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The Beauty and the Horrors of Solovki Archipelago

Yuri Brodsky, a professional art photographer and writer, has recently been awarded the prestigious prize “Prosvetitel” (Enlightener) for his book on Solovki. This is Brodsky’s second book on the Solovki Archipelago which he studied for more than forty years.
Solovki is notoriously famous for its 15th-century monastery turned in the 16th century into the most forbidding prison by Ivan the Terrible; and it is even better known for the first post-revolutionary labour camp, which set an example for other such camps around Russia. Solovki was called by Solzhenitsin “the mother of gulags”.
The Beauty and the Horrors of Solovki Archipelago
Novaya Gazeta Publishers, 2017 (in Russian). 450 pages with 500 colour pictures.
Half of its 450 pages are Brodsky’s photographs and pictures of notable individuals imprisoned in Solovki over the centuries – some 500 pictures telling their own graphic story that need no translation. This book is a most suitable visual illustration for the centenary of the Russian revolution which was marked in 2017.
Brodsky tries to be dispassionate in his description of the Solovki history unfolding amidst the island’s majestic natural beauty, and of its present struggle between the defenders of the gulag memorial and the greedy aspirations of the church. He says: “What gorgeous beauty nature has created there and what hell inside this beauty man has created.”
The monks’ prayers and the prisoners’ curses rose to the skies simultaneously day and night. The monks served as executioners and jailors, and nothing much changed after the revolution. Both the Whites and the Reds exiled their opponents to Solovki during the post-revolutionary Civil War. They were received by the monastery administration against a receipt. Then came the Bolsheviks who organized a POW camp there. From 1923 it was turned into a “special prison camp” which officially existed until the end of 1939. Many of the early Bolshevik jailors ended up as prisoners there. The chiefs of the prison camps were inevitably killed one after another, often without any obvious guilt, simply for “loss of the Party and Cheka vigilance”. More than a million prisoners served time on Solovki, including those who organized and administered the camp. After each change of management the entire documentation was liquidated. Prisoners were dying in hundreds, mostly of hypethermia, felling logs in severe winter cold – in the 1930s Russia exported not oil, as today, but timber, and the prisoners’ free labour allowed Russia to export timber at dumping prices. The slogan on the main gates of the Solovki labour camp said: “Through Labour to Freedom!” In 1934 it was borrowed by the Nazi who translated it as “Arbeit macht frei”.
Brodsky is trying to understand why the phenomenon of Solovki happened in Russia, why gulag became possible in this country and specifically in Solovki. He comes to the conclusion that the Moscow form of Orthodoxy is partly responsible for it, not Orthodox Christianity as such, but precisely its Moscow form, meaning that Orthodoxy was created in the interests of the Moscow rulers and Solovki has become a place of self-identification of Russia as a whole.
The situation persists to this day. The monastery authorities are trying to get rid of the museum of gulag victims and suppress any mention of them. The monastery wishes to monopolize all the tourist activities on Solovki. In fact they don’t need secular residents and tourists there but only monks and pilgrims – they want to be the sole owners of the island’s property. True, monks came there first but the inmates of the prison camp have been at least ten times more numerous than the combined monastery residents for the past five centuries.
The monastery authorities have long been trying to stop Yuri Brodsky’s research and when his new book came out they declared it insulting to the church because Brodsky talks, among other things, about the monks’ collaboration with the GPU and their unsavoury role in the running of the prison and the labour camp. Now signatures are collected against the author and letters come in threatening him with physical liquidation. Brodsky is a brave man and believes in the cause of defending the memory of the innocent victims of the Solovki gulag. But watching the outburst of religious radicalism in Russia today you start fearing the worst.
In his book Brodsky talks about these and many other things: the Solovki history and its present life, about its churches, the clergy, and the gulag, about its beautiful nature and the severe climate, and moreover, about numerous human lives spent there.