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The Resurrection of Solovetsky

Founded in the 13th century, the Solovetsky Monastery, a refuge for saints and sinners alike, plays an integral role in Russian history.

A journey to Russia’s Solovetsky Monastery, which is situated on an island in the White Sea, begins ominously: to reach the sea, one has to pass through lock 19 on the Stalin Canal, a waterway built in the 1930s to connect the White Sea with the Baltic Sea at the expense of hundreds of thousands of slave-laborer lives.

Last summer my wife and I followed the course of three Russian Orthodox monks – Hermann, Savvaty and Zosima – who sailed from the Russian mainland and settled in the Solovetsky archipelago in the 1430s. The first monastic structure was built in 1436, on land indicated in a vision. A church dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ followed one year later. Ever since, save for one brutal interruption, Solovetsky has housed a monastic community, a refuge and haven for saints and sinners.

In the early church, men and women sought God in the desert regions of Egypt and Palestine; their settlements gave birth to monasticism. Solovetsky is a desert, not of sand, but of harsh isolation. Only 90 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the islands are locked in a halo of ice for much of the year. During the short summer season, the multitude of lakes and marshes breed millions of mosquitoes, clouding the horizon.

For centuries, the isolation offered by Solovetsky attracted thousands of monks. The islands and surrounding waters provided an ample living from fishing, farming and salt mining. At its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries, Solovetsky – with its 400 to 500 monks – was one of the most prosperous monastic centers in Russia. It developed its own tradition of liturgical chant. Benefactors – wealthy, modest and poor – famished the monastery with an astonishing treasure of liturgical objects, icons and manuscripts. The enshrined remains of Hermann, Savvaty and Zosima, now saints of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the cures and miracles attributed to their intercession, attracted thousands of pilgrims from near and far.

Although isolated, Solovetsky was a strategic site: as the Russian state swelled in size, monasteries, which were frequently located in frontier areas, were fortified and designated as outposts of Russian sovereignty. The increasing number of border conflicts with Sweden at the end of the 16th century forced the monks of Solovetsky to build fortifications. A great stone wall, 30 feet high and 18 feet thick, built with two million glacial boulders each weighing up to 20 tons, still encircles the main monastic complex.

The same isolation that made Solovetsky an ideal refuge for those seeking God also made it an ideal place to impose exile. Religious nonconformists were sent to do penance for their heresies; Tsarist political dissidents were exiled to remove them from Moscow and later, St. Petersburg. Yet monastic life thrived, coexisting with a garrison of soldiers and a group of exiles.

Solovetsky’s centuries-old role as a refuge and haven for those seeking the quiet intimacy of God ended violently after the Russian revolution in 1918. In 1923, after they had consolidated their power, Soviet Russia’s Communist leaders converted the monastery into a virtual hell, creating the archetypal Soviet concentration camp, later commemorated by Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn in his historical novel, .

In his novel, Solzhenitsyn chronicled how the Communists had turned Russia into a sea of forced labor camps, a metaphor suggested by Solovetsky.

The conversion of Solovetsky from refuge to gulag coincided with the beginning of the Communist onslaught on the Russian Orthodox Church, which a historian of the period, Dimitry Pospielovsky, calls the “Holocaust” of the Russian Church.

The monastic community of Solovetsky was dispersed, its members expelled or detained as prisoners. Many were shot. By 1930, more than 50,000 people were herded into the former monastery and a number of hastily constructed buildings. In all, about 400,000 people would be sentenced to Solovetsky – writers, students, poets, bishops and clergy, including the noted priest-scholar, Father Pavel Florensky.

Although there was labor to be done, namely the construction of the Stalin Canal, the real function of Solovetsky was as a place of punishment. It has been termed a “landmark of torture.” Those sentenced to the former monastery were poorly fed and clothed. Only the hardy (perhaps 15 percent of the inmates) survived the harsh climate and the even harsher treatment. Solzhenitsyn describes the agony of prisoners who were tied naked to trees to be eaten alive by mosquitoes or who were left exposed in the winter.

In 1995, a Russian government commission confirmed that throughout the country more than 200,000 priests and nuns were ordered to be killed by the Communist leadership. Priests were crucified on the doors of their parish churches, others were doused with water then left to freeze in the winter, while some were burned alive in their churches. Most priests, however, and a majority of the bishops, were tortured and then shot.

Late last October, Russian authorities confirmed that 1,000 bodies had been unearthed in a mass grave in a heavily wooded area some 150 miles north of St. Petersburg. Most of the victims were moved from confinement in Solovetsky in the autumn of 1937 and shot through the back of the head between 27 October and 4 November. Two Russian Orthodox archbishops and hundreds of priests were among those identified, as well as a Georgian Catholic bishop and several Catholic priests, religious and lay persons.

Closed as a forced labor camp in 1939, Solovetsky became a training station for the Soviet Northern Fleet, probably in anticipation of what was to be World War II.

Government authorities returned the abandoned monastery to the Russian Orthodox Church after the demise of the Soviet Union. In 1991, a handful of monks settled in the monastery to renew the daily regimen of prayer that began in Solovetsky in the early 15th century.

