Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tourists, Monks and History: Whose Islands Are They?

A prison camp on the Solovetsky Islands was closed in 1939.

SOLOVETSKY ISLANDS, Russia — Maria Smirnova barreled past the heavy granite walls of the 16th-century Solovetsky Monastery, blaring French hip-hop in her oversized truck to the consternation of the nearby monks whose long, black cloaks billowed in the northerly breeze.

Ms. Smirnova, 23, runs an adventure tour company on the Solovetsky Islands, an archipelago in the White Sea of northwestern Russia, about 100 miles from the Arctic Circle.

Though growing in popularity, her business has roiled the monks and some residents, who accuse her of sullying the island’s religious traditions and ignoring its bloody past.

The islands, also known as Solovki, are one of the holiest sites in Russian Orthodox Christianity, and the 40 or so monks who reside here consider the land their own. Their predecessors settled here in the 15th century, creating a monastic dynasty that lasted nearly 500 years. They built the white-walled Transfiguration Cathedral, capped with silver cupolas, and enclosed it in fortress-thick walls of granite. An intricate canal system linking dozens of lakes still supplies fresh water to the islands’ 1,000 inhabitants.

Fiercely opposed to religion, the Soviets imprisoned or killed most of the clergy members and lopped off the cupolas. Having only recently returned after a banishment of nearly 70 years, many of the monks are now alarmed by the efforts of entrepreneurs like Ms. Smirnova to open the islands to tourists.

Similar conflicts have arisen throughout Russia as the Orthodox Church clambers to regain land and property lost to the Soviet government before they can be grabbed by adherents of the new capitalist ethos.

“This land, is it a means for earning money or is it a holy place?” asked Archimandrite Mifodi, the acting head of the monastery. “The two cannot exist together.”

With the backing of the Russian Orthodox Church, he is pressing the government, which administers the islands, for control of the monastery and other religious sites, though a decision has not been made.

The issue, however, runs deeper than just a dispute over land use and property rights.


No comments: