A photo of the Solovetsky Monastery

The Tragic Fall of Solovetsky Monastery: From Religious Order to Labor Camp

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Located on the Solovetsky Islands of Russia’s White Sea, the Solovetsky Monastery is a fortified monastic complex that dates back to the 15 th century. Initially, the monastery was home to a small community of Russian Orthodox monks, though over time, this grew into one of the largest and most important monasteries in Russia. The Solovetsky Monastery became an ideal site for those seeking to escape from the affairs of the world, as it was not easily accessible. It was also this feature of the monastery that gave rise to its darker side. During first half of the 20 th century, the Solovetsky Monastery was converted into a forced labour camp, a prototype for other camps of the Gulag system that followed during the Soviet period.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the human presence on the Solovetsky Islands can be traced as far back as the 5 th millennium BC, and that they were inhabited as early as the 5 th century BC. It has been suggested that this site was once used as a sacred site by the pagan tribes who were living on the islands prior to the arrival of Christianity.

It was only during the 15 th century that the Solovetsky Monastery was established. In 1436, St. Zosima of Solovki came to the Solovetsky Islands, and this has been regarded to be the year during which the Solovetsky Monastery was officially founded. Unofficially, however, the Solovetsky Monastery is said to have been founded in 1429 by St. Herman of Solovki and St. Sabbatius of Solovki. During this early stage of the monastery’s history, only a small community of monks lived at the site.

Solovetsky Monastery.

Solovetsky Monastery. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

About a century later, the Solovetsky Monastery began to flourish. In 1537, a new member, Feodor Stepanovich Kolychev (who would become St. Philip II of Moscow) joined the monastic community. Feodor was born into a noble Muscovite family, but decided to relinquish his worldly status to become a monk. Ten years later after his arrival at the Solovetsky Monastery, Feodor was appointed as its hegumen (the title of the head of an Eastern Orthodox monastery). Feodor initiated a construction programme that continued throughout his tenure as hegumen, which lasted about two decades. Many of the monastery’s most important structures, such as the monumental Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour, were built during this period.

Fathers of the Solovetsky Monastery and their sufferings, Author portrait of Simeon Denisov, Walters Manuscript.

Fathers of the Solovetsky Monastery and their sufferings, Author portrait of Simeon Denisov, Walters Manuscript. ( Public Domain )

The expansion of the monastic complex continued even after the death of Feodor in 1569, who had become the Metropolitan of Moscow in 1566, but was exiled after a few years for publicly denouncing the tyranny of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. The monastery’s massive walls and round towers, for instance, were constructed between 1582 and 1594. In addition to its status as a religious site, the Solovetsky Monastery also developed as an economic center. The monastery’s commercial activities included iron works, fisheries, pearl works and salt works. As a consequence of this, many people were employed by the monastery. By the 17 th century, for example, the number of monks at the Solovetsky Monastery was 350, whilst between 600 and 700 laypersons were living there as workers.

Solovetsky Monastery was established in the 15th century.

Solovetsky Monastery was established in the 15 th century. ( CC BY NC 2.0 )

In addition, the Solovetsky Monastery also served as defensive purpose, thanks to its formidable walls. Due to its location on the frontier of Russia, it was a target of foreign enemies, such as the Swedes, and the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. On several occasions, the monastery succeeded in repelling their attacks. The strength of the Solovetsky Monastery’s defences is also evident later during the Crimean War, when three English ships shelled the monastery for 9 hours, though to no avail.

In 1917, the Solovetsky Monastery was converted into a forced labour camp, and in 1923, the remaining monks were relocated, imprisoned, or executed. The Solovetsky Monastery became the prototype of the notorious gulag of the Soviet era. The camp was eventually closed in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War. In 1990, the Solovetsky Monastery regained its original function as a religious site, and in 1992, it became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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