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Decades ago, the Solovetsky Islands in Russia's far north was the chosen location for the former Soviet Union's first labor camps. What was once a place of exile is now a popular tourist destination. As NPR's Anne Garrels reports, the history of the islands is dramatic and the story's still unfolding.

ANNE GARRELS: The trip north to Solovki, as the islands are known, ends in the hold of a crammed, smelly ship heading three hours into the frigid White Sea.

For Russian tourists, it's 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.

Father PORFIRY SHUTOV (Solovetsky Monastery Abbot): (Through translator) For 500 years this place reflected the genius and power of God. The communist revolution was the story of a great fall. Now we've overcome all that and see the restoration of Russia and its spiritual life.

(Soundbite of singing)

GARRELS: As part of that restoration, the 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.

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.

Mr. VLADIMIR DEBOLSKY (Scientist): (Through translator) 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.

GARRELS: So first some history to understand why Solovki means so much to different people.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

GARRELS: In the 15th century, monks moved here to expand the influence of the Orthodox Church in the state. Though cut off from the mainland by ice for at least six months a year, they 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 Solovki was the perfect place and a prototype for the brutal labor camp system to come.

Ms. ANNA YAKOVLEVA (Historian): Living quarters (unintelligible) prisons. Second reason: full isolation and no escapes from here. And it was like a training place for all next camps, and how to feed prisoners, how to dress them, and how to kill, how deep the mass graves had to be and so on.

GARRELS: Over half the 80,000 prisoners sent here died, among them the country's leading scientists, clergy and writers.

Ms. YAKOVLEVA: Different punishments were practiced. One of them was called to be sent to the mosquitoes. A naked prisoner was brought to the forest, tied to the tree, no possibility to beat the mosquitoes. And they were covered like living carpets. Prisoners didnt die. They became mad.

GARRELS: The islands many churches and shrines are being restored at the states expense.

(Soundbite of machinery)

GARRELS: Though technically historical monuments, monks have taken up residence. And the church wants the islands turned into a religious pilgrimage site.

Local tour operator Oleg Kodola is fighting back.

Mr. OLEG KODOLA (Tour Operator): (Through translator) It's all about money. If the church gets its way, all tours will have to be bought through them. We live here and have developed all this. And the church is proposing we give it all up?

GARRELS: Historian Anne Yakovleva, a devout believer, is torn.

Ms. YAKOVLEVA: The life of many inhabitants of the village will change. I feel sorry for them, for the people, my neighbors and my friends.

GARRELS: There are a thousand residents compared to just 40 monks, but somehow the church has managed to dictate the way people live here. 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 arent happy but they're afraid to speak out.

Thirty-two-year old Andrei Boldyriev, who's bringing up four children here, has kept silent, but now hes gearing for a fight.

Mr. ANDREI BOLDYRIEV: (Through translator) I am concerned that we'll be moved from here and that frightens us. But I have my rights and I will stand up for them.

GARRELS: Its a fight over property and who owns these islands history. In the late 1930s, the Soviet authorities decided the Solovki prison was economically unsustainable and closed it down. More than a thousand Solovki prisoners disappeared without trace.

In 1995, researchers from Memorial, a human rights organization, finally uncovered documents showing they'd been secretly moved to the mainland, executed, and dumped in mass graves in a remote forest at Sandarmokh.

Mr. SERGEI KOLTIRIN (Historian): (Through translator) They chose a place where no one would see. They didnt just shoot the prisoners, but those who drove them here and those who dug the graves. They didnt want anyone to know what happened.

Historian Sergei Koltirin walks through what is now a cemetery, carefully tending the wooden crosses placed by relatives. He believes Solokvi 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 Russias victories and successes.

His own relatives disappeared into the gulag and he's not been able to find where or and how they died. He says its increasingly difficult to get access to government archives.

Mr. KOLTIRIN: (Through translator) In the '90s, the door opened a crack. We were able to get some information.

GARRELS: He says those doors are now closing.

Anne Garrels, NPR News.

SIMON: For a closer look at the Solovetsky Islands and peek into their dark history, you can come to our Web site, NPR.org.

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