A group of scholars and public figures is petitioning for a special status for the Solovetsky Islands – revered in Russia as the home of a monastery and the site of the Soviet Union’s first prison camp. In an attempt to keep the sacred site from becoming a tourist attraction and a venue for jazz festivals, the Public Chamber has sent a letter asking Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to accord the island the status of “spiritual-historic place.”
“We ask you to consider the legal basis for giving special protected status to the entire territory of the Solovetsky Archipelago, which will allow for the preservation of a memorial to the history of our country,” a statement on the Public Chamber’s website quoted the letter as saying.
The Public Chamber cites the letter from of a group of scholars who initially petitioned with the request.
“Right next to the Solovetsky Monastery and the graves of the victims of the GULAG, people are holding jazz and music festivals, controversial art exhibits, and sports events on the Holy Lake,” it cited the petition as saying.
The islands are located in the White Sea north of Russia, and housed the 15th-century Solovetsky Monastery. They were turned into a detention camp in 1921 by Vladimir Lenin and served as a prison until 1939. Under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, the islands were turned into a historical museum. The World Heritage List calls them “an outstanding example of a monastic settlement in [an] inhospitable environment.” They were further immortalized in the 2006 drama Ostrov (“The Island”) by Pavel Lungin, depicting the moral struggle of a local priest with a shadowy past.
“The Solovetsky Islands have become the Russian Golgotha of the 20th century,” Metropolitan Kliment, who heads the Public Chamber Cultural and Spiritual Preservation Commission, was quoted as saying. “There the earth is stained with blood, drenched in the tears of suffering. Each meter is a memorial to the tragedy of the last century.”
But some are questioning the legal and economic grounds for such a status.
“Maybe it’s necessary to give the Solovetsky Islands a special protected status, but it is impossible to do so because there is no Russian law for it,” the Kommersant business daily quoted Dmitri Lugovoi, the head of a local administration, as saying Monday. Meanwhile, the Russian Tourism Union, says banning tourism to the island would hurt the local population.
According to the Public Chamber, however, there is no need to stop tourism. “There might not be a legal basis to make it a ‘spiritual and historic’ place,” a spokesperson for the Chamber told The Moscow News. “But if it is accorded the status of a specially guarded territory, it will simply regulate tourism. Local authorities will no longer be able to sell land without federal permission. As for tourism, pilgrimages are becoming very popular in Russia, and if this is cultivated, then the local population will only benefit.”