[St. Pachomius Library]


Island monastery on the White Sea in far northern Russia. In 1429, St. Sabbatius established an hermitage in the barely-inhabited Solovetsky Archipelago. He was joined by a companion, St. Germanus, and reposed in 1435 while the latter was away on the mainland. Germanus recruited a new monk, St. Zosimus, who as first abbot (Germanus retaining the role of Elder) transformed Solovki from a tiny wilderness skete into a community known throughout Russia. In the mid-XVI Century, the monastery's influence was vastly increased by the elevation of its abbot St. Philip Kolychev to the see of Moscow; a courageous opponent of Ivan the Terrible, St. Philip died a martyr in 1568.

In the XVI Century, Solovki was required by the government to combine its spiritual function with new duties as a prison and border fortress, housing a large non-monastic population of soldiers. The community also operated various industrial facilities, most notably salt-works, and these, together with the pilgrim trade, made Solovki immensely rich. The monastery attracted the attention of pirates and foreign intelligence agents (often indistinguishable); while King James I decided against raiding the formidable house, the influx of wealth was seen as a (far worse) spiritual attack by such ascetics as St. Eleazar Servinkov, who moved with a band of like-minded anchorites to nearby Anzer Island. Nicon, a monk of Anzer, went on to become Patriarch and one of the most controversial figures in Russian history; his unfriendliness to the "worldly" main house of Solovki led him to transfer St. Philip's relics to Moscow. Small wonder, then, that Solovki became one of the main centres of opposition to the Niconian reforms -- opposition which eventually turned into armed resistance. Solovki was beseiged by the Russian army; when at last it fell, in January 1676, a large (but disputed) number of captured warrior-monks were slaughtered; some of those who survived became spiritual or military leaders of the Old Believer movement.

Repopulated with monks loyal to the Patriarch, Solovki soon resumed its old religious and secular roles (although after 1766 the prison was staffed by civil employees rather than monks, and in 1886 was closed entirely). Shelled to little effect by British vessels during the Crimean War, Solovki in the later XIX Century became a popular destination for patriotic as well as religious tourism. During the Revolution it was occupied by the Allied expeditionary force; the Bolsheviks took over in 1920 and closed the monastery the following year. In 1923, a devastating "accidental" fire destroyed much of the monastery complex, and what remained was immediately transformed into a prison camp, one of the earliest "islands" of the Gulag Archipelago; even worse atrocities took place nearby, in the building of the White Sea Canal. After the fall of the Soviet Union, monastic life again became possible, and Solovki in the XXI Century will very likely regain its traditional place of spiritual leadership.

---Norman Hugh Redington

Under construction --- far from complete! Read with caution.


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