Solovki monks erase all memory of the Gulag
by Vladimir Rozanskij

The Karelian islands were the first concentration camp of the Gulag Archipelago and a great center of spirituality. But today's monks have decided to make it a center for religious tourism, eliminating or hiding the places of martyrdom of many Christians. The hill of shootings transformed into a pavilion for weddings. Monks collaborated with Bolshevik power.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - In the collective memory of the twentieth century, the Solovki islands are sadly infamous as the first great open air concentration camp of the Soviet Gulag Archipelago, recounted by the writer Aleksandr Solzenicyn on the basis of survivors' testimonies.

Priests and bishops of all confessions were especially imprisoned on the Solovki for their religious convictions, forced to live in the "forced ecumenism" of persecution. Orthodox metropolitans and Baptist pastors died, theologians such as Pavel Florensky and the Greek-Catholic exarch Leonid Fedorov, beatified by the Ukrainian Uniate Church.

But the islands of the great Russian north - which extend beyond the Arctic Circle - are famous in Russian history for many other events. Founded in the Middle Ages by the hermits Zosima and Savvatij, they were a great center of evangelization and formation of the consciences of the Orthodox people.

One of its greatest rulers, Archimandrite Philipp (Kolychev), became Metropolitan of Moscow in the mid-1500s, and opposed the bloody dictatorship of Ivan the Terrible. This resulted in his being murdered in his cell, anticipating the fate of the bishops martyrs of the revolution. In the mid-seventeenth century the Great Lavra of the Solovki became one of the main centers of opposition to the reform of the patriarch Nikon, in that schism (the Raskol) that divided the Russian Church over the question of fidelity to its traditions.

Today the monastic island is again at the center of a heated debate, since the monks of the Lavra, led by archimandrite Porfirij (Shutov), ​​have decided to exclusively promote the memory of the holy places. In 2009 the Archimandrite was also nominated Director of the local Museum, where the relics and testimonies of the martyrs and the persecuted are kept, and the representatives of the association Memorial who were its curators were ousted.

Since then the monks have begun a systematic reduction of exhibitions related to prisoners; access to the museum is increasingly limited; graffiti and etched testimonies have all been erased from the walls of monastic cells; the buildings of the Lavra have been restructured and repainted, erasing even the ancient stones that constituted their true splendor. Throughout the territory of the islands, which in themselves represent an extraordinary ethnographic museum, the land and water routes once were open to tourists to admire the natural beauties, but also to rediscover the places of prayer and suffering of the confessors of faith, have been closed down.

The choice of Porfirij and his community is explicitly motivated by their desire to foster the spiritual dignity of the monastery, and the memories of the Lager have been removed because they are considered forms of profanation. All of this has provoked the reactions not only of the Memorial activists - already largely prevented from acting by many recent measures at the federal level, such as the closure of archives and access to places of punishment - but also of the more sensitive part of domestic and international public opinion..

In particular, the controversy focuses on the refusal of the monks in regard to the work and publications of the main historian of the Solovki, Jurij Brodskij, who in 2017 published a book entitled Le Solovki. The labyrinth of transformations, with a chapter on the monks subservient to the law, in which the thesis of the moral complicity of the monks with the authoritarian power is clearly exposed. A group of islanders, fomented by Porfirij, has issued a letter in which Brodsky is accused of having provided an offensive image of the local monks, and of instigating religious hatred against the Orthodox faithful. The local prosecutor then launched an investigation against the writer, to check the contents of the book.

On  February 3, in response, the Memorial Association organized a round table at the Moscow Sakharov Center to challenge the accusations against Brodsky. These accusations are associated with those launched against Juri Dimitrev, an exponent of the association in Karelia, the Solovki region, who was even imprisoned and later released, under pressure from international public opinion. The fate of Olga Bochkareva, former director of the Solovki Museum, sacked by archimandrite Porfirij and expelled from the island, was also mentioned, with her ban on staying there and confiscation of her apartment, the only residence she had.

According Brodsky, the most blatant example of the destruction of memory is the Sekirnaja hill, near the central church of the monastery, which was the harshest place of detention, with isolation cells. The grandfather of the current patriarch Kirill also passed through this, and next to the prison the columns to which the condemned were bound and shot. That corner, soaked with dried blood stains many feet underground, has been transformed into a party area for weddings, where you drink sparkling wine and throw confetti. From the hill itself the toboggan runs start, where children can have fun in the snow.

According to the writer the fault is certainly not that of the unsuspecting visitors, but the custodians of the place, namely the monks, who have eliminated all visible signs that recalled the tragic facts of the Solovki. Their purpose is to return the islands to the purity of monastic and ecclesiastical holiness, ignoring the sufferings related to the objections and compromises of totalitarianism. But a true purity of faith cannot be founded on the erasing of conscience.