Russia Religion Monasticism Monastery Solovetsky Monastery

Solovetsky Monastery

The Solovetsky Archipelago is located in the middle of the White Sea, only a hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle. The archipelago consists of six islands, known collectively as the Solovki. Thousands of years ago, they were formed from a receding glacier, which left behind 516 lakes and thousands of enormous granite boulders.

Despite being so far north, the Solovki have a relatively mild sub-climate, which supports a wide range of wildlife and hundreds of unique plants. The temperate conditions, rich fishing stocks and coastal salt deposits first attracted settlers in Neolithic times. They left traces of inhabitation and evidence of their magic cults and burial rites, including dolmens, kurgans and rock labyrinths.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the islands were visited by trappers and fishermen from Novgorod. While the local timber, furs and fish were prized goods, the most profitable activity was salt mining, which is what gave the archipelago its name of “Solovetsky” (from the Russian word for salt – sol’).

The first trappers and fishermen were followed by monks and hermits seeking a place of solitude. Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, dozens of tiny independent monasteries sprung up across the region. Many of them were short-lived and usually had little or no ties to the neighbouring cloisters.

The monastic colonisation of the Solovetsky Islands underwent a fundamental change in the fifteenth century, when the disciples of St Sergius of Radonezh began to found cenobitic cloisters. One of his followers was a monk called Sabbatius, who had served at the Belozersk Monastery during the lifetime of St Cyril.

After the death of St Cyril, Sabbatius moved to Balaam in search of an austere existence. After a brief stay on Lake Ladoga, he wanted to find an even more secluded place. He met an anchorite called Herman, who had already visited the Solovki. After listening to Herman’s tales, Sabbatius decided to travel to these distant islands. In 1429, both men arrived on the largest island in the archipelago – Bolshoi Solovetsky.

The elderly monks struggled to survive on the island. They only succeeded in growing turnips, while their occasional forays to the mainland for food were not enough to maintain their meagre rations. In 1435, while Herman was away, Sabbatius fell seriously ill. Feeling that his days were numbered, he tried to return to the mainland, but died on the shore of the White Sea.

After the death of Sabbatius, Herman was joined by Zosimus, a native of the village of Tolvuya on the shore of Lake Onega. He had given all his property away to the poor and become a hermit on the River Suma, which falls into Onega Bay. After meeting Herman, Zosimus decided to help him build a monastery on the Solovki.

In 1436, Herman and Zosimus established themselves in a more populated and habitable part of Bolshoi Solovetsky Island. They quickly attracted other ascetics, forming a brotherhood that developed into the Solovetsky Monastery.

The monastery was built on the western shore of the island, looking onto Prosperity Bay. The presence of the Holy Lake to the east meant that the territory of the cloister extended along the sea, with the main line of construction running from north to south.

In the middle of the fifteenth century, the Solovki belonged to Novgorod. The archbishop confirmed the property rights of the Solovetsky monks, appointed abbots and presented the cloister with new territory and farmlands.

Little changed in the life of the monastery after Novgorod was annexed by Muscovy in 1478. The monks continued to enjoy the perpetual and exclusive ownership of the entire archipelago. No women were allowed on the Solovki. When a fisherman’s wife unexpectedly appeared, she was allegedly driven off by two angels. This legend is immortalised in the name of the steepest hill on the island, Sekirnaya Gora (“Hatchet Mountain”).

The monastery buildings remained small and wooden right up until the middle of the sixteenth century. In 1485 and 1538, the cloister burnt down and was only restored by charitable donations and the physical efforts of the monks themselves.

In the early sixteenth century, the Solovetsky Monastery owned three saltworks, a farmyard, three watermills, fisheries and twelve boats. The inventory of 1549 mentions three wooden churches and approximately three hundred icons. In 1547, St Sabbatius was canonised and his relics were moved inside the Cathedral of the Transfiguration.

A dramatic change in the fate of the monastery occurred in the middle of the sixteenth century, when the fraternity was headed by a famous abbot called Philip (secular name Fyodor Kolychev). Philip was born in Galich in 1507. His father was an influential boyar and he grew up at the court in Moscow. In 1537, at the age of thirty, Philip decided to leave the capital and become a monk at the Solovetsky Monastery. He did much good work and was appointed abbot in 1547.

