The following conversation between Yan Smirnitsky and Yuri Brodsky originally appeared in Russian, on the website MK.ru, on October 11, 2017. It was translated by Anna Gunin.
Yuri Brodsky has recently won the Enlightener Prize, which awards outstanding Russian-language non-fiction, for his monumental new work Solovki: A Labyrinth of Transformation. The book traces the history of the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, home to a monastery and prison that became, in 1923, an infamous Soviet penal colony — the “mother of the GULAG,” in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s words. Brodsky does not position himself as a writer or philosopher; he is an exceptionally modest, self-effacing man, offering up facts for the reader’s evaluation, without imposing the usual overtones of horror, pessimism, and apocalypse. Brodsky, who has devoted his entire life to studying Solovki, invites us to reflect — calmly, without bitterness or ulterior motives — on the beauty created by nature and on the hell man created within that beauty.
“We talked about the daring prison escapes, the humility of the monks and their mutinies against their own hierarchy. We visited the old residents of the island, tried to understand the outlook of the monks who live there today. Some wanted to see us, others weren’t too keen. The welcome we got reflects the times we live in. But Yuri firmly believes that studying Solovki is a patriotic act of love.” So writes the novelist Viktor Erofeyev, who visited the Solovetsky Islands in the summer of 2015, in his foreword to Brodsky’s book. There is nothing touristic about the place; visiting Solovki has an odd, transformative effect on people. In its own way, it is an act of cognition.
The book contains more than 500 illustrations. Brodsky is a professional photographer, but, once again, he is self-effacing. “Oh, I’m no real photographer, this isn’t about me, I was happy to use other people’s photos whenever they fitted the story. The thing is, nowadays, people aren’t too keen on reading, so we needed to show them more images, so that they would at least be tempted to read the captions. Then, once you’ve got them interested, they’ll want to read on: ‘The mountain which the monks named Golgotha was turned by the Cheka [Soviet secret police] into a site of cruel torment. In February 1929, a group of prisoners who had arrived at Anzer from the Kremlin were stripped and ordered to run naked the 3 versts (2 miles) to Golgotha, where they were given clothes from the storeroom.’ We should not judge the Solovki system,” Brodsky continues. First, it has to be understood: we need to understand why everything happened the way it did, why the islands became a laboratory, a mini-Russia, with everything that took place there later being projected onto the rest of the country.”
“This is my second major book about Solovki,” says Brodsky. “The first focused on the SLON [the Solovetsky Special Camp of the 1920-1930s, later known as the Solovetsky Special Prison]. Because under the Soviet regime we weren’t allowed to talk about or even mention the camp at Solovki. So I began collecting the prisoners’ memories, taking large numbers of photos. It was not the first Soviet camp, but it was the first camp administration — where they developed a dietary quota, a camp uniform, methods for exterminating people, methods for disposing of corpses, the use of hard labor. All this together made up Solovki. This was where it all began. And then it spread to mainland Russia.”
YAN SMIRNITSKY: But why did it all begin there?
YURI BRODSKY: I ask myself questions to which there are no answers: why SLON? Why did it happen in Russia? Why the Solovetsky Islands? That’s what the book explores: how we got here. I came to the conclusion that the Moscow version of Orthodoxy was largely to blame. Not the Orthodox Church itself, not religion itself, not Christianity, but the Moscow version of it. What I mean is, this religion, this church, was created to serve the grand dukes of Moscow. Living rulers and their relatives could be depicted in icons, in church frescos with haloes around their heads. This is where we’ve ended up.
Does Solovki remain a crucible for the less-than-radiant future?
My central argument is what happens in Solovki today will happen in Russia tomorrow. Many processes that start on the island later spread to the entire country — it’s a case of ‘precocious development.’ Right now, for example, Solovki has a particularly high birth rate. Maybe Russia will follow suit. Although there’s a logical explanation: the construction workers who come here are good-looking guys. Or another example: the Church is taking over the island, some provisions in the Constitution are not being enforced. Maybe that will begin happening in Russia. We’ll be forced to recite the Lord’s Prayer when applying for a job. Over there, all this is happening already. The head of the monastery in charge of ideology calls up the museum curator and asks, ‘Why weren’t you in church?’ She answers, ‘I was at volleyball practice.’ And he tells her, ‘In your line of work, you should be attending each service.’ And these poor folks — they don’t have any other work, no apartment on the Russian mainland.
