The Ever Changing Solvetskiy Monastery

Grave of the Gagarin Princes, Village of Suchki 60 Versts from Tver

Russian Photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii photographed two burial memorials on the south wall of the Transiguration Cathedral of the Solvetskiy Monastery.  Avraamii Palitsyn is buried under the metal canopy while Petr Kalnishevskii is buried in the foreground with the stone burial marker.

The Solvetskiy Monastery is a fortified monastery in northern Russia.  It was later converted into a Soviet labor camp and prison in 1926 which served as a prototype for Gulag camps. The 15 and 16th centuries saw an increase in commercial aspirations.  The monasteries was involved in fishing, trapping, iron working, and many others.  This gained a lot of attention and soon evolved into one of the richest and well known Russian monasteries.

Later on it started as a stronghold of the Old Believers of the Raskol.  Raskol is the division of the Russian Orthodox Church into the Old Believers movement and an official church. The reforms that Patriarch Nikon implemented, the aim to uniform the Green and Russian churches, triggered the movement.  The tensions continued to rise and in 1668-76 the monastery led an Uprising.  This uprising was against the reforms and it eventually evolved into an anti-feudal nature.

Since it was placed on Prosperity Bay on Solovetsky Island the monastery was an important stronghold and was often attacked. The Solovetsky Monastery, in the late 15th century and early 16th century stood as a fortress.  It had dozens of cannons and held a strong garrison which fought off attempted advances of the Swedes and the Livonian Order. It even was attacked by British ships during the Crimean War.  The monastery served as a fortress and helped Russia hold the Northern lands.

Although it was a strong hold and active monastery, it also served as a place of exile and detention. It was very remote so it was a good place to send those that opposed the official Orthodoxy and autocracy. In the early 1920s and 1930s after the Bolshevik Revolution the Soviet authorities shut down the monastery and turned many of the buildings into prison camps.  This is one of the earliest examples of the Gulag’s forced-labor camps, in the words of Alexander Solzhenitsin, the mother of the GULAG.  Since there were densely forested, the main focus of labor was logging.  The camps were closed down once the surroundings were deforested. The conditions at the labor camp were extremely harsh. In the summer detainees were chained to stakes in the ground. In the winter they would stand in the bitter cold while drenched in water where many would freeze to death.

During World War II the monastery was transformed again. It went from a labor camp to a naval cadet training post.  The restoration of this historic place began in 1960 when a small brotherhood of monks after the end of communism re-established the monastery.  It now stands as a museum and is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.




2 thoughts on “The Ever Changing Solvetskiy Monastery

  • January 23, 2017 at 4:44 pm

    I think you did a good job outlining the unusual history of Solvetskiy Monastery and its various uses. That in and of itself goes to show you the Russia’s tumultuous history through the lens of one building. I know you mentioned that it was used as a predecessor to the Gulag system but did you find out if there was a specific group of people stationed here or was it just any “dissenters” in Soviet eyes?

  • January 24, 2017 at 2:24 am

    The history of the Solovetsky Monastery is fascinating. But I’m not clear on the connection between the monastery and the photograph? The caption on the photograph indicates that it was taken in “Suchki” which is in European Russia (not far from Tver’). The monastery is up on the White Sea.

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