Solovetsky Islands, Russia – It may be an awesome photo: the soaring cupolas of the monastery rise from Russia’s White Sea just as Alexander Solzhenitsyn described them, but snap-happy tourists at the site of the Soviet Union’s most violent prison camp have drawn angry protests from priests and scholars alike.
Both camps petitioned for the Solovetsky Islands to be granted special protected status even as Russia held funeral services Wednesday for Solzhenitsyn, whose brutal accounts of the Gulag Archipelago forever exposed their tragic history.
The iconic writer, imagining how the camps would look to these eyes of a ‘newcomer’ wrote, ‘He sees that squad leaders drive workers out with long clubs. He sees that sledges and carts are drawn not by horses but by men (several harnessed naked to one rig).’
Now, the forbidding northern islands host swells of summer tourists who bathe and race sail boats in front of the 16th-century monastery’s scared walls.
Archpriest Georgy Mitrofanov on Tuesday denounced plans for a music festival on Solovetsky Island as ‘culturally profane,’ saying ‘Art of self-expression on the stones where the blood of 70,000 prisoners was spilled is immoral.’
But this indignation masks a deeper hostility between lay tourism and religious claims on the island that researchers say is a microcosm of Russia’s new efforts to cover over the nastier details of the Gulag.
‘Today in Solovki, tomorrow in Russia,’ historian Yuri Brodsky said, quoting Solzhenitsyn, whose life’s work was dedicated to recording the horrors of the camps.
On the lone pier in the impoverished town of Kem, where dazed train travelers pile out in the early morning hours to wait through the white nights for boats to Solovetsky, the awkward split in the island’s tourism trade is cartoonish.
Pilgrims in head scarfs and priests stand in line for freshly- painted pilgrim boats, masts topped with crosses and icons, while a mixed bag of campers and camera-wielding foreigners wait for the rusty-wired ferry.
About 38,000 lay tourists visit per year, but the monastery runs separate tours for a growing number of religious pilgrims.
The Soviet government first moved to purge Solovetsky of its bloody past and transform it to a tourist getaway in the 1960s, when owning a copy of Solzhenitsyn could get you jailed.
A museum was made of the monastery in 1967, but staff were forbidden to know that over 10,000 political prisoners had died there less than half a decade earlier.
Brodsky spent those summers in a race with the KGB to photograph the scrawls of prisoners on the walls, forgotten forest graves and other camp shards before they were rubbed out.
His photographs, Brodsky recalls, bulged from a folder that ‘scared everyone who saw it.’
In June of 1973, Brodsky said the KGB ‘went on a real witch-hunt’ after someone splashed in red paint across the monastery’s white- washed walls the shameful slogan ’50th Anniversary of the Soviet Special Purpose Camp.’
That was just months before Nobel Prize-winner Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union.
With Perestroika, Brodsky and other campaigners won the right to open the first exhibits dedicated to the Gulags in 1988, and the first monks returned to the monastery.
Nikolai, one of the island’s 900 year-long residents, bitterly recalled how the old tour bases of the Soviet Union were given over to the monks.
‘They didn’t have anything, people gave them mattresses and everything,’ Nikolai, 54, said at the wheel of his truck, which serves to ferry tourists in summers and acts as the local ambulance during in winters.
‘Now they are too cool,’ he grumbled about the monks. ‘Former President Vladimir) Putin gave Father Fillip a car, and Solzhenitsyn gave one to Father Nikolai.’
Researchers fear the state patronage of this religious revival seen everywhere in Solovetsky will turn into another way of blanketing over Soviet-era crimes.
On a tour of the island, Brodsky stopped at one of the simple wooden crosses that mark mass prisoner graves. Pointing to a new plaque erect over the grave, he said: ‘It lists only the names of Orthodox martyrs, but there were thousands killed and not all for their faith. It’s indecent.’
Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Centre said: ‘The memory of the Gulags is being monopolized by the church as if all the crimes were secular persecutions against it.
‘It’s a new way of obscuring the history that’s in the interest of the state,’ she said, because the church focuses on the martyrdom of the executed, rather than the crimes of their deaths, and who committed them.
Much of Russia’s leadership are ex-agents of the KGB, which has never admitted its part in running the Gulag system, notoriously in cooperation with the Orthodox Church in latter years.
As Solzhenitsyn was laid to rest Wednesday, campaigners mourned that Russia still has no national memorial or museum dedicated to the cause that drove his fearless writing.