Philip sought to improve both the buildings and the everyday life of the monks. He enjoyed the favour of Ivan the Terrible and used his former standing at the royal court to attract numerous gifts and donations. The Solovki soon became a popular place of pilgrimage, particularly after the canonisation of St Zosimus and St Sabbatius in 1547.

The growing fame of the monastery made it easier to attract skilled workers. A network of roads was laid out and canals were dug between the lakes. The farmyards and fisheries were expanded, new storerooms and warehouses were constructed. A brick factory was built near the monastery to facilitate the construction of stone buildings. In less than twenty years, the monastery was transformed into a major ensemble, ranking alongside the finest Russian cloisters.

As the number of monks had grown to two hundred, Philip decided that the first major work of stone construction at the monastery should be a new refectory. This vast complex of kitchen and dining rooms was the largest to be built in Russia in the sixteenth century. The refectory was constructed between 1552 and 1557 by Ignaty Salka, a master from Novgorod.

The form of a heated, two-storey building was repeated in all subsequent works of construction at the Solovetsky Monastery. The main buildings were constructed on a ground floor, which were then joined together to form a multi-constituent complex. Originally borrowed from Roman and Byzantine architecture, this tradition was employed in the construction of Russian palaces and mansions from the eleventh century onwards.

The main dining room on the first floor covered a total area of 482 square metres. The vaulted chambers on the ground floor housed the flour-sifting room, the bakery and the cellars. The large stove room provided the internal heating for the entire building.

The walls and vaults of the refectory chambers remained whitewashed from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The only form of decoration was the profiled frames around the portals. The most elegant portal was located in the eastern wall of the refectory and led to the small Church of the Dormition.

The Church of the Dormition had a semi-cylindrical vault with cusps on the western side. A staircase in the western wall led to an additional top floor, which had two side-chapels. One of them was named in honour of John the Baptist, the patron saint of Ivan the Terrible. The other was dedicated to St Demetrius of Thessaloniki in 1605, soon after False Dmitry I was crowned tsar in Moscow.

The refectory was part of the line of main constructions in the north of the monastery. To the south, this line ended with the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, built between 1558 and 1566. The catholicon was built on money donated to the monastery, including a thousand roubles from an endowment made by Ivan the Terrible.

The Cathedral of the Transfiguration stood on a square ground floor built from granite boulders up to five and a half metres thick. The remains of St Zosimus and St Sabbatius were reburied in the north-eastern corner. The upper floor contains an enormous naos (almost the same size as the refectory) and an altar section with two side-chapels. The chapel to the north, built above the tombs of the founders of the monastery, is dedicated to St Zosimus and St Sabbatius, while the southern chapel honours the Archangel Michael.

Four identical side-chapels were built at each corner of the cathedral and joined by a gallery. The Chapel of the Twelve Apostles and the Chapel of the Seventy Apostles symbolise the missionary work of the Solovetsky monks, while the Chapel of St John Climacus and the Chapel of St Theodore Stratelates were named in honour of Ivan and Feodor, the two sons of Ivan the Terrible.

The cathedral and the refectory appear to have been designed by the same architect, possibly the abbot himself. Philip is said to have taken part in all the building work, toiling alongside the other monks as part of his commitment to cenobitic monasticism. As a result, the cloister experienced a spiritual revival and his reputation of spread far and wide.

Unfortunately, Philip caught the attention of Ivan the Terrible, who had just embarked on his reign of terror between 1565 and 1572. In 1566, the tsar asked him to fill the vacant post of head of the Russian Orthodox Church, following the retirement of the previous incumbent, Metropolitan Athanasius – officially due to “grave sickness,” but more likely because of his opposition to the tsar’s domestic policies.

As the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Philip was not afraid to speak out against Ivan the Terrible, passionately denouncing his evil and bloodthirsty acts. But the tsar was not prepared to stand for any insubordination from the metropolitan. Philip was arrested and sent in chains to the Tver Monastery of the Fathers in 1568. A year later, he was strangled in his cell by Ivan’s henchman, Malyuta Skuratov. In 1591, Philip’s remains were sent to the Solovetsky Monastery and buried in the cathedral, alongside the graves of the founders.

Before he moved to Moscow, Philip had initiated the building of a single-storey bakehouse to the north-east of the refectory and a three-storey drying oven in the south of the monastery. The lower floor of the drying oven had storerooms and stoves. The heated air was carried by special vents to the two upper single-pillar chambers, which were used to dry grain.

