Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

People and Islands

Courtesy of Alexander Trofimov
When most people were on summer vacation, Alexander Lapenko was working 10 hours a day, six days a week in a reconstructed ship dock of the Solovetsky monastery.

He is the head of a four-person team building St. Peter, a 12-meter wooden ship they are aiming to complete in 2011. The prototype for St. Peter sailed the White Sea 310 years ago, taking Peter the Great to the Solovetsky Islands.

Historical shipbuilding is one of the many activities of the Northern Seafaring Fellowship, a loosely knit group of people with one thing in common: their vision of what the Solovetsky Islands stand for.

Courtesy of Alexander Trofimov
The Peter and Paul Chapel, restored by the Northern Seafaring Fellowship in 2001.
The Solovetsky archipelago is made up of six large islands and a number of smaller ones. It is located in the northern part of a White Sea bay called Onezhsky Zaliv. Vastly different histories converge at the Solovetsky Islands, home to a 500-year-old monastery and once a horrific prison camp that served as a blueprint for the gulag system. Reconciling the two and determining what the future of the islands, the monastery and the museum complex should be has been a sore dilemma for years.

Dmitry Lebedev is one member of the fellowship who brings people together for various projects and publishes articles on the fate of the Solovki, currently pulled in two conceptually opposite directions.

"One is a large recreational tourist center with well-developed hotel and transportation infrastructure. The other is a religious, spiritual and educational center," he said. "I personally am in favor of the latter, because high volume and mass culture dilute meaning even in a holy place."

Many members of the fellowship share this view, despite the fact that it is not a religious group, and its relationship with the monastery is not entirely symbiotic.

Their organization started with just one person, Sergei Morozov, a historian from St. Petersburg who abandoned a promising research career and came to live on the islands in the 1980s. Morozov started working in the Solovetsky Museum, taught seafaring to local schoolchildren and gave inspiring tours around the monastery and surroundings. His charismatic personality and enthusiasm attracted like-minded people, including Lebedev, to the islands. Morozov died in 2001, but other tovarishchi of the fellowship decided to keep the Solovki mission going, investing their summer time and labor into their vision of Solovki. Most of them do not live on the islands, returning to spend the cold winter months in their homes in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Arkhangelsk and other Russian cities.

For many, such as Lapenko, coming to Solovki was life changing.

"I worked as an engineer in a construction company," he said, "but then decided to leave everything and build boats, something I often dreamed about."

"We are an association in spirit," said Alexander Trofimov, a Moscow filmmaker who made a documentary in 2006 about Sergei Morozov and his legacy. "We don't meet regularly and some of us don't go to Solovki for years at a time, but the thought of it is always there. All of us want the Solovki idea to continue."

This summer the fellowship opened the Solovetsky Maritime Museum in the monastery's ancient ship dock. The building, constructed by monks in 1841, was used to store small fishing boats. With a combined effort of friends of the fellowship, the local restoration bureau and a student brigade from Moscow State University, the building has been restored, with the museum exposition on the inner balcony, and the builders of St. Peter working below in the same space. While learning about the history of northern seafaring, visitors can witness how complex wooden shipbuilding really is.

Courtesy of Maria Pasholok
Volunteers of the Solovetsky Maritime Museum playing inside the ship frame of St. Peter at the museum's opening this July.
"This ship is unique in that all is glued out of planks: the shell, the stringer, the fender," Lapenko said. "That really takes a long time, and requires patience and thoroughness, since excess glue has to be sanded down, raising clouds of dust. The hardest thing, and at the same time the most desirable thing, is to build the ship in the fastest possible way."

In reality, building the ship, as well as many other noncommercial projects of the fellowship, is painstakingly difficult, especially under the mounting pressure to make the islands a tourist haven. The fellowship is highly critical of this proposal. Although tourism brings money to the islands, it ruins the character and profanes the tragic legacy of the Solovetsky Islands.

"Solovki, with their imposing fortress of the Far North, are an alternative to rationalism and pragmatism," Lebedev said. "They are symbolic of a different way of life, a different time, they provide an alternative to the 'absolute' values of modern civilization and our consumer society."

Courtesy of Alexander Trofimov
Sergei Morozov, the original founder of the fellowhip, who passed away in 2001.
Many of the fellowship's members continue the tradition of monks by donating their labor to a noncommercial project.

Besides restoration and shipbuilding, the fellowship publishes books, guides and an annual "Solovetsky Almanac" with such varying subjects as poetry, saints' lives, prison camp correspondence and instructions for extracting tar from pine trees for waterproofing ships.

Most importantly, the islands serve as a symbol of what it means to be Russian.

"Solovki is like our free Kremlin," Trofimov said. "The Kremlin in the Russian capital is used inadequately -- even for an outrageous price, visitors don't see most of what is inside. Solovki is a place where people must go to find out their roots, and about themselves."

As the fate of the islands remains unclear, Lebedev attempted to answer Russia's age-old question of what to do: "Do what you are able to. Publish the magazine, write books and articles, work in the Maritime Museum, reconstruct the monument, raise the cross, build the ship, help the monastery. ... By doing this, we are defending our right to live in the country we want, not in the country imposed upon us."

For more information, visit the Northern Seafaring Fellowship web site:

The web site of the builders of St. Peter:

Traveling to Solovki requires some effort and patience. Aeroflot-Nord ( flies between Arkhangelsk, Moscow and Solovki.

You can also take a train to Arkhangelsk and a boat to Solovki through the Northern Boating Company (

The other method is taking the Moscow-Murmansk train as far as Kem, Karelia, and from there it's two to four hours by hydrofoil to Solovki.