Following the rule of St. Basil, the monks rise at 6 A.M. for prayer, then gather in church to chant matins at 8 A.M. The middle of the day is devoted to work, followed by liturgy from 5 to 8 P.M. The day concludes with dinner, but many of the monks spend the night in constant prayer.

The first group of monks also prepared for a visit from the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexei II, who arrived in 1992 bearing the relics of Sts. Hermann, Savvaty and Zosima. These relics, like so many remains of the Russian saints, were hidden from the Communists by devout believers after the government ordered “the complete liquidation of the cult of corpses and mummies” in August 1920.

Presently, some 25 men live in the main monastery. Together with volunteers and hired laborers they are lovingly restoring the monastic structures after decades of abuse and neglect.

The Communists gutted the churches and sacristies, scraped frescoes from the walls, chopped down icon screens, burned medieval icons and melted golden liturgical objects. The bell tower, which boasted a 20-ton bell donated by the 16th century tsar, Boris Godunov, was converted into a water tower.

Of the six principal churches, only the Church of the Annunciation has been restored for worship. This small structure, built in 1601 as a chapel over the main entrance to the monastic complex, was formerly reserved for the abbot. Today it serves not only the monastic community, but the Orthodox Christian community living on the islands as well.

The abbot of Solovetsky Monastery is Archimandrite Joseph, an energetic 40-year-old who was elected in 1992. While the spiritual life of the monastic community is his primary concern, the abbot is also responsible for more temporal concerns, such as restoring the monastery’s medieval structures and ensuring the self-sufficiency of the community. Along with farming, the monastery has a herd of cows that now graze contentedly beneath the 16th-century ramparts.

The abbot’s concerns are not limited to the monastic community of Solovetsky. Although resources are limited, the community helps the poor who live on the scattered islands of the archipelago. The monastery has started a school in the small village adjacent to the monastery and those children from poor families are nourished by the monks.

The monastery also houses a museum chronicling the history of Solovetsky, beginning with icons of the founders and followed by military artifacts from the 16th and 17th centuries. A somber room memorializes the gulag years. Communist propaganda posters, dominated by a grim photograph of Stalin, are prominently displayed. An old print shows a red star, the Communist cross, topping the belfry during the gulag years. A recent image illustrates a workmen taking it down to replace it with a refurbished cross.

The most profound images are portraits of some of those who suffered and died on Solovetsky. Several photographs have a plastic flower affixed to the frame, left by the families of those imprisoned and ultimately killed there.

“How do the monks deal with the fact that this place was one of great suffering?” we asked the abbot.

“The museum exhibit,” he said, “is one way of keeping alive the memory of those who suffered on Solovetsky. But we pray constantly for those who had been imprisoned. Our prayers are a communion with those who suffered and died here.”

“Just as the church prays the Divine Liturgy over the relics of the martyrs and saints,” he concluded, “so the monastery and the islands are an ”

Antimension, which is a Greek word meaning “in place of a table,” is a piece of linen or silk imprinted with an image of Christ’s entombment and the instruments of his passion and death. The antimension – bearing the signature of the local bishop to indicate that the liturgy is offered in communion with the church – must be placed on the altar during the celebration of the Eucharist in the Byzantine tradition. As a symbol of the unity of the church with the company of heaven, the antimension always has a relic of a martyr or saint sewn into a pocket, much like an altar stone in the Latin tradition.

On the way out of Abbot Joseph’s office I noticed a long corridor lined with photos of bishops and priests who had been imprisoned or died on Solovetsky. Chancery offices often have a display of previous bishops of a diocese; Abbot Joseph remembers the martyrs of Solovetsky among his predecessors.

Another memorial to those who died during the gulag years is located near the tallest hill on the island. Atop the hill stands a two-story church. The lower level is dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel; the upper level is the Church of the Ascension. The Communists converted the church into a punishment building of which it has been written that “very few prisoners came out of it alive.”

In , Solzhenitsyn describes some of the tortures that took place here, including tying men to logs and rolling them down the 300 steps leading from the church to the base of the hill. At the foot of these steps, near the site of mass graves, Patriarch Alexei II erected a wooden cross in 1992.

Our trip to Solovetsky coincided with the feast day commemorating the foundation of the monastery by Sts. Hermann, Savvaty and Zosima. The feast day included the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, followed by a solemn procession around the 16th-century walls that enclose the monastery, with clergy and lay people bearing relics and icons of the three founders. The procession paused at various points for blessings and prayers, including the , which was chanted in Greek, Church Slavonic and Moldavian, accompanied by much sprinkling of holy water and incensing. After changing out of liturgical vestments, the monks processed to the refectory for a festive meal of (buckwheat groats), mushroom soup, green salad, bread, (dumplings stuffed with potatoes, cheese or onions) and hot fruit juice. Another procession took them back into the church for more prayers.

Witnessing the monks spend this Sunday as a special day of prayer brought home the thought of Solovetsky’s resurrection. A monastery that was once the site of some of Stalin’s worst crimes against humanity is once again a place of prayer and praise.

George Martin is a frequent contributor to these pages.

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