A bit about the Solovetskie Islands (aka Solovki) August 20, 2013

[Part 3 of 14.  Solovki 2013]

People have come to Solovki for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the late 15th century that humans began to live full time on the island.

For centuries, fishers would take boats to the islands in the summer months to take advantage of the rich fishing in the waters nearby.   When winter came they would return to their homes on the mainland with fish aplenty (one presumes) for the long, cold months ahead.   These pre-historic fishers have left behind amazing stone constructions: labyrinths and burial mounds.

In 1429, the first two permanent settlers on the island were Orthodox monks—by the names of Savvatii and German.   They sought out the islands not for the fish that had brought so many people before them, but for solitude and separation from other humans to be able to worship God more fully and without any of the distractions of humanity.

The Solovetskie islands were hardly an easy place to live, and Savvatii was an old man.   But they sought the most distant place possible where they might live a life of asceticism.   They searched for a place where they could pray and work without interruption, and where the forces of nature and the cold climate would test their spirits and their bodies each day.

The very distance and seclusion of Solovki—and its environment, forests, and fish—made it a compelling choice for these two men; a place where their travails and sufferings and prayers would allow them to become more like angels than men.

And while I stood comfortably on the ferry as it plowed the waters to Solovki, I couldn’t stop thinking that these two men so many centuries before had rowed out across the sea to an island they had never seen before to start a life as distant from other people and as physically grueling as possible.   My own journey was a piece of cake in comparison.

The historian Roy Robson who has written a marvelous book on Solovki asks, “What would make someone leave life behind, seeking an existence of unremitting toil and prayer, where sleep and food were considered weaknesses of the flesh.”   What indeed?

In one of the great paradoxes, word spread quickly of the holiness of these two men and soon others wished to join them or live nearby, to learn from them and their ascetic life.   And so began one of the great struggles of the religious community on Solovki:   whether to search for complete isolation so better to pray and to live a godly life of renunciation or to share and spread the asceticism and to build a larger religious community.

As the years and decades passed, the monks on Solovki struggled with the question over how best to serve God.   In the end, it was the latter view that won the day.   And one of the most glorious monasteries exists now as a result.

Over time, the number of monks on the island grew, and so too did the number, size, and quality of buildings that made up the monastery.   In the 16th and 17th centuries, the monastery expanded widely and rapidly.   It attracted more and more monks, and more and more pilgrims.   There were ups and downs to be sure (especially during the great Russian religious Schism of the 17th century, when the monastery was at war with the Orthodox Church).   But, the monastery grew, built massive walls, and became one of the most economically successful ventures in the region.

Two of the participants in our group, Julia Lajus and Aleksey Kraikovsky, are specialists on the history of the sustainable and immensely profitable fishing industry that developed on the island.

The result was one of the most impressive monastery complexes in the Orthodox world, with impressive churches and daunting, massive walls and turrets.  [Just look at the thickness of the walls of the monastery in the photos below]

The monastery has served a spiritual center for generations.   It played a small but noteworthy role in the Crimean War when British ships fired on the monastery hundreds of times and miraculously caused no damage.

And then in the 1920s and 1930s, the monastery became the stage for one of  the darkest stories of the 20th century:   the GULAG–the Soviet prison system.   More on the Gulag in  a later post.

Before 1990, Solovki housed parts of the Northern Naval Fleet.

Now a monastery again, it has been a World Heritage Site since 1992.

Those interested in more on the Solovetskie islands, should read Roy Robson’s excellent history:   Solovki: The Story of Russia told through its Most Remarkable Islands (New Haven and London:  Yale University Press, 2004).

Solovetskii Monastery

Solovetskii Monastery. Massive stone walls, built initially stone on stone without any bonding between them. A beautiful rearranging of nature for human needs

Solovetskii Monastery. Sunset across the harbor.


The Project (August 20, 2013)

[Part 2 of 14. Solovki 2013]

I am heading to the Solovetskie Islands as part of an international network of scholars from six universities in the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia studying the environmental history of Russia.  Spearheaded by David Moon of the University of York (UK), the three-year project, funded generously by The Leverhulme Trust in the UK, is tasked to explore Russia’s Environmental History and Natural Resources.

Read more about the project here:

and here:

A combination of field trips, on-site research, conferences, and publications, the project is designed to expand significantly our understandings of Russian environmental history and resource use—topics that are of tremendous importance to humanity today.   Russia, with its vast landscapes, forests, water reserves, minerals, and oil and gas, will be a determining player in how our planet and the humans on it change and live in the coming years.

And environmental history—an exploration of how humans have intersected with the non-human world in the past—is very important to making sense of the world today.   Historians explore change and continuity over time and the ways in which humans have both created that change and responded to it.   There seems little doubt that our climate and our environment will anything but static in the coming years.   How we as a species respond to those transformations will be crucial to our fate and the future of the planet.   And the insights that historians can give about how change occurs and how humans react to change will be essential.

I’m honored and excited to be a part of this project.   Over the coming years, a core of scholars plus many invited guests from the six universities will travel to see three of the most interesting ecological and human sites in the former Soviet Union:   the Solovetskie Islands, Chernobyl, and Lake Baikal.   At each site we will hold a conference, present fresh research, collect data, and, through field research, explore the ecological histories of these sites.   We’ll finish up with a final meeting and conference at the University of York in England in 2016.

The Network offers a chance to work with scholars from different national backgrounds and different scholarly disciplines.  Working together, we will learn a great deal more and achieve a great deal more than we could individually.

And we will approach the study of history differently from usual.   In addition to the standard historical tools of hours in libraries and archives analyzing old documents, we will spend time in the field together.   Environmental history, more than any other historical subfield, can’t solely be studied from a desk.   We need to get our boots muddy, see the sites, smell the smells, clamber over rocks, get bitten by mosquitoes, and perhaps wander through a little radiation.

The six universities involved are:

Arriving (August 20, 2013)

[Part 1 of 14.   Solovki 2013]

I stand at the bow of the ferry as the water of the White Sea comes in wave after wave through the hole in the deck that the anchor chain runs through.  Stepping up on the coiled ropes lying on the deck, my feet stay dry and I look out with excitement at the outstretched sea in front of me.  The weather could not be more perfect—sun, light winds, calm seas, easy sailing across a Sea known for its nausea-inducing swells.

A mother and son play in the running water beside me while a young couple stands draped over each other.  A middle-aged man discusses cameras with a young photographer taking an endless string of “art” photos.

And then, about an hour and half into the trip, we all see it.   The Solovetskie islands appear on the distant horizon and, as we get closer, the spires of the Solovetskii Monastery grow ever larger and magical.   The view makes the 20-something hours of travel from St. Petersburg to this distant site—by metro, train, bus, and ferry—all worthwhile.

First Sighting:
The Solovetskie Islands (aka Solovki) and the Solovetskii
Monastery as they come into view from the ferry.

Coming closer:
The Solovetskii Monastery as the ferry entered the harbor

I marvel at the approaching human and environmental wonder of Russia’s Solovetskie Islands—an archipelago of 6 major islands (and about 100 smaller ones) in the White Sea not far to the south of the Arctic Circle.  It is a Russian national park and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992.

I can’t wait to get off the boat, start exploring, and work on our project.

Map of White Sea and Solovetskii islands (Solovki) in Russia