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The First Gulag

Jane Armstrong

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A museum fights to keep the memory of Stalin's victims alive, while both church and Vladimir Putin's state prefer amnesia.

November 8, 2008

SOLOVETSKY ISLANDS, Russia

Each year, thousands of Russian Orthodox pilgrims trek to these windswept islands near the Arctic Circle to pray at the onion-domed churches of a gloomy monastery that dates from the 15th century. The pristine lakes and forests also lure adventure travellers who fish and hike and sail their yachts in the choppy White Sea waters.

Less than 70 years ago, however, the Solovetsky Islands – known locally as Solovki – were the grim endpoint for the first political prisoners of the Soviet Union. Some of the country's top scientists, artists, clergymen and scholars – all branded enemies of the people by the zealous Bolshevik state – were dispatched here in overcrowded boats and thousands were worked to death.

The Solovetsky Islands monastery is seen through the window of a 19th century barracks.

The Solovetsky Islands monastery is seen through the window of a 19th century barracks. (Olga Kravets/The Globe and Mail)

The prison served as a blueprint for the vast network of slave-labour camps – “the gulag archipelago,” as the late Nobel-winning writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn named it – that spread across the Soviet Union and killed millions. The word gulag (an acronym from the Russian for “main camp administration”) became synonymous around the world with forced labour and state repression in general.

Today at Solovki, the barbed wire and metal bars are gone and towering crucifixes again sit atop the church and cathedral steeples. Orthodox services are held twice a day and millions of dollars of state funds have poured into restoring the 600-year-old fortress, which gleams like a white beacon against the grey sky.

But still there is no peace.

An unholy feud has erupted between the monastery, which is home to about 40 Russian Orthodox monks, and a small museum that runs tours and mounts exhibits about the area's storied past. The church wants to evict the museum not just from the walled monastery complex but off the islands altogether. It argues that the land was stolen by the Soviets in 1920 and should be returned to the church. The museum replies that the gulag is a vital part of Russian history and its victims must be commemorated.

Read the entire article on the Globe and Mail website (new window will open).

Posted: 09-Nov-2008



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