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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sailing the White Sea to Solovki

I heard about Solovki, as Russians refer to the Solovetsky Islands, from my neighbor, a Spaniard who had come to Russia as a little girl fleeing the Spanish Civil War. She told me about a place where I "must go without a doubt."

The remote islands in the White Sea, not far from the Arctic Circle, between Karelia and Arkhangelsk, are blessed with natural beauty.

They also bear witness to centuries of history dating back to the arrival of the first monks in 1430. The 15th-century monastery later served as a fortress, a naval base and, during the 1920s and '30s, as a Soviet labor camp. In 1967, the islands received the status of a protected site, with 170 archeological, historical and architectural monuments.

I arrived by ferry from Kem, a Karelian port, and it was among the finest moments of the trip. As we approached the coast, the monastery grew in size, impressive and majestic under the magical light of the evening sun, a sun that doesn't disappear for all of June.

This image almost made me forget the long day waiting in Kem. Even if the ferry is scheduled to leave in the morning, it doesn't budge until it has enough passengers to make the trip worth while. I had the bad luck to choose a day when there were few tourists, and only after a 10-hour wait, when four people showed up to bring our total to seven, did the captain f who goes by Andryusha f personally announce that we were ready to push off.

But by the end of the four- or five-hour trip, Andryusha and I were friends, and when we arrived at Solovki, he said if I didn't find somewhere to sleep on the island, I could stay with his family on the boat. Another passenger on the boat, Dima, a 50-year-old doctor, also considered it his responsibility to look out for a young Western woman traveling on her own. He offered to give me a place in his tent and show me the island.

The Solovetsky Monastery sits on the largest of the six islands, where most of the 1,000 or so inhabitants live. It is surrounded by a stone wall about 4 meters wide and 8 meters tall, testimony to its past importance to the defense of Russia's northern frontier.

Solovki is featured on the 500-ruble note, but through a design glitch, the bill shows it not as a monastery but during its time as a prison camp.

The Soviets closed the monastery in 1920 and used its grounds to create what historians later recognized as the first labor camp in the gulag. The camp was closed in 1939 on the eve of World War II. The monastery is now being restored but slowly for lack of funds.

The scenery of Solovki is difficult to resist, with the presence of the water, the lush woods and the peaceful simplicity of life in the island's village. This sensation of complete liberty and happiness disappears when you meet the local people and the army of mosquitoes. Viktoria, Snezhinka and Klavdia, three girls of about 7 to 10 years old, earn money by guiding any tourists who will let them. The stories they tell are a mixture of history (true) and how difficult their lives are (also true).

The mosquitoes attacked all of us without mercy, but fed especially on Snezhinka. I used up my repellent trying to save her from the blood-sucking insects, although she seemed used to them. I felt a solidarity with the poor condemned prisoners who once were tied up naked in the woods overnight. They were dead by morning.

The people who live on the island survive thanks to their gardens and livestock. Cows, sheep and goats are a matter of life and death. Despite the thousands of tourists who visit Solovki every year, most come on excursions booked in Moscow or elsewhere, and little of the money finds its way to the residents. Much of what little money there is goes for vodka.

"We drink to avoid thinking about how we live," says Marina, the chief of the local meteorological station. Even her little dog drinks.

After losing the battle against the mosquitoes, I decided to look for shelter more protective than Dima's tent and found lodging with Marina and her family. There are a couple of hotels on the island for travelers who prefer proper toilets and bathrooms, but lodging with local villagers is far more interesting, although the more I learned about these people, the less I understood.

Even though salaries on Solovki are much lower than in Moscow, the price of groceries is much higher. I asked Marina how it was possible to live, and she said, "You won't understand."

In the archipelago, there are several engineering achievements: a dry dock built in 1846; a stone dike 800 meters long joining Bolshaya Muksalma island with the main Solovetsky island; and a system of 10 narrow channels that was begun by the monks in the 16th century for traveling among the 564 lakes.

Walks around the island will take you to a garden with plants not usually found so far north, a fish hatchery built in the 16th century and a stone commemorating negotiations in 1855 during the Crimean War.

On Sekirnaya mountain, the highest point of the island, is a church with a lighthouse. Here, during Solovki's gulag days, prisoners were tortured and killed. Today, visitors are rewarded with a spectacular view as the side of the mountain falls suddenly to a plain that smoothly joins the line of the sea.

At the end of my trip, I arrived at the dock to find captain Nikolai in vodka's arms, but when the time came to leave, his drunkenness disappeared as if by magic. As a treat for me and the other passengers, he made a special detour around a group of small islands to show us "the beauty of this place."