spiral.

The Solovki Islands are the peaks of the ancient cliff that remained unbroken by the glacier, which had furrowed the White Sea 12 thousand years ago. The archipelago consists of six large islands and numerous small ones. Due to its special microclimate, the archipelago is like an oasis next to the Polar Circle. In winter, which starts with the first morning frosts in the end of October, the sea gradually gives its warmth to the islands, protecting them from abrupt temperature falls. The average temperature of February, the coldest month of the year, is - 11.2 degrees C, and severely cold weather is infrequent on the islands. In March and April, the weather is stable and clear, with minimum precipitation and quite long daylight. Spring comes to the archipelago in May and it lasts until the middle of June, when the never-setting sun intensively warms up the sea and the land. By the natural calendar of Solovki, summer comes only in the end of June, and it lasts almost until the end of September. For weeks, the sun almost never leaves the sky, and there are long periods without rain, but there is no trying heat either. Wet autumn comes in October, and it lasts for only a month, with relatively warm temperatures about 5 degrees higher than in spring.

Bolshoy Solovki Island, the only inhabited island of the archipelago, is equal in area to Malta, that is, 246 square kilometers. The perimeter of the island is about 100 kilometers, but because of the great number of bays and peninsulas, its coastline is almost twice as long. The island, with its maximum dimensions of fifteen by twenty four kilometers, can be crossed on foot in any direction in a day, but the nature of Solovki is amazingly varied. The boundaries of climatic zones are quite random, and it is enough to take a few steps to move from one into another. Mixed forests change into taiga or tundra, and there are hundreds of fresh water lakes. The vegetation period in Solovki is short, but the grass carpets are always fresh. The forests and meadows of the islands become colored almost simultaneously by the spring, summer and autumn flowers, which do not stand out for their exotic look, but for their poignant appeal to the heart, rather than to the mind. The variety of the flora competes with that of the fauna. However, there are no dangerous animals or poisonous snakes on the archipelago.

The Solovki archipelago is like a diamond, which is a joy to the eye not just because of its own beauty, but also because by refracting the light it gives us a new perception of the beauty and complexity of the world around us.

The sea around the islands and the sky above them is a worthy setting of the Solovki diamond. The seagull and the herring of Solovki are known far beyond the White Sea area. The tiny Arctic terns, known for their longest seasonal flights, could be the symbol of the sky of Solovki. Following their breeding instinct, they fly from the Southern Pole to the Arctic, making their way along a meridian round the globe. It is in Solovki that these small courageous birds have their largest colony in Europe.

The gigantic mammals, the beluga white whale, have been coming to the coastal waters of Solovki for coupling and breeding their young for no less those six thousand years. Prehistoric men, monks and prisoners of the camp hunted and killed them, but the beluga's basic instinct is stronger than the fear of death. Tourist groups come to the islands from various countries especially for safe photo hunting for those toothless northern whales. The unique mental abilities of those mammals have become legendary.

Walruses inhabited once the sea around the islands. In the 18th century, the Solovki Monastery killed up to 800 walruses annually, until the whole population was destroyed. However, the White Sea flock of Greenland seals numbers several million heads, and it is considered the largest in the world.

From November to May, the White Sea is covered by drifting ice and the thickness of the ice around the coastline amounts to ten kilometers. During the navigation period, the height of the waves does not exceed two meters, and the storms subside as soon as the wind subsides. The tides in the White Sea are the highest in Russia. Twice in a day, the tides reveal the sea bottom around the archipelago and the plantations of seaweed encircling the islands. The seaweed is a priceless treasure of Solovki, especially valuable for pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries, as their chemical composition is similar to that of the human blood, different only in proportions. The seaweed of Solovki reminds us that the sea was the birthplace of life.

The islands have attracted people from the mainland from time immemorial. The first settlers came to the White Sea 10.5 thousand years ago from the East and built their villages in the lower reaches of the river Kem. The ancient drawings, over six thousand years old, which were found on the coast, include a drawing of a hunt for the beluga white whale. The hunting boat shown on the drawing could no doubt be sailing to Solovki.

