Trip to Solovki in August 2002
I been there many times and probably will be going again and again. I already posted some photos of my past trips and a story published in JAL in-flight magazine. This time I went after long break and of course noticed several changes. Somehow I wasn't so eager to take photos this time. You see more clear and feel deeper when you put your camera aside for a while. Nevertheless I brought digital SLR FujiS1 Pro with me and took some photos along the way.
I took some photos but I most clearly remember the those I missed. I guess this is normal for any photographer to remember missed shots more vividly then successful ones. On my last day mist suddenly fall on the island. It happens quite rarely on Solovki and while it may sound as an obstacle for photographer, in fact any weather condition (besides straight midday sun) can be used for your advantage: rain, snow, fog, wind what not. It was late afternoon and sun was about to settle, and the whole air was thick and rosy. Heavy mist creates beautiful two-dimensional effect flattening remote objects and turning photo in like of engraving. Just to give you an idea, I saw similar effect of misty sunrise while going up Yangtze river in China in 1995. Anyway I missed the photo because both my cameras ran out of batteries, most lousy excuse one can have and good lesson for future.
Before going to Solovki I done some homework to figure various travel options. Long time ago I was using passenger ferry going from city of Arkhangelsk along the South coast of the White Sea and arriving to Solovki after day long journey. Unfortunately there is no regular service on this line anymore; at least it wasn't in the summer of 2003. I also used to fly in tiny Cessna plane from the airport Vaskovo of the same city long time ago. It was scheduled daily and since it was more expensive then any other options it was easy to get ticket. Not anymore. Planes fly once or twice a week. You can't be spontaneous and have to book your tickets in advance unless you want to get stuck in Arkhangelsk for week or two. The only reliable option has remained is to ride a boat from city of Kem' in Karelia. There is couple of boats every day during tourist season and it's almost guaranteed to get onto one of them.
I hopped onto long-distance train Moscow-Murmansk and after about 24 hours ride in a sleeping coach arrived to the Kem' station. It was late night, and I was dozing away at the station with dozens other travelers and pilgrims going to Solovki. I tried to sleep, but plastic station chairs designed specifically not to let you sleep and torture you if you try. I didn't have tourist rag and sleeping bag as better prepared tourists. Later I learned though that there is actually quite comfortable and not too expensive hotel by the sea wharf specifically for such occasion. Someone may built the hotel but obviously didn't bother with advertising.
The ticket was about 300 rubles and the boat was full of tourists and pilgrims most of them either reading Psalter or sleeping. It was pleasant ride. We were passing deserted tiny islands from Kuzowa archipelago. The sea was quiet and when after 2-3 hours the fairy tail silhouette of the monastery appeared on the horizon it caused sighs of exhilaration even from those who been there and seen it.
The first person I met on the pier was ubiquitous Vladimir Onanchenko who I know since when I was working as a summer tour guide in Solovetskij museum and he was heading tourist department in the museum. He left museum long time ago and built his own hotel a little bit away from the village. It's the only place on the islands where you can stay with certain level of comfort. He already hosted Putin, Orthodox Church Patriarch and couple of Royal guests from Europe. You should see his gleaming face when he shows his photo with Putin.
The restoration of monastery which has been dragging since 1970s has progressed and most of exterior is completed. There are regular masses in Transfiguration Cathedral; the Bell Tower is restored too. I remember times when I spent nights on the top of the Bell Tower meeting sunrise; other days we would threw kind of Halloween party in cellars of the Transfiguration Cathedral with guys and gals dressing in white, lighting candles and scaring occasional passers by to death by pretending to be ghosts.
Those times are long gone, there are locks on all doors and there are guards at the entrance trying to force you to buy an entrance ticket when you pass through the gates and into the monastery. Well, only if you have touristy look and, otherwise you look as a local or pilgrim guards don't even call you. The Novobratskij building that was a dormitory where I used to stay while doing tour guide work is beautifully renovated. It's the museum office building these days. It looks inside as a bank office in down town Moscow. They even got quite respectable well-kept concierge lady with bluish haircut. I am wondering where the museum got all those money? I heard they got very strong director who turned around the operation, but still...
Renting bicycles is the best way to see the island. I went to the tip of the Big Island, called Rebalda, and all way around the island in one day. It's quite easy thing to do when you on bicycle. There are not so many tourists when you leave the central village. I was relieved to find that the island is as empty as it used to be.
There are several islands in the Solovetskij Archipelago, and the second large one called Anzer was passed to the Orthodox Church. It's more then fair given that before the 1917 Revolution all the islands were under Church. Coincidentally Anzer is the most beautiful of all islands. It's not so easy to get there since monks quite reluctant to issue you a permission unless you are proper pilgrim. Twenty years ago you would need to get permission from police, nowadays you need blessing from your parish. And in any case even if you managed to sneak there, monks won't let you stay overnight. This wasn't particularly my idea of going to Anzer. To get good photos you need to be there at least at one sunrise and sunset. In other words you have to stay overnight. I was lucky to get a letter from my Moscow friend to one of monks, who permanently resides on Anzer. This opened the opportunity to visit Anzer and even stay there.
There are only two monks who live there in winter. The island is completely isolated and covered with snow from November till May. There are no tourists, no pilgrims, no post, no doctor, only in case of emergency helicopter will be sent over from the mainland. All they got is flaky radio connection with the main island, the transmitter which monks can turn on for few of minutes a day without risk of draining the batteries.
I was given a mattress and sleeping bag next to the bed of father Sevastian. Monks life is extremely modest. There is always fast on the island so they never eat meat and I believe even fish is quite rare. Potato, buckwheat, vegetables, honey is their daily ration. Together with monks and pilgrims working there I was treated to peas soup, buckwheat porridge, tea with honey and small dry bagels called baranki in Russian.
Monks wake-up at 5am and stay long mass, and then they work whole day with breaks for pray, and reading. All man (no woman allowed to stay night on the island) working in the hermitage skit are volunteers who came to Anzer because of religious vow or obet. Most of them came from big cities. I spoke with their cook who is talented painter at the same time, with the carpenter who gave up well-paid job in Moscow to help restoring the sacred place.
The Solovki is like a big magnet attracting lots of unordinary people. Some of them live there, others come for the summer holidays. Oleg Mishenko (nickname Figura) is local celebrity. He is history PhD from Ukraine who settled at Solovki probably more then 20 years ago and since then lives there. He was doing various jobs on the monastery restoration, but now got some easy job of guarding a warehouse and spends short winter days fishing, and long winter nights reading books and drinking vodka. Here I just exhibit some faces I met in Figura's place during my stay in Solovki. Some of them I met first time, some know for long time. Most of them live in Moscow but somehow we meet only in Solovki.
In addition to these notes I also commented some of the photos I like more then others. All photos are linked from here. I used obsolete by now Fuji S1 Pro camera to take the photos and nice image processing utility called IrfanView to compress them and generate nails.