Here in Russia there’s a fight over the film Matilda [a historical drama, released in 2017, which depicts a romantic relationship between Tsar Nicholas II and the ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya; it has drawn criticism from the Russian Orthodox Church, which has canonized the tsar].
On the Solovetsky Islands all that happened ages ago. Those same church ideologists went to the mayor and told him to ban the screening of The Da Vinci Code at the cinema. And the film wasn’t shown. These may seem like trivial examples, but they make up the world we live in. Solovki has become the nucleus for Russian identity as a whole. That is what makes it so interesting. There are plenty of good things about the place, plenty of wonderful people — it’s all mixed up and jumbled. It is a conservation park for man as a species.
Solovki is now linked in our minds with concentration camps, mass killings, gloom, and darkness. What gave rise to this appalling chain of associations?
Andrei Bitov put together a chronology of the Gulag — a list of the events that led Russia to the Gulag. And first on his list was the founding of the Solovetsky Monastery. It may seem paradoxical, but in reality it’s all perfectly logical. How does the monastery get its start? The islands have always been inhabited: it’s a fantastically rich land, where tidal streams collide with sea currents, the water is saturated with oxygen, and oxygen means life. So we have fish, micro-organisms, sea mammals … And the people who were able to hunt there in the old days lived better than ordinary hunters or gatherers. They only lived there temporarily — coming for the summer, setting up fishing colonies, and then leaving again.
So is that how things carried on until the monastery appeared?
Until two monks, two elders, first arrived in 1429. They weren’t elderly in the modern sense, but the average life expectancy in Europe at the time was 29. And then came the ‘miracle’ that lies at the foundation of the Solovetsky Monastery. Two young men who looked like angels turned up. They captured the wife of a Karelian fisherman and beat her on a mountain that’s now called Sekirnaya, from the word ‘sech’’ — to thrash. They beat her brutally and furiously with iron rods (the kind we now use for reinforced concrete), and according to the description in the hagiography, they beat her so hard that her howls were heard for 2.5 versts (1.7 miles). After beating her, they announced: From this point on, this land will belong to the monks, otherwise you will all die a wicked death. The entire episode was declared a miracle. That’s how the monastery began. That was its origins. By the 16th century it had already become a prison. Ivan the Terrible thought that up, as a way of giving the monks something to do. It was the most feared prison in all of Rus’: the records say not even rats could survive in its dungeons, let alone humans.
Did the prison and the monastery manage to coexist?
Yes they did. The prayers of the monks and the curses of the prisoners rose up to the skies side by side. Which reached the heavens first? That’s the question. What I mean is the place was meant for this — its evolution can be traced quite easily, step by step. The monks were the executioners, the jailers, and the providers for their prisoners. And after the Revolution, everything remained much the same. First, during the Civil War, the Whites exiled their enemies to the islands, handing them over to the head of the monastery; then the Bolsheviks arrived, and they instantly turned it into a prisoner-of-war camp. And in 1923, they established SLON. What’s more, the zealots of the new regime were soon imprisoned there themselves: the first man to raise the Red Flag over Solovki was its prisoner three years later. Inexorable logic. The heads of the camp were killed one after another, and often not for serious crimes. The typical accusation was ‘loss of Party and Cheka sensibility.’ Spiders in a jar, devouring each other. It turned out there were no losers — we were all on the losing side. Around a million prisoners passed through the Solovki camps (and their branch on the mainland). But the men who created and presided over this system — they all came to the same end. There was no victor, that’s what makes it so terrible. And we have to talk about this. Especially since, with every change in government, all the Solovki paperwork was destroyed by the sackful.
Translated by Anna Gunin