The numerous relics of the ancient Babylon civilization, mainly the spiral-shaped labyrinths made of stone, have been well preserved on the islands. Similar shapes can be seen not only in the clouds or in Space, but also in various regions of the Earth, for example, in Scandinavia, England, Australia, Italy, in the Caucasus. In the British legends the labyrinths are a place where fairies dance in full moon, in Norway they are believed to be connected with the life of evil giants, and in Swedish legends the labyrinths lead to the underground palaces of dwarves who are malevolent to people. In the South of Italy, the labyrinths are connected with deer hunting.

In the North of Russia, the images of cosmic spirals made by man have been called babylons from ancient times. The Solovki babylon on Zayatsky Island is the largest known on Earth.

According to the psychologist Vladimir Burov, the labyrinths are the images of snakes guarding the entrance gate to the other world. This version explains why there were no permanent settlements on the islands for a long time. Our distant ancestors perceived Solovki as a border with the other world, and they visited the islands to perform the rituals of communication with Superior Forces.

Three thousand year after the construction of the labyrinths, the Saams, the natives of the North, also felt that Solovki were a border with the Kingdom of the Dead. They made their ritual voyages through the stormy sea to bury their chiefs and heroes during six centuries, but they never built any permanent settlements on the islands.

It was only in the middle Ages that a monastery appeared on the site of the ancient sanctuaries in the belief that Solovki were an ideal place for realization of the soul salvation program. The founders of the monastery, St. Zosima and St. Savatii, famous for many miracles, were canonized in 1547 and honored by the Orthodox world. In the 16th and 17th centuries the monastery, which grew rich due to duty-free sale of salt, was actually the spiritual, economic and military capital of the North of Russia until its participation and subsequent defeat in the anti-government riot of the old believers in 1667 -1676.

The architectural complex of the Solovki Monastery assumed its overall shape in the 15th century under its Father-Superior Philip Kolichev, the future Patriarch of Moscow. The monastery buildings are famous both for their noble proportions and for the great professionalism of work. The Solovki Monastery, which is the same age as Price Hamlet's castle Ellsinore, became a miracle of the art of fortification. The Monastery was forced to build military fortifications in order to protect its possessions. Its stone walls, its towers, 30 meters high, as well as the clever engineering solutions turned Solovki into one of the largest Russian fortresses.

When in Russia the lands owned by the church were joined to the imperial property, the Monastery, having lost its main source of income, managed to re-organize its activities, achieving an impressive economic success.
By 1917, the Solovki Monastery had its own fleet and the first dry dock for repair of ships in the North, its own telegraph, radio station and electric power station. The monastery built agricultural farms, joined the lakes with canals, and organized transportation and accommodation for 10-15 thousands of pilgrims every year.

By the force of circumstances, in the first half of the 16th century the Solovki Monastery became a place of exile, which remained the largest in the country until the opening of the prison in Spaso-Efimievsky Monastery in Suzdal in the 18th century. Father-Superior Philip, who was the head of the Monastery at the time when the first prisoners arrived to the island, also became a victim of repression himself.

During four centuries, the monastery cells saw hundreds of prisoners, Russian as well as Greek, Polish, French, and other nationalities. The ill fame of the Solovki prison cast a dark shadow on the popularity of the Solovki Monastery until the beginning of the 20th century.

When the Bolsheviks overtook the islands from the monks, the new masters thought that Solovki, already notorious for their prisons in the churches, would be the best place for a prison for the potential opponents of the Communist regime. The first Department of camps in the Soviet Union was organized on the archipelago. In mid-20s, the camps overflowed the boundaries of the islands onto the mainland, but those prison camps continued to be called Solovki camps. The name became a symbol for the repression system, and acquired ill fame both in the Soviet Union and abroad.

The prisoners of "Special" Solovki camps (SLON) were not convicts by criminal courts - they were the people who were a potential threat to the Soviet regime by the mere fact of their existence, the so-called "social aliens" by their background or education, but actually, the country's elite.