Philip’s death only brought a temporary halt to construction work at the Solovetsky Monastery. In 1577, the Church of St Nicholas was built between the refectory and the cathedral. The monastery sacristy was located beneath the church, while an arched belfry was added to the western wall.

In 1602, all the main buildings on the western territory of the monastery were joined together in a single complex by a series of two-storey passageways. The arcade in the bottom tier was built from enormous granite boulders. Only the arches themselves and the entrances to the various buildings and premises were made of brick.

The second floor consisted of a covered gallery on brick pillars, offering a convenient means of communication, in any weather, between all the churches and the refectory. A book depository was created in the southern section of the covered gallery, in the parvis of the cathedral. This library contained 481 manuscripts and thirty-eight printed books. The resulting single western facade of the monastery ran for a total length of over one hundred and fifty metres along the shore of the White Sea.

The line of churches was matched by a parallel line of cells further down the hill. The line of cells included the Holy Gates, which face the sea, and the gateway Church of the Annunciation, built between 1596 and 1601.

In 1571, during the Livonian War, Swedish military vessels appeared near the Solovki. The ships appear to have been conducting a reconnaissance operation, preparing for the capture of the islands, which would guarantee Sweden supremacy on the White Sea. To defend against enemy attacks, a wooden stockade was built round the monastery in 1578. Four years later, Ivan the Terrible ordered a stone fortress to be constructed. This work engaged 250 men annually and continued until 1594.

This work was headed by Ivan Mikhailov, a master from Vologda, and a Solovetsky monk called Tryphon, who came from the nearby village of Nyonoksa. The bottoms of the walls and towers were built from enormous granite boulders, up to four metres in length and seven metres in thickness, while the upper military galleries and towers were made of bricks.

During the Time of Troubles, a thousand soldiers were stationed at the cloister, remaining there until 1637. As many as ninety cannons guarded the walls in the seventeenth century.

The monastery ensemble continued to grow in the seventeenth century. By the 1640s, all the cells around the main courtyard were made of stone. Their facades and roofs were joined together in a single line. There were thirty-six cells, each accommodating four monks. In the southern utility yard, a watermill was built next to the drying oven.

In 1615, a two-storey icon-painting workshop was constructed near the north-western tower. Thousands of icons were painted there, later finding their way across the whole of Russia. In turn, many icons were commissioned for the monastery churches from leading Muscovite and Volga masters.

The Tailoring (Booting) Chamber was built alongside the icon-painting studios. The bottom floor housed soldiers, while the enormous room at the top contained a workshop for sewing the monks’ habits and other clothes.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, the number of friars had grown to three hundred and seventy, while another five hundred men worked, lived and ate at the cloister. The monks also built nearby settlements and sketes on the other islands.

The reasons for the steady growth of the Solovetsky Monastery were its good husbandry and close observation of the principles of its founders. Ironically, this adherence to traditions led to a tragic confrontation that brought an end to the cloister’s prosperity. This occurred in 1657, when Patriarch Nikon’s attempts to reform the rites of the Russian Orthodox Church and change the ecclesiastic books were rejected by the Solovetsky Monastery.

The monks refused to adopt the proposed changes and wrote angry letters of complaint to Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich. Although the protests began as part of the struggle for the “pure faith” of the Old Believers, the monks were soon joined by laymen, workers and pilgrims with other grievances against the central authorities.

In 1668, unable to reach a peaceful compromise, the government sent a unit of Streltsy guards to the island to suppress the rebels. This was the start of the famous Solovetsky Uprising. The monks locked themselves in and refused to admit the guards. The Streltsy attempted to break their resistance by setting fire to everything outside the walls, including all their ships, supplies and sources of food. But the monks were supported by the local peasants and workers, who provided them with food and other necessities, allowing the monastery to withstand more than seven years of siege.

The Solovetsky Monastery held out until 1676, when a traitor showed the Streltsy guards an unprotected window in the White Tower, allowing them to break into the cloister. The rebellious monks were brutally murdered, burnt at the stake or hung from the gallows. The few who survived were exiled to other abbeys.

The eighteenth century dealt fresh blows to the prosperity of the Solovetsky Monastery. In 1762, Peter III secularised all the property of the Russian cloisters, depriving the monastery of the income from its salt mines and agricultural land.

