The island of priests and prisoners

Solovki, 31.05.2019

It was late when I left Murmansk. I had wanted to reach the port of Rabocheostovsk by 20.00. This now seemed impossible As I drove further South I mentally prepared for camping, at about 18.30 I started to look for a places to pitch the tent. Around here there were no datchas at the lakes, there was nothing around if not a sporadic Soviet factory, a gas station or a truck parking lot every once in a while. Roads left the main highway to villages I didn’t relate to. Only very few tracks led form the highway into the forest, but they were made for UAZ jeeps and Kamaz trucks, not the low lying Mini. I tried a few ones, the sandy ground wasn’t ideal unless I wanted to get stuck, and there was also quite a lot of mud and water puddles. The Mini looked pretty dirty by now, great camouflage to be noted less around here. What ultimately made me change my mind was the amount of trash of all types that was lying around everywhere on the side of the road and wherever people seemed to stop. Now I had to drive until late. The sun was still up high and light was good as I was driving with the sun in the back. At about 21.30 I left the motorway for Kem. There was a brown sign on the road announcing the historic city of Kem. This surprised me, as I hadn’t ready anything historic about the town before. When I reached Kem after 20 mins on a pretty tough road, I started to understand the meaning of “historic”, or “from the past”. As in, a third of the buildings were abandoned and crumbling to pieces, many more were no longer standing upright. Ruins were everywhere, of houses of all types, wood or concrete. Also the military barracks at the entrance of town had a ruin section with wooden watchtowers. This was a desolate place, and the one hotel at the entrance of town looked pretty bad and half closed. As I kept on driving I started to get nervous. St. Petersburg was still over 900 km away, meaning a whole night’s drive after an already long day. Reaching Rabocheostovsk the situation became even worse. Here the wooden houses were crumbling to sawdust, some houses were sliced open, broken down or burnt out, littering the roadside. My offline Google maps showed a café at the end of town. As I reached it there was a closed gate with a ward’s house. A man came out, said something in Russian, then opened the gate and indicated a “reception”. I parked the Mini, and walked towards a brand new house made of tree trunks.

The reception of this place was run by three women, sitting behind the counter. The oldest one, with neat blond hair and glasses, had a friendly look but spoke only Russian. Number two had long dark hair, and was deeply focussed at her phone to avoid having to speak non-Russian. The last woman asked “What languages do you speak? English? German?” “Yes, also Spanish, French.” With a smile she started to speak in very good German and I found out they had a room for the night. As I gave them my name and car data, but then discovered that the ferries to the Solovetsky islands were all booked. Next available place on a ship was in three days, and I had to stay for two days. Not an option. The older woman went to a monitor with camera images of outside areas incl. the port, and started talking in Russian. “Maybe there is a boat tonight, but it’s not a ferry. We’ll have to go to the port to check. You have to park the car on the parking lot and pay.” “OK, let’s go.” As the Mini had no space, I drove to the port, and she took a shortcut by foot. When we met at the port I asked if the season had already started. “On June 1st. Why did you not book in advance?” “I had no idea it was so busy and that I had to book. Also, I didn’t find your hotel online.” At the port, there was one modern boat (from the hotel), and a few pretty beat up smaller ones. Several men were loading food, toilet paper packs and drinks on one of the boats. She asked for the captain, and it turned out he was about to leave. The travel time was three hours, instead of the normal two. “It’s 1.800 rubels and you pay on the island.” “When does he come back?” “It’s not clear, but he will come back tomorrow. You should get your stuff, park the car and pay at the reception.” So I did. This was the first time I couldn’t pay by card, and luckily I had found some rubles in the Barcelona warehouse that now saved me. On the way back to the car the woman came running towards me. “They’re leaving, come on, let’s run.” We both started to run to the boats. I stopped at the Mini, quickly got my bag with my clothes out, threw in camera, laptop, cables, drone, controller and ran off to the pier. “So, Boris, there’s a good hotel on the island, they’re open 24h and have a restaurant. There are many hotels, but this one is good for you. The boat comes back tomorrow, leaving at 13.30 from the same place where you will arrive. The captain knows he has to bring you back to us.” “Thank you so much for organising all this. I’ve reserved a room at the reception with you for tomorrow.” “OK good, get on the boat.” “What’s your name?” “Ilona.” “Thank you. See you tomorrow.” She hugged me and smiled.

