Monday, 27 February 2012

The Solovetsky Islands, a treasure of mistery and silence at the White Sea

This remote location on the european arctic coast would also have made a perfect Ultima Thule - a group of far northern mystical islands, hidden deep in a large inlet known as -


The White Sea is an extension (or inlet) of the Barents Sea, located off the northwestern coastline of Russia.

The sea was known since at least the 11th century as Mare Album, and had great commercial significance for navigation and fur trade, as the coastal forests were rich in fur animals.
Between the 15th and early 18th centuries, the White Sea provided the major trade route to Russia. This role decreased later with the foundation of Saint Petersburg, which opened a more favorable connection via the Baltic Sea.
The White Sea is connected to the Baltic Sea by a canal finished in the early 1930's. It reaches the golf of Finland at St. Petersburg:

Originally designed for the transportation of goods, its depth is too shallow for major ships, so it's now used for local transportation and tours.
The city of Arkhangelsk in the White Sea coast was once one of Russia's main centers of maritime trade. Today it's used mainly as a naval and submarine base. This is a ugly and unfriendly city, marked everywhere with soviet time buildings, sculptures and monuments along endless desolated avenues. The White Sea is a frequent route for russian submarines, and naval rusted scrap abounds.

For several decades of the Soviet reign, the islands in the White Sea were used as a location of brutal prison camps, and were known as the Gulag Archipelago; but nowadays they reclaim their status of a spiritual place and they are home for a number of monks; they became a tourist destination as well.

White Sea islands, in the Arctic Circle area, have a flat and tundra-covered profile.

2. THE SOLOVETSKY  ISLANDS, World Heritage Site
The archipelago consists of 6 large and about 100 small islands. The largest of them is Bolshoy Solovetsky island, its area is 220 square kilometres. Other islands iclude Anzersky, Bolshaya Muksalma and Bolshoy Zayatsky.

These islands lie just 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle at around 65°N 35°E, and they hide fabulous treasures of architecture as well as infamous goulag history testimonials.

They are mostly flat , with hundreds of small lakes among the forest, mainly ancient pine forest. The remaining areas are the tundra-like territories.

The combination of holts, lakes, marshy hollows, open space covered with multicolored moss and lichen carpets, rocky bold coasts creates the unique landscape mosaic.

The first inhabitants left traces of neolithic culture (about 2000-1000 B.C.). They left a number of labyrinths and stone hills on the islands, built for still unknown purposes.


The nature of Anzer island is amazing: on a small territory there are various kinds of landscapes - sea coasts with inshore porches, ranges of hills, detached hills. It is on Anzer island where the highest peak of Solovetsky archipelago is situated – Mount Golgotha, 88 meters high.

Anzer island in Autumn - and a small church deep in the woods.

The wooden Holy Trinity Monastery (1620)

Interior of the small chapel

The five-domed Raspyatia Gospodnya church, on top of the island's highest point


Bolshoi Zayatsky is a small island (1.25 km2) covered with boulders, moss and large bushes. It is incredible rich in archaelogical and religious heritage.

The Church of St. Andrey was built in 1702:

But this island is best known as a pagan sanctuary, with a complex of cult and sepulchral structures dating back to the II-I millennium BC, including the world’s biggest stone labyrinth with more than 25 metres of dimeter .

The Bolshoi Zayatsky Island stone labyrinths are well preserved. Along the sea shore or deep un the forest, religious and funerary monuments include 18 stone labyrinths, over 600 stone burial cairns, and several stone alignments and circles.

These labyrinths are made of stones which have been laid on the surface of soil. They are now covered with low tundra vegetation.

Bolshoi Zayatsky Labyrinths come in various shapes - spirals, circles - some of them were made around 3 thousand years B.C.
A complex design
It’s still very hard to say why they were built as early as several millenniums before now, but we can presume that the most recent ones were created by the monks to do some ritual things.

on the main island (Bolshoy Solovetsky)

The Solovetsky complex is an outstanding example of a monastic settlement in the inhospitable environment of northern Europe. That was the reason for being classified as World Heritage. The Monastery was founded by three monks from the Kirillo-Belozersk and Valaam Monasteries in the 1430s.

The church of Saint Nicholas (left), the gallery and the cathedral of the Transfiguration, seen from the interior courtyard.
The Gate church of the Assumption as seen from a gallery window.

The stone fortress was built in 1582-94, and Solovetsky became the economic, religious, military and cultural centre of the whole region. Craft activities expanded into other fields (icon painting, wood carving, engraving, lithography).

Monasterial reflections
It is in three parts, the central square with its complex of monumental buildings, and the northern and southern courtyards devoted to domestic and craft activities.

The Refectory Church of the Dormition, with its tunnel entrance to the courtyard.

The Refectory room with it's unique central column


The onion shaped pinnacles of the cathedral.


A rich and old icon from the monastery

A beautiful sundial on a courtyard's wall

Top of the the Bell Tower (1776-77)

The monastery expanded through the centuries to cover not only the main islands of the archipelago, as we have seen before, but also large stretches of land on the mainland.

The monastery was famous for its technical inventions and progressive introductions. There are about 600 lakes in Big Solovetsky island: the monks digged narrow channels between them where a boat can pass, and connected over 17 lakes into one system. Such channels resulted in fresher water, more fish, and more birds.
The warehouse at the small stone harbour, and at left the memorial to the prisoners of the Gulag.
After the revolution (1917) the monastery was closed. The monks were either killed or ousted. The monastery was turned into a concentration camp, part of the GULAG system during 1922-39, and took away lifes of about 100 000 people - officers, scientists, priests, monks, writers, artists, businessmen, in other words, the best people of Russia. Solovetsky camp remains as a memory of senseless and cruel death.
The Monastery Village
The monastery village includes chapels, hostels for pilgrims, a dry-dock, school, museum... Recently some old wooden buildings were converted into small hotels for tourists.

The village school

The old bishop's residence, now a museum. Most of the houses are built in wood.

Detail of the Biological research station

Les Iles aux mille lumières

Violet, orange, ocre, rose, noir, gris aux nuances infinies, le ciel se teinte de couleurs presque surnaturelles dues à la proximité des îles avec le cercle polaire, il n’est pas rare d’ailleurs d’y apercevoir des aurores boréales.

Violet, orange, ochre, pink, black, grey in infinite shades, the sky is teinted of almost supernatural colours due to the proximity of the Polar circle, Auroras are oftenly seen...


further reading