Solovki: The Story of Russia Told Through Its Most Remarkable Islands
by Roy R. Robson
I was drawn to this book because of its setting: a monastery on an island of the Solovki archipelago in the White Sea, high in the Arctic of Russia. It’s a story of the monastery’s rise to greatness from its founding as a hermitage in 1429 by the monk Savvatii. It follows through its demise under Soviet rule and eventual rebirth.
Because Solovki became such a powerful part of the Russian Orthodox church, its story ultimately tells part of the story of Russia itself. As with most of Europe, there was always a tremendous tension between the secular and ecclesiastical powers. Perhaps the greatest struggle occurred when the tsar wished to create stronger ties with Constantinople by adopting their liturgical practices. This was strongly resisted by the “Old Believers” at Solovki, but they were eventually forced to abandon the old practices. When Emperor Peter III secularized all monastic land in 1762, it started Solovki’s long decline that reached its nadir after the Russian revolution. While secular powers may have been deminished, it became a great magnet for religious pilgrims.
Robson does a good job of describing the atmosphere of the island and the personalities of its various occupants over the years. These were monks and priests with normal human failings. He also shows why the monastary became such an important religious symbol to the people of the White Sea region and eventually all of Russia itself.
It was a shame to see a place of such piousness emptied of its occupants and turned into one of the main components of the Soviet gulag. Solzhenitsyn describes this part of the story in depth in the Gulag Archipelago.