This week is marked by the memory of the saints of the Solovki. First we celebrated the memory of the translation of the relics of St. Zosimas and St. Sabbatius on August 8. Then we honored the Synaxis of the Saints of these islands. Finally, we celebrate the day of the Synaxis of the New Martyrs and Confessors of the Solovki. The Solovki Archipelago is located in a remote part of the world, not far from the Arctic Circle, but the word “Solovki” itself resonates with both joy and pain in the hearts of many people. It is a joyful word because there have been so many famous saints and the monastery, known for its strict statute, on these islands. It is also painful because we know what the Church and thousands upon thousands of Russian people endured here. What happened here during the terrible years of the Soviet rule and why does blood freeze in veins just at the mention of the Solovki Special Purpose Camp?
Solovki Special Purpose Camp was one of the largest correctional labor camps for political prisoners in the USSR and operated from 1923 to 1933. Prior to the establishment of the camp on the Solovki, there had been a Solovki monastery prison, where the Orthodox hierarchs, as well as heretics and simply untrustworthy people, had been exiled to for about 200 years. The Cheka officers established a number of compulsory labor camps in the Arkhangelsk Province in 1919; the Solovki camp was also established in 1923. All the property and buildings of the Solovki Monastery, which had been closed in 1920, were handed over to the camp.
Living conditions of the prisoners in the early years of the camp were considerably different from those of the following years. Initially, the inmates were allowed to choose their own headmen, to have personal property, to meet with relatives, to move freely within the camp zone, and to subscribe to newspapers and magazines. With an eight-hour working day in the camp, political prisoners were able to form their own factions and even debate with each other. The monastery was closed, and many monks left the islands, but many stayed and worked as wage workers. Priests and monks who were in prison could take part in religious services held at St. Onuphrius Cemetery Church on holidays. According to an eyewitness account, in some cases several bishops would serve at once, and numerous priests and deacons would line up in columns along the aisle to the altar. By 1926, there were already twenty-nine bishops held in detention on the Solovki. They were able to organize their own church council, the Synod of Solovki Bishops, and even issued the legendary “Message from the Solovki” to the government of the USSR, accusing the authorities of persecuting the Church. Over time, the conditions of incarceration became much harsher.
The Solovki was a place where the opponents of the new regime were kept strictly isolated. The prison population was very diverse, from political prisoners of all creeds and members of the White Movement to criminals and gang members. Two hundred soldiers of the Solovki Regiment guarded the prisoners. At times there were bloody clashes between the soldiers and the camp inmates, which claimed lives. Many people died as a result of in-prison crimes that went unpunished.
The number of prisoners was growing like a snowball every year. While there were 2.5 thousand prisoners on the islands in 1923, it took just one year for the prison population to reach almost 13 thousand. Since 1926, all prisoners were involved in heavy physical labor in the most difficult natural conditions. Prisoners were tortured and humiliated. Convicts were forced to drag logs or stones from place to place, count seagulls or sing Internationale, the proletarian anthem, loudly. If anyone stopped singing, the guards would kill several people at once. The number of prisoners reached 70 thousand hungry and freezing people by the 1930s.
Terrible living conditions, cold, famine, abuse, and shootings claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and made these islands known as one of the places where the Russian Church and the Soviet people were tortured. The commemoration of the Synaxis of New Martyrs and Confessors of Solovki was established in 2000 by the decree of Alexis II, the Patriarch of Moscow. The Synaxis included hundreds of people, from bishops to ordinary laymen, who had managed not only to preserve their human dignity, but also to testify about Christ and save the souls of fellow inmates.