Islands in the stream: the strange charm that for centuries has been luring people to Solovki

For centuries, a strange charm has been luring people north to Solovki. Jamie Rann was powerless to resist

Six Stories from the Russian North

It was a warm, bright day in July, and the clocks were striking 3 am. As I squinted into the sun, I could vaguely make out the grinning face of a policeman against the monastery wall. It was my 23rd birthday, and I was drunk. The paraffin tang of vodka on my breath and the eagerly glinting onion domes told me I was definitely in Russia. But if this was Russia, why was this apparition in epaulettes being so friendly? And what was going on with the sun? Why had that absurd, insistent little ball of light bounced back so boisterously in the middle of the night? And why, despite vodka, cop and obnoxious sun, did I feel so peaceful and contented? Because I was somewhere very special. I was on Solovki.

The Solovetsky Islands, or Solovki, are a small archipelago off Russia’s northern coast that manages to be at once both the quintessence and the antithesis of the vast country it floats above. For Russophiles I knew when I lived in Moscow, the islands were something like a subarctic version of the secret Thai paradise in Alex Garland’s The Beach — the stuff of whispered legend and earnest backpacker aspiration. (This was seven years ago, and the memories of the underwhelming DiCaprio film had not entirely faded.) The journey I had taken to get there had been suitably painstaking: a Murmansk-bound sleeper train as far as the no-horse town of Kem, then a minibus down to the harbour to meet the heavy, petrol-scented ferry which chugs back and forth to the islands, carrying locals, pilgrims and tourists.

But these efforts were amply rewarded: I emerged from below deck to discover that we were docking in a fairytale kingdom, with ancient walls ringing white towers above the still waters of the bay, the whole scene tingling with that otherworldly northern light. This sense of Disney-tinged sunshiney strangeness was enhanced by the island’s vegetation, which, if not exactly verdant, is far too lush for the outskirts of Arctic Circle (the local botanical garden, sheltered by hills, is home to cedars and cherry trees). This microclimate is a product of the Gulf Stream, which curls exhausted around the Norwegian coast before breathing a last whisper of Orlando warmth onto the shores of Solovki — one American export safe beyond the reach of sanctions.

Scattered around the island, in a classically Russian counterpoint of pagan and Christian, are a series of unexplained stone labyrinths

Once upon a time, these islands, hovering in the middle of the White Sea, were a place of solitude and sanctity: the UNESCO-approved monastery that gives the main harbour its magickal mediaeval feel is said to have been founded in the fifteenth century by the monks Sabbatius and Herman, who went in search of a little respite from their frenetic lives as hermits deep in the Karelian woods. The landscape of the islands is still dotted with the cells of equally agoraphobic holy men. Also scattered around the island, in a classically Russian counterpoint of pagan and Christian, are a series of unexplained stone labyrinths.

But all good fairy tales are, at heart, as dark as pitch, and the Solovki story is no exception. This accumulation of fanatical piety — which is still palpable today — was of little concern to the murky, Machiavellian world of the medieval Kremlin: as early as the sixteenth century, flinty-eyed potentates of church and state realised the political expediency of a nigh-on inescapable Orthodox Alcatraz far, far away, and Solovki became a place of exile for Muscovite malcontents.

The brutal nadir of prison life on the islands came with one of the twentieth century’s grisliest inventions, the Gulag system, which was born here, in the desanctified monastery, in 1923 — the destination for a new generation of political undesirables. In a macabre parallel to the contemporary creative exuberance of the avant-garde, the first Gulag was a place of unbridled experiment: here, though, the focus was not expanding human consciousness, but revolutionising human suffering, and the preferred medium was a careful blend of chaos and bureaucracy. A measure of the storybook strangeness of this place — and a dark testament to social mobility in the Soviet Union — is the fact that one prisoner, the enigmatic Naftaly Frenkel, managed, through ingenuity and cruelty, to become the camp’s commander.

These islands are a microcosm of the nation, saturated with the ancient and powerful forces of Russian history — mysticism, courage, cruelty

The camp was closed in 1939, to give way to a naval base — a transformation which bears witness to another identity of Solovki, as a military outpost. (Once locals learned I was British, it didn’t take them long to remind me that the island survived bombardment by my countrymen during the Crimean War.) Now, while the scars of the Gulag era are still evident on the island, they are half-concealed by the resurgent Church, which returned in the 1990s to look after the beleaguered monastery and to welcome scores of Russian tourist-pilgrims — in my experience, largely middle-aged couples who discovered both Christianity and site-seeing when they were no longer young, and are thus pleasingly zealous, unpretentious and inconsistent in their commitment to both.

It is seven years since I went to Solovki, and the rhythmic ebb and flow of tourists and seasonal workers must surely have changed the island’s unique atmosphere. Back then I had to go into the only school to check my email, and there was still only one cafe — albeit one rich in vodka and toast-happy monastery carpenters — but the signs of an incipient Cornwall / Cape Cod-isation were evident: weekend houses, bike hire, tousle-haired children in rockpools.

And so much the better. These islands are a microcosm of the nation, saturated with the ancient and powerful forces of Russian history — mysticism, courage, cruelty. I felt these brooding presences everywhere, but these dark undertones also make more distinct the unrelenting northern sunniness I experienced, above all in peoples’ insouciant openness, instinctive tolerance (especially to drunk backpackers speaking bad Russian) and optimism. These qualities, whatever their cost in carefully marketed escapism, should be allowed to flourish in Solovki; maybe then they’ll prosper too in the huge country of which it is the living image.

Text: Jamie Rann
Image: Tatiana Gulenkina