About a million people lost long years their lives, or perished utterly, in the Solovki camps. They were people of different nationalities, different political and religious views. The Solovki camps united them all forever. The Solovki Stone put up in Lubyanka Square in the centre of Moscow is a monument to all victims of the Soviet political repression. In the end, the organizers of the Solovki camps also became the victims of the repression and destruction system, which they had created themselves. The Solovki camps are yet another reminder that there can be no winners in civil wars.

Many people in Russia associate Solovki with the Orthodox Monastery and the camps, but still, those are just pages in the history of the archipelago. My own experience of meeting foreigners, who started coming to the North of Russia at the end of the Soviet "iron curtain" period, proves that Solovki is something more than just a Russian phenomenon.

The tireless traveler Francis Green made his first secret visit to Solovki, then a restricted area, at the time of Brezhnev's rule. Guarding the secret from the KGB, we passed him for a visitor from Soviet Estonia. I have not met any other romantic like him, who would travel as much to the new lands, but that man has already returned to Solovki more than once. Green expressed his feeling about Solovki in a Christmas card, when he wrote, "I am again missing the smell of your campfires at Anzer Lake. By those campfires one feels close the mystery of the universe."

The American writer Fen Montaigne, a courageous man who was striving to maximum precision in his writing, has crossed Russia from West to East not only by civilized passenger transport, but also by truck, snow cycle and deer sleigh. He spoke with Boris Yeltsin, the country's President, the poet Yevtushenko, the writer Solzhenitsyn, and with old women who survived through the siege of Leningrad, with mail carriers, fish men and monks. Fen Montaigne started his book, the outcome of his travels through Russia, with the description of Solovki, choosing the islands as the key to understanding Russia. The pragmatic man came to unexpected conclusions: "I am not a man who believes in Cosmic Mind or visitors from Space. But If I were asked to find a place on the Earth where the effect of Superior Forces has revealed itself at the most, I would name Kalguev Cape in Anzer Lake on the Solovki Islands". Fen Montaigne wrote in a private letter, "I have two daughters, and I have already put aside the money for their classical education, but please show them Solovki, as you did to me, for the correct formation of their personalities."

There is no doubt of the unique quality of the Solovki Islands. Solovki, the geographical name of a group of islands, by force of circumstances has grown into a symbol. For some people it is a symbol for eternal life, the island of salvation in the sea of human passions, and for others, a symbol of death. For some people Solovki is a symbol for Old Believers' resistance, and for others, a symbol of the Church that killed Old Believers.

Paradoxical as it is, all of them are right. Apparently, one of the special qualities of Solovki is that they seem an ideal place to realize one's spiritual as well as other aspirations.

The military once claimed the ownership of Solovki for the reason of their geographical position. The historians stress the importance of the History and Architecture Museum, referring to the fact that the historic monuments of the archipelago are included in UNESCO' International Heritage List. The Orthodox Church is certain of its hereditary right for a monopoly ownership of the islands. The world-famous environmentalists are sure that the unique nature of Solovki can be preserved only if the islands receive the status of the State National Park. The economists see the resources for the preservation of Solovki mainly in the development of tourism, including international tourism.
Moreover, all that on a piece of land that can be crossed on foot in a day!

The layer of earth on Solovki is very thin and it varies from a few centimeters to half a meter. The relics of historic epochs do not sink deep under the earth, but they are randomly mixed on the surface. Moving a stone on the lakeshore, you can find a rusty bayonet of the camp guard or a Neolithic stone knife underneath. A brown ball lying in the sand may turn out to be a canon ball of the 19th century, and next to it, wooden fishing net floats that may be much more ancient.

An encounter with Solovki is a possibility to return to the origins of many events which are formative for our world of today and of tomorrow. The archipelago's nature, its historic monuments and the evidence of lives of the distant past, all create a unique spiritual atmosphere on the islands. Solovki give us a chance to look into the past and the future, to think of one's own place in this world.