Once a Prison, now a Tourist Hub
The Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea in northwestern Russia once housed one of Russia’s biggest prison, but now its centuries-old monastery and the seascape’s stark beauty attracts thousands of tourists and the spiritually inclined.
The Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea is about 100 miles from the Arctic Circle, breathes history, mixing the secular and the spiritual. At one time, there was a prison here, no less grim than France’s Bastille, the United States’ Alcatraz, and Poland’s Auschwitz. Since the 15th century, the local monastery has held top-notch political criminals. In those days, there were no special prison facilities; the convicted were locked up in the towers or cellars of impregnable fortresses, and the Solovetsky Monastery was one such fortress. Its massive granite walls were too tough for the Swedes, Danes, and even the powerful British fleet that besieged the monastery during the Crimean War in 1854.
The Solovetsky Monastery
The Solovetsky Monastery was an outpost for the colonization of northern Russia. It existed almost autonomously –– the monastery was rich and influential, and had its own schools, factories, army, and navy, and its library was one of the most valuable in the Tsarist Russia. But during the socialist revolution of 1917, the monastery was looted and devastated. In the 1920s, the Solovki Special Purpose Camp (SLON) was founded here, the first in a network of concentration camps that from then on encircled all of Russia. Later, the Second World War began and Solovetsky’s street children began to train as sailors for the Northern Fleet.
How the Islands look today
Today, the islands are once again home to monks, and the famous Solovetsky Islands have become one of Russia’s top tourist attractions. The reason for this is not only the out-of-this-world northern environment in these places, but the UNESCO’s decision to recognize the island as a World Heritage Site.
Now, the monastery again has its own fleet, ferrying pilgrims and tourists on boats decorated with Orthodox icons. Right in the monastery courtyard there is a divided garden where flowers and herbs grow. A bakery offers amazingly tasty pies. Incidentally, an art long forgotten in Russia still thrives here: carved gingerbread, called kozuli. Gingerbread houses, owls, bears, deer, angels, and even a carriage with coachmen, all painted and covered with icing, are sold at souvenir shops.
Magic Mazes and UFO
The Solovetsky Islands also attract fans of esotericism and advocates of the paleocontact theory. Ancient mazes made of stone, whose purpose has not yet been discovered, are preserved on the islands. Most scientists believe that these were places of worship for local fisherman tribes. But fans of UFOs are sure that the mazes were left on the islands by aliens, or at least by a powerful ancient civilisation. Tourists wander through the maze, hoping to attain enlightenment, or trying to meditate while sitting in the centre of a stone spiral. “You can’t wear white trousers!” a veteran esotericist instructs a girl trying to enter the maze. “The energy will be the wrong colour!”
A ride on a Church boat with a visit to the pagan shrines is a must on the list of the major tours offered to pilgrims. Every Sunday, there is a feast in the village. A procession of songs and Church banners snakes around the monastery. Bells ring, the parishioners carry icons, and priests sprinkle holy water on the crowd.
It seems as if all the islanders take part in the procession. Here in Solovki, it’s easy to be a believer. It helps that the monastery’s domes are visible from any part of the island, and there is the sweet sound of bells, far from the worldly temptations of big cities. To meet the needs of parishioners, there are church shops selling icons, amulets, edificatory literature, and even trouser belts with prayers. You can get up in the morning, pull on your trousers, and you’ve already done a charitable deed!
The best way to ride around Solovki is to take Soviet UAZ jeeps. And to move through swamps and snow, locals construct off-road vehicles with huge inflated wheels – called karakaty – out of scrap materials. A simple stool serves as the seat, and a bear’s face is painted on the front – almost as a totem!
For many people, Solovki is a place to experience the ongoing revival of traditional Russian culture and spirituality. Inside a barn a marine yacht is being built according to Dutch blueprints from the time of Peter the Great. Others are trying to recover forgotten crafts: tailoring traditional kosovorotka shirts, sculpting earthenware pots, and woodcutting.
How to get to the islands?
In fact no matter how much can you read about this mistic place still you need to go there to feel the true spirit of the legendary spot in the northern Russia. Our DMC is responsible for your comfort during the trip and can provide you the best services to have an unforgettable trip All you need to do is to contact us for any questions and we will get back to you pretty soon! So how about to go to the Solovetsky Islands?
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