Off to the Solovetsky islands in the last sunlight at 22:30.
Trust the captain.

The captain got me on the boat and put me straight into the front cabin, together with a ton of cucumbers, cheese, yogurt and a family with a father, his daughter and his mother. The father set up the smartphone so the girl could watch a kid’s movie during the crossing. As we left the port, I went up to the deck to get some fresh air and see the last sun light. The crew told me to hold the railing and cover up. It was 23.00 and the sun was still shining in bright red on the horizon. There was food all over the boat, sacks of onions were covering the window of the front cabin. At the back of the ship was a group of people drinking beer and eating sausages, in bright yellow jackets. The captain and two crew were all pretty rustic guys, in military-style clothing. Three icons decorated the switchboard. The White Sea’s water was rather brown-ish. As we passed the last islet in front of the port it became pretty cold. In the rush I hadn’t managed to grab the right clothing from the Mini and was freezing now. When I entered the cabin, the girl started to cry. The grandmother asked what happened, and apparently an animal had died in the movie she was watching ant it broker her heart. I started to write until my eyes closed, put the laptop away and tried to lie down as good as possible on the bench in the cabin.

At 02.00 the ship reached the island. I was cold and had had no dinner, my back hurt from the uncomfortable bench, and the clothes were too light. The sun was going up again behind the Monastery. People where taking off. I paid the captain with my last Rubles and we agreed to meet again at 1500 when his boat would sail back. Ilona had said 13.30, the captain 15.00. I confirmed twice he meant a different time. Now the next challenge was to find the hotel. Ilona had said it was a multi-house complex with wooden buildings. And it was supposed to be decent and with a restaurant. So I walked towards the village over the bumpy dirt tracks filled with stones and puddles. The Mini would have died here. About 10 mins later a Japanese jeep honked behind me, and one of the guys from the boat picked me up. The family from the boat was also there. They drove me to the hotel at the other end of town, that I would never have found myself. Everything was closed at this time, but then a man walking between the buildings saluted and called somebody. Three young girls came around a corner. “Do you speak English?” Wow, such a fluent welcome was a first! “Sorry we no speak English, very bad.” Never mind, just get me into bed with a warm blanket. They got their best English out and showed me the way to the room.

Breakfast at the cafeteria was basic but life saving. The last proper meal was 24h ago. The friendly man that brought me coffee and omelette asked if I also wanted lunch. “I have to leave at 15.00 and don’t know if I’ll make it.” Leaving the room, I dropped my bag at the reception, that was now manned by a guy un suit and tie and a bit formal. A woman at a laptop was sitting behind him and helped with the English. I got my camera and drone out and went for a walk. Not far from the hotel was a tiny wooden house with a Sberbank branch. The bankomat didn’t speak English and didn’t give cash to foreign cards. So I asked the lady behind the counter. She would give me cash, but at a hefty 4% commission. I would come back later.

The monastery looks impressive from the outside with its walls made of huge stones and thick round towers, whose roofs resemble Gandalf’s hat. The rest of the town is in dire conditions, no buildings older than at most 100 years and a lot of ruins, both of houses and vehicles. Since the 1990 some monks have reactivated the religious function of the complex that was suppressed by the Soviets in the 1920ies. I saw two of them on the site, walking very concentratedly. The monastery was converted into the first and prototype Gulag, for counterrevolutionary writers and later also other types of unliked people. Reading Solzhenitsyn many years ago such a place seemed surreal and remote, now I was standing in the first such camp. After the recent clean ups it looked nothing like a prisoner camp. No trace of this part of history is to be found here today. The focus of modern day Russia (the monastery is state property) is all on the religious heritage. Inside restoration is going on, and a few artefacts like bells, cannons or big barrels stand around. Although this is a Unesco site, it doesn’t seem made to really explain the place to visitors in its full historical complexity and what is has meant for the country.

Nature on the island was very beautiful and rough, the sea adding its own touch of fascination. So I walked through town on a road that leads to the other end of the island. Outside of town the road became a mud track decorated with a lot of deep tractor and jeep tracks with brown water puddles. Trying to fly the drone to get some great aerial shots of the monastery the app told me I was in a no-fly zone: the airport was nearby, the drone didn’t take off. No drone pics today. It started to rain. I aborted the field trip and walked back to the hotel. Stopping at Sberbank I got cash. The lady looked a lot less friendly now and closed the bank right after I left. The soft spoken gentleman from the hotel’s bistro opened the place for me and prepared a three course lunch, with tea from local herbs. He spoke a fragile but neat English and was very polite. One of the girls from last night got me a transfer to the port in a jeep. On time I showed up as the boat was being unloaded. The captain came out and told me he’d take off later, one and a half hour to wait. He put me in a cabin at the port with a TV showing toothpaste and washing powder commercials, entertainment shows and world news in Russian. Russia on TV was all smiling children, modern homes, youngsters with smartphones and trolleys traveling, whitewashed tattoo rebels, the Russian version of diversity with a few central Asian faces and the occasional black rapper guy, and a lot of older and pretty robust ladies. Of course Vladimir Vladimirovich featured prominently during the first minutes of the news, as subjects reported orderly on topics of interest as he nodded approvingly and smiled, and in the end gave his verdict. This could have been “Vlad’s next superstar”. Foreign minister Sergei Viktorovich handled the serious stuff, signing deals with an earnest looking Japanese delegation. Then off to local stories like children’s park openings in a city. Smiling kids, happy young parents, happy babushkas. The world was a prosperous and safe place in black and white with light shades of red, here in my cozy cabin in the port of Solovki. A friendly looking older guy came in, the face marked by life and the sea. He smiled and made me a hot and sweet instant coffee with biscuits. Everybody had been very friendly so far around here, in a rustic and at the same time warm way, breaking the language barrier with good deeds. I need to work on my karma, as this is going very one way so far. It is an unusual situation for me to not be able to speak to the people around me, and it drives me mad. Back in NYC I had started a Russian language course that I ditched after a handful of sessions, as the teacher was so erratic I didn’t learn anything. In a handful of days on the motorway in Belarus and Russia I refreshed more of my Cyrillic alphabet than in several weeks of class. I wish I had finished that course. If I could connect with the people here it would be so much more fun, and I could understand more of what I’m seeing and whom I’m meeting!

They called me to board with three dudes in camo clothing that needed a shave more urgently than me. In my cozy hut I had asked if the sea was OK and got a “njet, no problem” back. That didn’t sound good. And indeed the journey back was rough, the sea rocked the boat to all sides heavily. From inside the fuel perfumed cabin the land seemed to move scarily up and down and sideways. I sail, so I’m used to the sea, but usually from a point where I can see it and breathe fresh air. Cabins make me sick. The three dudes and I all tried to fall asleep. They succeeded a lot better than me. I started to count. 21, 22, 23, 24, big wave from the side, 35, 36, 37, big wave from the front, 31, 33, 37, 36… In all languages. The three hours seemed to never end. My back started to hurt again. My feet froze. And then somehow it was over very suddenly.

Back at the hotel Ilona greeted me, I checked in and she showed me my room. “The restaurant is very good if you want to eat. It’s on the right of the way to the port that we took yesterday.” “The place with the party?” “Yes, that one, sorry.” The restaurant building was the most beautiful of the whole compound, that in general was in stark contrast to the village nearby. Here there’s a world of perfect brand new and very beautiful wooden houses, there everything is rotting and falling to pieces. Here a big café and a souvenir stand, there not even a bankomat in the entire village. I stepped in, and when I opened the second door into a big hall, I was hit a blast of Russian electronic dance party music. A horde of kids ran towards me screaming, chasing each other, waving balloon sticks, shouting and laughing. The young parents were elegantly dressed up for their kids’ party night to celebrate the end of the school year. Princess mothers with princess daughters, suit and tie fathers with suit and tie sons. The waitress, also very elegantly dressed, was overwhelmed, but kept her cool and gave me the english menu. Fish night. Well, sort of “night” – now that I was back on the mainland, at 22.00 the sky cleared up and the sun was hanging low on the horizon, shining into my room through the window while I tried to fall asleep.

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