By Luc Jones.
The Solovetsky Islands archipelago is one of those places which people talk about, say that they would love to visit but disappointing few ever actually do. This, however is part of the attraction as you won’t meet hoards of tourists in this largely unspoilt part of Russia yet you can ‘get off the beaten track’ without having to completely rough it. Oh, and the name is typically shortened to ‘Solovki’.
Although it’s believed that Solovki have been inhabited for millennia, it was back in 1429 when monks first built a wooden hermitage on the main island and in the 1570s a much larger, stone fortress was built around it as a defense against Swedish attacks. Even British frigates attacked it during the Crimean war but the monastery remained intact. Worse was to come after the October Revolution when the islands were turned into a labour camp for ‘enemies of the people’. Even if you’re not a museum buff and you don’t speak (much) Russian, the main museum on the island is worth a visit as it is dedicated to those who were interned here during the Stalinist era. There’s no English translation but the photos, pictures and artifacts speak for themselves. Entrance is 200Rbl.
Although Solovki ceased to function as a gulag in 1939 (it became a naval training base), the monastery was badly damaged yet restoration work began only in the 1960s. Monks returned in the 1980s and the islands acquired UNESCO status in 1992, yet even today much of the inner parts are covered in scaffolding, spoiling your photos. Given its central location, the monastery is a logical place to your sightseeing and you don’t have to be a committed God botherer to appreciate both the inner and outer buildings. Entry is free although following Orthodox tradition, ladies are expected to cover their heads (scarves are provided).
By Luc Jones.