Solovetsky Islands: a Holy Land and Fortress of Spirit in the Arctic Ocean

Solovetsky Islands are located in the middle of the White Sea, 165 km south to the Polar Circle Ocean, the country of Polar Lights, long dark winters and white nights during the summer period.  They include more than one hundred islands with 300 km2 total area. Different landscapes are concentrated on rather small territory: taiga forests where spruce and pine dominate, forest tundra, tundra, and mires –including aapa-type mires– and circa 500 lakes. The climate is unique,  allowing flora and fauna species not characteristic to this altitude. Flora of the archipelago is rather rich, with 378 native spices, including 11 rare orchids. A number of rare bird species is also present.

Solovetsky Archipelago was a sacred place for many earlier cultures. The Archipelago contains about 1,000 sacred stones (dolmens, menhirs, seids, stone-works) dating from the  Neolithic- Early Metal Age and until the Middle Ages. Solovetsky islands are the easternmost site of the stone labyrinths (more than 30 labyrinths) in the Northern Europe.

Solovetsky Stavropigial’ny Spaso-Preobrazhensky (the Saviour-Transfiguration) Monastery started as a wooden hermit of monks German, Zosima and Savvaty, in 15th century. They later became ranking to Saints of Russian Orthodox Church and are patrons of White Sea in the Russian folk maritime tradition. The stone architectural ensemble of the monastery was constructed in 1552. The Fortress of Spirit in the Arctic Ocean has an outward image of real fortress with five monumental towers, made by large boulders. The main temple of the monastery, built in 1558-1566, is the cathedral of the Saviour-Transfiguration. The idea of Transfiguration was ascribed in the Russian language with the word transformation. Thus,  the idea of the Holy Land of the Russian Orthodox Church was represented there, featuring site names like Golgofa-Calvary, as well as with the transformation of land, building a system of channels, stone dams, fish-ponds and  the establishment of hermits on different islands of the Archipelago. The monastery receives thousands of pilgrims each year. In the hermit of Makarius, a Botanic garden was created in 1822. The Archipelago became the symbol of Garden of Eden, surrounded by the cold waters of the White Sea. 

These islands received new popularity from Europeans when Alexander Solzhenitsyn's book "Archipelago Gulag" was published, because Solovetsky Monastery was one of the first Soviet prisons. During the Soviet period in 1944, the Solovetsky settlement was established on the archipelago, and now it has circa 1,000 residents.  In 1967, the Solovky Historic-Cultural and Natural Museum - Reserve was first established. After the soviet period, in the 1990s, the Solovetsky Monastery became active again. Since 1992, the complex of monuments of the monastery was included into the List of the World Cultural Heritage of UNESCO and a re-nomination of Solovetsky Archipelago has been proposed as Site of mixed Cultural and Natural Heritage.

Responsible: Alexander N. Davydov





[1]   The thriving communities of monks on Mt. Athos are now young, well-educated and coming from urban backgrounds.