Solovetsky Islands, Russia

The Solovetsky Islands (often referred to as Solovki) are six islands located in the forbidding waters of the White Sea in northern Russia, just 165km from the Arctic Circle. Known for their scenic beauty but difficult to access even today, the islands have long been used for both retreat and exile.

Founded in the 15th century, Solovetsky Monastery (Соловецкий монастырь) was one of Russia's most famous and holy monasteries, and became a major pilgrimage destination. But it was also a place of exile, and in the 20th century it was used as a brutal Soviet prison camp at which over a million prisoners died. Today, Solovetsky Monastery is a World Heritage Site, museum, and home to a handful of monks.


History of Solovetsky Islands

The Solovetsky Islands were sacred places since ancient times, as evidenced by numerous elaborate labyrinths, earthworks and barrows discovered across the islands. Some date from as early as the 3rd millennium BC.

Solovetsky Monastery was founded in 1429 by the monks Gherman and Savvatiy from the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the monastery enlarged its estate and extended its producing and commercial activity, becoming an economic and political center of the White Sea region.

Solovetsky Monastery's commercial activity included saltworks, seafood, trapping, fishery, mica works, ironworks, and pearl works, which engaged many people dependent on the monastery. By the 17th century, Solovetsky Monastery was home to some 350 monks and 600-700 laymen.

The great monastery was a center of christianization in the north of Russia, a place of pilgrimage, a depository for manuscripts, and, from the 16th century onwards, a place of exile for political and religious criminals. Archmandrites of Solovetsky Monastery were directly appointed by the tsar and the Orthodox patriarch. In 1765, Solovetsky Monastery became stauropegic, subordinated directly to the Synod.

With its strong walls and towers, Solovetsky Monastery functioned as an important frontier fortress. The monastery succeeded a number of times (in 1571, 1582 and 1611) in repelling the attacks of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword and the Swedes. The Solovetsky Monastery Uprising of 1668-1676 was aimed at Nikon's ecclesiastic reform and took on an anti-feudal nature.

During the Crimean War, Solovetsky Monastery was attacked by three English ships. After 9 hours of shelling on the 6th and the 7th of July, the vessels left with nothing.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet authorities closed down the monastery and incorporated many of the buildings into Solovki, one of the earliest Soviet forced-labor camps. First opened in 1923 as a work camp for "enemies of the people," Solovki was not so bad at first, with prisoners keeping up the botanical gardens and library.

But in 1937, Stalin reorganized it into the one of the severest Gulags in his empire. Prisoners lived and worked in intolerable conditions, with officers torturing or killing them at will. Over a million prisoners are estimated to have died here, many of whom were priests, artists and writers. The prison was closed in 1939.

During World War II, the Solovetsky Islands were used as a naval base. The monastery reopened in the early 1990s and is once again home to a few monks. Many of the churches and other monastery buildings remain under renovation.

What to See at Solovetsky Islands

The Solovetsky Monastery complex is located on Solovetsky Island on the shores of Prosperity Bay (бухта Благополучия). It is surrounded by massive walls (up to 11m tall and 6m thick) with seven gates and eight towers (built in 1584-94), made mainly of huge boulders.

The main monastery buildings are connected to one another via roofed and arched passages, and include the Uspensky Cathedral (built in 1552-1557), Preobrazhensky Cathedral (1556-1564), Annunciation Church (1596-1601), stone chambers (1615), watermill (early 17th century), bell tower (1777), refectory, and Church of St. Nicholas (1834). Many of these are under renovation, but can be visited. The Annunciation Church is the only one that holds regular services, and is open from 8am to 5pm daily. The bell tower can be climbed for the finest view of the islands.

The monastery village includes chapels built to commemorate several Tsars, hostels for pilgrims, a dry-dock, a hydroelectric power station (19 lo- 12). and industrial installations of various kinds.

Founded in 1822, the monastery's botanical gardens are one of the northernmost in the world yet contain trees and plants normally found only in more southern climates. This is thanks to its prime location in a tranquil, heat-trapping valley and an intricate system of underground hot-water pipes. Atop a hill is the tiny Alexander Nevsky Church (1854), which boasts a beautiful view.

Near the kremlin is a little wooden building housing a Private Museum of Crosses, a workshop where intricately engraved crosses are made for churches throughout Russia. Some of them take months to complete.

12km from the kremlin is the steep hill of Sekirnaya Gora ("Hatchet Mountain"), which is topped by a 19th-century church used for solitary confinement. Today's visitors enjoy the lovely views from the top, but many prisoners died here of cold or starvation, and their bodies were unceremoniously thrown down the nearby stairs. At the bottom of the stairs is a cross honoring the memory of all those who died at Solovki, placed in the late 1980s by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch.

The State Historical-Architectural Museum (admission R50) includes a moving exhibition on the Gulag period, with official photographs of smiling officers combined with the story of the prisoners' great suffering here. About a mile outside the main village, near the luxurious Turbaza Solovki hotel, is a creepy abandoned prison. You can roam freely around the ruins, which contain intact door numbers, wall markings, and guards' observation windows.

In addition to the main Solovetsky Monastery, there are a number of detached monasteries at Solovki: four on Solovetskii Island (all 19th century); the early 17th century Trinity Monastery on Anzer Island; a 16th century complex, including a stone harbour, on Big Zayatskii Island; and the St Sergius Monastery on Big Muksalma Island, founded in the 16th century.

Quick Facts on Solovetsky Islands

Site Information
Names:Solovetsky Islands
Visitor and Contact Information
Coordinates:65.021581° N, 35.716553° E
Lodging:View hotels near Solovetsky Islands
Note: This information was accurate when first published and we do our best to keep it updated, but details such as opening hours and prices can change without notice. To avoid disappointment, please check with the site directly before making a special trip.


  1. Lonely Planet Russia & Belarus
  2. Solovetsky Monastery - Wikipedia (as of December 2006)
  3. Solovki-UNESCO On-line - Russian Museums
  5. Cultural and Historic Ensemble of the Solovetsky Islands - UNESCO World Heritage List

More Information


Map of Solovetsky Islands, Russia

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