Islands of Prayer
Solovki by Roy Robson, Touching Heaven by John Oliver
Solovki: The Story of Russia Told Through Its Most Remarkable Islands
Touching Heaven: Discovering Orthodox Christianity on the Island of Valaam
reviewed by Richard J. Mammana, Jr.
In the first centuries after Christ, men and women withdrew from the world in droves to lead lives of ascetic discipline and holiness. One important center of this incipient monastic movement was the desert of Egypt’s Thebaid—the background against which such important saints as Anthony, Paul the Hermit, Pachomius, and Athanasius lived and prayed.
In Russia, their spirit of prayer, work, striving, and unceasing ascetic effort crystallized centuries later as podvig, a word with no exact English equivalent. Its natural setting was the waste-places of Russia’s north, a Northern Thebaid in which the islands of Solovki and Valaam stand out as shining examples of Russia’s inheritance of the Christian faith in the fullness of its vitality and power.
These two fascinating books tell the stories of Solovki and Valaam from different perspectives. Robson writes as a historian, careful about dates, individual biographies, and the grand sweep of a nation’s history through the lens of one holy place. Touchstone contributor John Oliver does not mention the history of Valaam in any depth, but writes movingly and lucidly about his own encounter with the riches of Orthodox Christianity on Valaam while working to restore its buildings on a summer work-pilgrimage of three weeks in 1994. Oliver picks up where Robson leaves off, and the result is a delightful, moving, noteworthy publishing coincidence.
Saints & Salt
Monastic life on the remote White Sea island of Solovki began in the early fifteenth century with the arrival of Saints Herman and Savvatii from other monasteries in which they had been unable to find the spirit of monastic simplicity, seclusion, and discipline they desired.
Pilgrims and monks began to arrive in due course, and the monastery’s economic supremacy in the region—based on salt production and fishing—helped it to become a thriving center of Russian culture and religion. Coenobitic and eremitic monasticism existed side by side on the island, reflecting what Robson calls “the complementary philosophies” of Solovki’s most important saints, Savvatii and Zosima.
In times of national turmoil on the mainland, Solovki’s isolation allowed it to serve as an anchor of stability and authority when Moscow or Novgorod succumbed to invasion and Tartar domination, or when disputes about succession to the throne in the sixteenth century paralyzed both Church and crown. Solovki’s strategic importance led to the construction of impregnable defenses around the main monastic compound, walls so well constructed that they withstood heavy bombardment by English warships during the Crimean War.
In addition to serving as a bulwark of northern Russian life, Solovki was also the location of notorious monastic prisons in which those sentenced for blasphemy, lèse-majesté, or ecclesiastical infractions might languish without a glimpse of the sun for decades at a time. This would prove a horrific precedent after the Soviet seizure of power.
The same monastery that held back sieges of years’ duration during the beginning of the Old Believers’ schism “fell, without a fight, into Communist Party control” in 1920. The Soviets first attempted to collectivize the monks, who continued to wear their habits and to keep up a modicum of liturgical observance.
After a year of successful agricultural labor and fishing which even gained the praise of the local commissar, the able-bodied monks were deported to the mainland to be swallowed up by the Gulag. About 150 elderly and infirm monks were left “to grow their own food or to die.”
Fire gutted the monastic buildings in 1923, destroying church after church in the complex for three entire days. Soon after, Solovki became the keystone of the “Northern Special Purposes Camps” for former imperial officials, members of noncommunist political parties, clergy, criminals, and other individuals who were unnecessary to the new régime.
Systematic dehumanization, torture, and forced labor culminated in summary execution for uncounted thousands until the prisoners were evacuated in 1939 as the Soviet Union prepared to annex Finland and decided against the location of an important penal colony in the direct path of a projected invasion.
Silence descended on the ruined island after World War II and continued until a call for the reappraisal of Solovki’s place in Russian cultural history under Khrushchev in the 1960s. A steady stream of guidebooks, tourist visits, monographs, and calls for preservation culminated in 1992 with UNESCO’s decision to enroll Solovki and its surrounding islands with places like the Taj Mahal and Chartres Cathedral as a World Heritage Site. Monks have now returned to the island to recommence its interrupted life of podvig and to restore its buildings.
Valaam’s history of monastic fame, sanctity, and prestige as a pilgrimage destination parallels that of Solovki. Founded by Athonite monks in the tenth century on an island in Lake Ladoga between St. Petersburg and Finland, Valaam was spared the destruction of its monastic life by falling within the territory allotted to Finland after the First World War.
However, all inhabitants of the monastery were ordered to leave Valaam and its surrounding islands by military order by early 1940, and the archipelago changed hands several times during World War II. In 1944, the island was handed over to the Soviets, to be devoid of monastic life for the next half-century.
Monks returned to Valaam around 1989 to find ruined buildings and impoverished Soviet villagers living among what were once sketes (houses of monks living together), churches, and pilgrims’ hostels. By 2003, there were 150 monks, five active sketes, and strong, unmistakable signs of continued growth in the renewed community.
Between the return of the monks and their current period of growth, a significant amount of reconstruction work was necessary. Into the breach came a group of Orthodox Christian volunteer laborer-pilgrims, one of whom was seminarian John Oliver. (In czarist days, worker-pilgrims were known as trudniki on both Valaam and Solovki. They stayed for indefinite periods of time and worked for the monastery in return for hospitality.)
Oliver’s account of life and work on Valaam is remarkable for its humility, good humor, perceptiveness, and depth. Prayer punctuates long days of work, conversations with other trudniki, and a series of important realizations about the Christian faith. Oliver’s own journey to Orthodoxy began with life as the son of a Protestant clergyman, continued through a period of personal study with an Orthodox priest, and has a sort of fulfillment in his brief meeting with Elder Raphael, a staretz who embodies today the tradition of saints like Theophan the Recluse, Seraphim of Sarov, and Cleopa of Sihastria.
Under Elder Raphael’s guidance, Oliver grows more fully into the Orthodox faith that he has embraced, and Valaam’s wilderness and sweat are his indispensable companions in this process: “Deep in a northern Russian forest of jade and brown [. . .] Valaam Monastery sinks into the seasons of the year as it has for a thousand years before. . . . It is quiet here, and these quiet roots run deep.”
He soon finds that “in our world, the treasure of stillness” as attained on Valaam “requires a fierce guarding.” Impatience, distraction, and confusion return soon after he leaves, but the gift of his pilgrimage endures as a constant reminder of the love of God revealed in a holy place and time to a grateful and receptive man. Touching Heaven is not just profound, lyrical, intense, and powerful; it is also true in its depiction of a man’s progress from spiritual milk to spiritual meat.
Both books are finally about waking up from twentieth-century nightmares—nightmares in which the holy and beautiful were destroyed simply for being holy and beautiful, and in which evil appeared briefly to triumph.
Robson’s history of the beginnings and acme of life on Solovki moves sadly and painfully into its destruction, and touches only briefly on its return. (The monastery is now pictured on the reverse of the 500-ruble note.) Oliver shows readers the vigorous return to sanity and sanctity of men and women engaged in reconstructing not just buildings, but Christian society itself where it had been rooted out.
Richard J. Mammana, Jr., and his wife Mary live in New York City, where they are members of the Church of the Resurrection. He is the founder and director of Project Canterbury (www.justus.anglican.org/resources/pc), an initiative to make classical Anglican documents available free of charge through the Internet.
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