When you look up "Volga tours" on the Internet, most advertise a quick St. Petersburg-to-Moscow trip, though technically neither city is on the Volga.
But the Volga is more than a river. It is an elaborate system of lakes, locks and manmade canals that links Russia's two most famous cities. This network also reaches far to the north into the White Sea. For centuries, it was the shortest route to Europe and it became Russia's main center of trade and defense.
Father Porfiry is abbot of the newly restored monastery on Russia's Solovetsky Islands, near the Arctic Circle. The Orthodox Church and local residents are fighting over who controls the future of the popular tourist destination, also known as Solovki.
Father Porfiry is abbot of the newly restored monastery on Russia's Solovetsky Islands, near the Arctic Circle. The Orthodox Church and local residents are fighting over who controls the future of the popular tourist destination, also known as Solovki. John Poole/NPR
The Solovetsky Islands, less than 100 miles from the Arctic Circle, have become a popular destination. Their history is dramatic — and that drama is still being played out.
For Russian tourists, the trip north to Solovki, as the islands are known, is worth the voyage. These remote islands sum up their country's greatest achievements and its greatest tragedy.
Father Porfiry is abbot of the newly restored Solovetsky Monastery.
"For 500 years, this place reflected the genius and power of God. The Communist revolution was the story of a great fall. Now we have overcome all that and see the restoration of Russia and its spiritual life," he says.
As part of that restoration, the Russian Orthodox Church wants to control the islands. Father Porfiry is well placed to manage this: He was an economist before taking orders, and spent time studying management at MIT.
Islands Mean So Much To So Many
Given the close relationship between the church and the government — despite a legal separation of church and state — the monastery's control of Solovki seems likely. This alarms residents and tour operators who stand to lose their livelihoods.
And it angers people like scientist Vladimir Debolsky.
"The government has invested so much power in the church because it couldn't find any other ideology. The church should be financed by believers or private contributors, not by taxpayers like me. I told the patriarch that given the islands' history, they now belong to all Russians," Debolsky says.
In the 15th century, monks moved to Solovki to expand the influence of the Orthodox Church and the state. Though cut off from the mainland by ice for at least six months a year, the monks built a huge stone fortress, with stunning churches. After the 1917 Russian revolution, the Soviet authorities closed this revered monastery and turned it into a prison.
Anna Yakovleva, a local historian, says remote Solovki was the perfect place for a prison and it became the prototype for the brutal labor camp system to come.
The island's isolation meant escape wasn't possible.
"It was like a training place for [future] camps, how to feed prisoners, how to dress them, how to kill, how deep the mass graves had to be and so on," Yakovleva says.
More than half the 80,000 prisoners sent there died, among them the country's leading scientists, clergy and writers.
An old house in the small town in Solovki was originally built to house prisoners in the 1920s and 1930s.
An old house in the small town in Solovki was originally built to house prisoners in the 1920s and 1930s. John Poole/NPR
Yakovleva says prison officials practiced different punishments. One of them was called "to be sent to the mosquitoes." A naked prisoner was taken to the forest and tied to a tree. When the mosquitoes came, the prisoner had no way of protecting himself.
"They were covered like living carpets. The prisoners didn't die. They became mad," she says.
The islands' many churches and shrines are being restored at the state's expense. They are technically historical monuments, but monks have taken up residence. And the church wants the islands turned into a religious pilgrimage site.
Unhappy Over Church Dominance
Local tour operator Oleg Kodola is fighting back.
"It's all about money. If the church gets its way, all tours will have to be brought through them. We live here, have developed all this. And the church is proposing we give it all up?" he says.
The historian Yakovleva, a devout believer, is torn.
"It's all about money. If the church gets its way, all tours will have to be brought through them. We live here have developed all this. And the church is proposing we give it all up?" says local tour operator Oleg Kodola.
"It's all about money. If the church gets its way, all tours will have to be brought through them. We live here have developed all this. And the church is proposing we give it all up?" says local tour operator Oleg Kodola. John Poole/NPR
"The life of many inhabitants will change. I feel sorry for them, for the people — my neighbors, my friends," she says.
There are 1,000 residents in Solovki, compared to just 40 monks, but somehow the church has managed to dictate the local way of life. The monastery has succeeded in closing down the community center because it objected to rock music and dancing on what it considers holy islands.
Residents aren't happy, but they are afraid to speak out. Andrei Boldyriev, a 32-year-old who is bringing up four children in the area, has kept silent, but now he's gearing up for a fight.
"I am concerned that we will be moved from here and that frightens us. But I have my rights, and I will stand up for them," he says.
It's a fight over property and who owns these islands' history.
In the late 1930s, Soviet authorities decided the Solovki prison was economically unsustainable and closed it. More than 1,000 Solovki prisoners disappeared without a trace. In 1995, researchers from Memorial, a human rights organization, finally uncovered documents showing the prisoners had been secretly moved to the mainland, executed and dumped in mass graves in a remote forest at Sandarmokh.
Plastic flowers mark a section of the mass graves at Sandarmokh, Russia, where thousands of Solovki prisoners were killed and buried. A forest was planted on top of them in hopes that no one would ever find the graves.
Plastic flowers mark a section of the mass graves at Sandarmokh, Russia, where thousands of Solovki prisoners were killed and buried. A forest was planted on top of them in hopes that no one would ever find the graves. John Poole/NPR
There, historian Sergei Koltirin walks through what is now a cemetery, carefully tending the wooden crosses placed by relatives.
"They chose a place where no one would see. They didn't just shoot the prisoners, but those who drove them here and those who dug the graves. They didn't want anyone to know what happened," he says.
Koltirin believes Solovki must be open to all, and its memories kept alive so that something like this can never happen again. He worries the government is once again trying to hide what once happened — emphasizing instead Russia's victories and successes.
His own relatives disappeared into the gulag and he has not been able to find out where or how they died. He says it's increasingly difficult to get access to government archives.
"In the '90s, the door opened a crack. We were able to get some information," Koltirin says.
But he says those doors are now closing.