As the intricate tops of the buildings required constant care and attention, it was decided to replace the roofs of the Church of the Dormition and the Cathedral of the Transfiguration with simpler, sloped constructions. All the belfries were dismantled between 1776 and 1777 and replaced by a single belltower built on the granite foundation of the oldest belfry.

In 1798, the Church of St Philip of Moscow was constructed above the hospital wards in the southern section of the central courtyard. Between 1828 and 1832, the old Church of St Nicholas was replaced by a new building. Its five cupolas helped to restore the sense of diversity lost when the old belfries were dismantled.

The northern side-chapel over the graves of the saints in the Cathedral of the Transfiguration was dismantled and replaced by a new church with one cupola called the Trinity Cathedral of St Zosimus and St Sabbatius. The inside of this enormous building was the same size as the refectory chamber and even larger than the catholicon.

The Solovetsky Monastery had always been one of the most famous in Russia, attracting thousands of pilgrims to the north of the country. The cloister’s distance from the centre also made it an ideal place to banish subjects who had incurred the wrath of the tsar. Between the middle of the sixteenth and the early twentieth century, some three hundred prisoners were incarcerated within its walls.

In the sixteenth century, the abbot of the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity, Father Superior Artemius, was imprisoned on the Solovki for leading the struggle against the ownership of property. In the seventeenth century, the list of famous inmates included Prince Simeon Bekbulatovich (briefly joint ruler with Ivan the Terrible), Abraham Palitsyn (author of a famous chronicle of the Time of Troubles), Prince Lvov (head of the Moscow Printing Works) and Nikanor (archimandrite of the St Sabbas of Storozhev Monastery).

Count Pyotr Tolstoy (former companion of Peter the Great and head of the Secret Chancellery) and Prince Vasily Dolgoruky (member of the Supreme Privy Council) were held in a specially created stockade in the eighteenth century. The last ataman of the Zaporozhian Host, Petro Kalnyshevsky, spent twenty-five years at the monastery in solitary confinement.

Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, a series of hermitages and sketes with churches and chapels sprung up on the Solovki. These included the St Sabbatius, St Isaac, Jesus and St Philip Hermitages and the Skete of the Ascension on Hatchet Mountain.

Construction work commenced on the other Solovetsky Islands. The wooden Church of St Andrew the First-Called Apostle on Bolshoi Zayatsky (Great Hare) Island commemorated the visit of Peter the Great to the archipelago. Built in 1702, the church stands in the middle of the ancient landscape, surrounded by labyrinths made from Neolithic boulders. A long granite dam joined Bolshoi Solovetsky Island to Bolshaya Muksalma, where the St Sergius of Radonezh Skete was built in the nineteenth century.

The largest ensemble on the surrounding islands is the Trinity Skete on Anzer Island, founded in the early seventeenth century and almost completely rebuilt over the next two hundred years (only the refectory survives from the seventeenth century). In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Skete of the Crucifixion was built next to Mount Golgotha in the centre of Anzer.

After the Bolshevik revolution, the Solovki gained notoriety as the site of the first Soviet prison camp (gulag). Although the old prison was closed down in 1903, it was reopened in 1920 as a corrective labour camp with three hundred inmates.

Before the prison camp was finally closed down in 1939, tens of thousands had passed through its walls, including many famous intellectuals, former kulaks, Orthodox priests, members of religious sects and old Bolsheviks. An estimated thirty to forty thousand inmates were executed or died of disease. Those who survived were housed in the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, lying on plank beds in rows of three.

After the closure of the prison, a school for naval cadets was opened on the Solovki. The naval base moved out after the Second World War, leaving the ensemble in a state of ruin.

In 1974, the Solovetsky Museum Complex of History, Architecture and Nature was opened on the islands. This was the signal for the start of renovation work, which still continues to this day. The architectural forms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were rescued from the active neglect of the twentieth century and the deformations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, restoring the historical ensemble to its original forms.

The rebirth of the Solovetsky Monastery began with the establishment of a church congregation in 1988. On 25 October 1990, the cloister was officially reopened. One of the first buildings to be returned to the monks was the Church of St Philip of Moscow, although religious services were initially held in the domestic chapel of the Cathedral of the Solovetsky Miracle-Workers.

In August 1992, the relics of the monastery’s founders – St Sabbatius, St Herman and St Zosimus – were discovered in the depositories of the Museum of Religion and Atheism in St Petersburg and restored to the cloister. That same year, the Solovetsky Monastery was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

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