Arkhangelsk Oblast

The Solovetsky Islands

The Solovetsky archipelago consists of six large islands (Bolshoy Solovetsky, Anzer, Bolshaya and Malaya Muksalma, Bolshoy and Maly Zayatsky) and hundreds of small ones. The main one, of course, is Bolshoy Solovetsky Island, from which the Solovetsky Transfiguration Monastery rises toward the heavens: an impregnable bastion at the very centre of spiritual and tourist life. Its appearance makes an indelible impression immediately when you approach the island by ship and the silhouettes of the walls and towers of the medieval citadel, the Solovetsky Fortress, gradually appear in the distance. The outlines of the walls resemble a ship, and they are made of huge rough boulders. This is the North in all its power and glory.

Site on the map

Monastic life on Solovki began in 1429 when the monks Savvaty and German arrived on Bolshoy Solovetsky Island by boat. They erected a cross by the lake and built a cell. Savvaty died 6 years later, and German met the Venerable Zosima in this northern coastal region. In 1436, the monks arrived on Bolshoy Solovetsky Island. Soon, a beautiful church in heavenly radiance appeared before Zosima, and at the place of the vision, the monks built a wooden church in honour of the Transfiguration of the Lord. Then, a church was built in honour of the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God.

The monumental Transfiguration Cathedral now stands on the site of the original church. The cathedral is surrounded on all sides by more recent buildings, passages and galleries. Nearby is a three-tiered bell tower built in 1777 and a huge one-pillar refectory chamber, which is second only to the Moscow Kremlin's Palace of Facets in size.

Today, all life on the islands is built around the active monastery and the Solovetsky Museum-Reserve.

A guided tour of the monastery is a must to immerse yourself in the history of Solovki.

10 km east of the Solovetsky Kremlin, you can find a man-made dam, which appears to have completely merged with nature. The monks used boulders to build it across the strait so they could drive cattle between Bolshoy Solovetsky Island and Bolshaya Muksalma Island. They built it manually, without any equipment, along the shallowest parts of the strait. Today, the road to the dam from the village of Solovetsky is almost the same as in the days of its builders: in winter, it is covered with snow, and in summer, the rains turn it into a marshy mess. If you don't feel like walking, you can rent a bike. There are several bike rental points in Solovetsky; the largest is Tsentralny Veloprokat on Severnaya Street.

On Bolshoy Solovetsky Island, there are not only roads on dry land, but also waterways, canals. They were once dug by monks to drain the marshy soil. The canals connected dozens of lakes into various large and small circles, which connect in Lake Svyatoe, right under the walls of the monastery. The lake became a reservoir for freshwater, which was necessary for the monastery fortress in the event of a siege. The canals were also used to transport construction materials. Today, tourists can raft along them. You can rent a motorboat from the local residents.

One of the most unexpected sights in Solovki is a small botanical garden in the Makarievskaya desert. There, the landscape creates a favourable microclimate: the Krestovaya and Aleksandrovskaya mountains protect the 5 ha of garden land from the winds, and the summer temperature is usually higher than the on the rest of the island.

This, of course, is still not enough for gardening the tundra and wood tundra zones, and in the 19th century, greenhouses here were heated with hot water piped over from a nearby candle factory. Oranges, peaches and watermelons were grown on this sub-polar land. Today, the garden is a scientific institution engaged in the acclimatisation and restoration of plant populations.

In summer, roses bloom in the rose garden—even this close to the Arctic Circle.

Mount Sekirnaya and the former Holy Ascension Monastery stand in tragic memory of the Solovki Special Camp (SLON). It existed from 1923 to 1933, when it was transformed into the Solovki Prison of the Main Directorate of State Security. Among the prisoners held there were the philosophers Pavel Florensky and Aleksei Losev, the researcher of Old Russian literature Dmitry Likhachev, and the local historian Nikolay Antsiferov... The monastery on Mount Sekirnaya was turned into the camp's punitive solitary confinement facility for males; next to it is the camp cemetery, the site of mass graves of prisoners.

On Anzer Island, in secluded monasteries, live reclusive monks who have practically no contact with other people. When visiting it, you will have to observe the Orthodox dress code (long skirts and headscarves for women, long sleeves and trousers for men) and special rules: do not take pictures of the monks and do not talk to them.

On Bolshoy Zayatsky Island, tourists are greeted by the chapel of St. Andrew the First-Called, built by Peter the Great in 1702. If you go deeper into the island, you will see mounds of stones, ancient burial grounds, on the sides of the path. The most unusual structures are the stone guilloche labyrinths. Nobody knows for what purpose they were built: they may be drawings of fishing nets or ritual images. There are about six hundred pagan artefacts here.

From mid-July to mid-August, white whales can be seen from Beluzhy Cape on the western side of Bolshoy Solovetsky Island. The white whales appear in the morning at low tide.

Solovki has mild winters and cool summers. In June, the white nights start, and daylight reaches a duration of 21.5 hours, while in December it lasts about 4 hours. In summer, the water temperature of the White Sea near the coast reaches +18 to +20°C. In winter, the sea around the islands freezes over, forming a continuous strip of fast ice (stationary ice). The weather in Solovki is temperamental: in summer, during white nights, the temperature can suddenly drop to zero, or it can rain for a week. Storms often occur, during which navigation is closed and steamer trips are cancelled. You need to prepare for this both practically, taking warm clothes with you, and mentally, being ready to change your plans if necessary.

The administrative centre of the islands is the village of Solovetsky, on the west of Bolshoy Solovetsky Island, which grew out of a settlement by the monastery. There are about a dozen hotels and guest houses, and it is better to book rooms in advance. There is also a tent camp on the outskirts of the village. It is prohibited to set up tents elsewhere. Locals rent out apartments, rooms or just beds.

Navigation in the White Sea lasts from 1 June to 15 September. During this period, you can get to Solovki by ship from Belomorsk in 4 hours, or from Arkhangelsk in almost a day. The rest of the time, access to Solovki (except for the Bolshoy Solovetsky Island) is limited due to the climate. You can also fly from Arkhangelsk by plane: there is an airport on Bolshoy Solovetsky Island, and during the summer season, there are three scheduled flights a week.