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A cluster of monastery churches.
Solovetsky Monastery as seen from the White Sea.

Solovetsky Monastery (Russian: Соловецкий монастырь) was the greatest citadel of Christianity in the Russian North before being turned into a special Soviet prison and labor camp (1926–1939), which served as a prototype for the GULAG system. Situated on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, the monastery braved many changes of fortune and military sieges. Its most important structures date from the 16th century, when Filip Kolychev was its hegumen.


Solovetsky Monastery was founded in the late 1429 by monks Gherman (Herman) and Savvatiy (Sabbatius) of Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery. In the 15th and 16th centuries, when Novgorodian Marfa Boretskaya donated her lands at Kem and Summa to the monastery in 1450, the monastery quickly enlarged its estate, which was situated on the shores of the White Sea and the rivers falling into it. Solovetsky Monastery extended its producing and commercial activity, becoming an economic and political center of the White Sea region. Archmandrites of the monastery were appointed by the tsar himself and the patriarch. Peter the Great visited the Solovki in 1694. [1]

Solovetsky Monastery's "business" activity included saltworks (in the 1660s, it owned 54 of them), seafood production, trapping, fishery, mica works, ironworks, pearl works etc., which had engaged many people dependent on the monastery.

By the 17th century, Solovetsky Monastery had already had some 350 monks, 600-700 servants, artisans and peasants. In the 1650s and 1660s, the monastery was one of the strongholds of the Raskol. The Solovetsky Monastery Uprising of 1668–1676 was aimed at Nikon's ecclesiastic reform and took on an anti-feudal nature. In 1765, Solovetsky Monastery became stauropegic (from the Greek stauros meaning "cross" and pegio meaning "to affirm"), i.e. it subordinated directly to the Synod.

One of the monastery towers in 1915, photographed by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky.

Together with the Sumskoy and Kemsky stockades, Solovetsky Monastery represented an important frontier fortress with dozens of cannons and a strong garrison. In the 16th to 17th centuries, the monastery succeeded a number of times in repelling the attacks of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword and the Swedes (in 1571, 1582 and 1611). During the Crimean War, Solovetsky Monastery was attacked by three British ships. After 9 hours of shelling on the 6 and 7 July, the vessels left with nothing. Between the 16th and the early 20th centuries, the monastery was also a place of exile for the opponents of autocracy and official Orthodoxy and a center of Christianization in the north of Russia. The monastery also had a huge depository of manuscripts and old books.

The pride of the monks was the monastery´s garden which had many exotic flora, such as the Tibetan wild roses presented to the monks by Agvan Dorzhij (Agvan Dorzhiev), a famous Buryatian lama who was a member of Tibetan Karshog (Government) during the days of the Great 13th Dalai Lama.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet authorities closed down the monastery and incorporated many of the buildings into Solovki, one of the earliest forced-labor camps of the GULAG during the 1920s and 1930s. The camp was mainly used for cutting trees, and when the trees were gone, the camp was closed. Before the Second World War, a sea cadet school was opened on the island.


Another tower (2004).

The architectural ensemble of the Solovetsky Monastery is located on the shores of the Prosperity Bay (бухта Благополучия) on Solovetsky Island. The territory of the Solovetsky Monastery is surrounded by massive walls (height 8 to 11 m, thickness 4 to 6 m) with 7 gates and 8 towers (built in 1584–1594 by an architect named Trifon), made mainly of huge boulders up to 5 m in length. There are also religious buildings on the monastery's grounds (the principal ones are interconnected with roofed and arched passages), surrounded by multiple household buildings and living quarters, including a refectory (a 500  chamber) with the Uspensky Cathedral (built in 1552-1557), Preobrazhensky Cathedral (1556–1564), Church of Annunciation (1596–1601), stone chambers (1615), watermill (early 17th century), bell tower (1777), and Church of Nicholas (1834).

Today, the Solovetsky Monastery is a historical and architectural museum. It was one of the first Russian sites to have been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List. A small brothership of monks appeared in the monastery again and now it has about ten monks. During last several years the monastery was strongly repaired, but it is still under reconstruction.

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