The Synaxis of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Solovki is commemorated on 23 (10) August, by the edict of Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia of 25 March 2000.
Solovetsky Islands, where the great Russian saints of old had performed their great ascetic feats, became the place of martyrdom for two million innocent people after the Russian Revolution (1917). In the inhumanly harsh conditions of their imprisonment, many had only one end to look forward to, a painful death. But despite the harshness of their captors, a ceaseless prayer for Russia rose above the island, like the inextinguishable light of a prayer lamp. Even in the most oppressive years, the prisoners enjoyed more inner freedom and freedom of spirit than many free men and women in mainland Russia.
View of the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Solovetsky Stavropegic Male Monastery
“Solovki is a rare place of prayerful contemplation, where the finite spirit of man meets God's spirit of eternity. The dark fluff of centuries-old firs merges with the faint blue of the cold sea, with only a thin white line of barely visible surf. All is quiet and peaceful. In this northern sea, storms are a rare occasion.
In the depth of the dark green thicket, there is also silence. A few spiky firs are speaking to a handful of slender birches in a barely audible whisper, like pairs of newlyweds. Silky mosses and dense ferns are looking to cover their roots, frozen in the cold of a long winter. But mushrooms are abundant, and there is an astounding variety of any kind..."
Russian writer Boris Shiryaev wrote this account of the Archipelago's scenery. He was one of the few fortunate survivors of the Solovki Special Purpose Prison camp.
Writer Boris Shiryaev
A hermit monk named Savvatii of the Monastery of Saint Cyril at Belozersk set sail for the archipelago in the 15th century, together with his companion, Monk Herman. They landed at Mount Sekirnaya, where they put up a cross and built a cell. Later, another holy ascetic came to this place, Monk Zosimas, followed by a host of hermits searching for a place to pray in solitude in the service of God.
Life here was never easy, with temperatures of minus forty in wintertime, and myriads of blood-sucking insects in the summer. The brethren were saved by their labours. They built the monastery walls and churches, rock after rock. With their rough tired hands, they pulled fish nets out of the sea, tilled the land of the gardens and debarked the thick stalks of trees. In the toil of the day, the monks practised an unceasing prayer for Russia. The spiritual bonds between the generations remained alive, and new ascetics continued to flock to the islands.
According to tradition, the venerable Zosimas prayed hard one night and all the wolves left the islands. No longer was the holy land stained by the blood of people, or even animals or other God's creations.
Icon of the Venerable Zosima, Herman, and Sabbatius of Solovki
However, by some unlikely twist of the imagination of the Soviet leaders, the Solovetsky archipelago turned from a holy land into one of the most horrible death camps.
At the top of the Church of the Holy Transfiguration, a red flag was now flying, guardsmen flanked the monastery walls and true hell was reigning inside.
A part of the Soviet "planned economy", it became a locus of hard meaningless labour and physical extermination.
... This place was the final destination for scores of prisoners, who arrived hungry, thirsty, and freezing, after hours and days of travelling, never to leave alive again.
They stood for a roll call. The master of the island, or its chief, Comrade Nogtev, and his deputy Vaskov were checking the names of the prisoners against the lists. In his salutation, Vaskov called the prisoners "rooks", adding that the camp was under Solovetsky, not Soviet, rule.
Another prisoner steps out from the ranks of the new arrivals. He bears himself with calm and dignity, like he did in the past, as a senior-ranking army officer. Suddenly, he falls dead in front of all the other prisoners. They had not heard a shot, and only realized what had happened when Vaskov called a guard to remove the prisoner's body.
For each new prisoner, the roll call was a brush with death, as prisoner Boris Shiryaev experienced. One or two people were shot dead each time simply to destroy in the prisoners the memory of once being dignified citizens. Every prisoner was supposed to know that every step of their way and their very lives were at the mercy of their masters and their wild, intoxicated phantasies.
Leadership of the Solovetsky camp. Nogtev - second from the left in the first row
Offences like failing to meet "production targets", such as cutting and girdling ten trees in a day – were punished by placing the offender in an unheated shed for the night. Most did not survive the punishment and froze to death by the morning. During summertime, offenders were tied to a tree for several days without their shirts on, to be eaten alive by blood-sucking insects over several days.
The archipelago's prison population varied from 15 to 25 thousand. Seven to eight thousand died each winter from scurvy, tuberculosis and exhaustion. Over half of the prisoners died in 1926-27 from a typhus epidemic. When the navigation season started in May, new prisoners were brought into the camp, and by November, the number of prisoners exceeded the camp's holding ability.
Such was the daily routine of thousands of people who suffered the hardships of the prison camp, out of the view of the "new generations" of Soviet citizens.
... Their lives and backgrounds differed. However, the confessors of the faith imprisoned in the Solovetsky camp numbered 29 bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church by 1926. At the camp, they formed a church body, the Convention of the bishops of Solovetsky Camp.
Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Solovetsky camp
The church hierarchs and clergy were a fairly organized group of prisoners, led by the ruling bishop of Solovki. In 1926, the Convention undertook an act of great courage: they drafted and signed a petition to the Soviet government (known as the Solovetsky Camp Petition), detailing the facts of official persecution against the church that violated the constitutional principles of non-intervention of the state in church affairs.
The petition's authors wrote:
"We, the undersigned, fully understand the difficulties of establishing a mutually cordial and benevolent relationship between the Church and State under the given circumstances and do not consider it appropriate to remain silent about it.
To say that there are no disagreements between the Orthodox Church and the rule of the Soviet Republics would be a pointless lie and a violation of the dignity of the Church. But these differences are not what the politically suspicious or the enemies of the Church are saying. The Church does not concern itself with the distribution, or nationalization of the wealth, as it has always left these matters to the authority of the state, for whose actions it was not responsible.
The root of our differences is the irreconcilable opposition of the teachings of the Church to materialism, the official philosophy of the Communist Party and the authorities of the Soviet Republics under its leadership. No compromise, concession or reframing of its teachings in the spirit of Communism on the part of the Church could lead to its rapprochement with the State.
The attempts of the Renewalists to move in this direction have been futile and miserable. The Orthodox Church will not follow this unworthy route. It will make no full or partial revisions to its doctrine, which has evolved over centuries, for the sake of one of many passing social sentiments."
The drafters called for full practical implementation by the authorities of the separation of the church state, and a clear delineation of the responsibilities of both. The text was uncompromising in all matters of religious freedom. It was a declaration of loyalty to the truth in the face of torment and the threat of physical death.
Martyrdom at the Solovetsky camp was the fate of many clerics, bishops and parish priests alike. Archbishop Pyotr (Zverev) met his death at the prison hospital at Anzer, known for its mistreatment of prisoners. He died from typhus during an epidemic. Bishop Hilarion (Troitsky), who inspired and comforted many prisoners with his example of generosity and Christian love, died from typhus after his release from the camp.
Archbishop Hilarion (Troitsky) in the Solovetsky camp, 1923
Shootings, illnesses, hunger, and exhaustion took the lives of many. But some met their martyrdom at the infamous "Sekirka", of whom Father Nikodim, from Poltava, was one. Boris Shiryaev recounted his feat in his writings.
Father Nikodim was an elder. He received no parcels or letters from his family (perhaps because they did not know his whereabouts), but he still comforted believers in the camp with his much-needed words of guidance. He descended to the smallest and deepest cells on ropes and posed as an actor of the prison theatre troupe to hear the confessions of the repentant women prisoners whom he had brought to God with his patience and humility.
Father Nicodemus died of suffocation or hypothermia in a deep basement cell. The martyrs also included countless members of the laity left buried in mass graves and marshes, on the slopes of Mount Anzero or at the foot of Mount Sekirnaya. They were aristocrats, academics, generals and common peasants. For his righteous and pious life, the fellow villagers of Piotr Alexeevich, a peasant, chose him to be their Tsar when they learned about the killing of Russia's last Tsar Nicholas Romanov.
Pyotr Alexeevich, a strong and bulky man, continued to govern with dignity even in the confines of the camp. As a popular 'tsar', he deterred the criminal thugs at the camp from attacking the political prisoners and taking their possessions. Like many others, he did not live to see his release and was one of many victims of the typhus epidemic.
Photos and data of prisoners at Solovki
Also martyred at the Solovetsky Prison camp was a seventy-year-old woman, who served as a hand-maid at the Royal Court. She prepared her cellmates for the first visit from Father Nicodemus. She accepted her fate with exceptional humility and worked selflessly to ease the suffering of the inmates in the typhus isolation barrack of the camp until her last breath. Hundreds of thousands shared their fates.
Alexander Sakharov, archpriest (+1927)
Alexander Orlov, archpriest (+1937)
Alexander (Shchukin), Archbishop of Semipalatinsk (+1937)
Amfilokhii (Skvortsov), Bishop of Yenisei (+1937)
Anatoly (Grisyuk), Metropolitan of Odessa and Kherson
Anthony (Pankeev), Bishop of Belgorod (+1937)
Arkady (Ostalsky), Bishop of Bezhetsk (+1937)
Vasily (Zelentsov), Bishop of Priluk (+1930)
Vladimir (Lozina-Lozinsky), archpriest (+1937)
Vladimir Medvedyuk, archpriest (+1937)
German (Ryashentsev) (+1937)
Damaskin (Tsedrik), Bishop of Starodubsk (+1937)
Damian (Voskresensky), Archbishop of Kursk (+1937)
Evgeny (Zernov), Metropolitan of Nizhny Novgorod (+1937)
Zakharia (Lobov), Archbishop of Voronezh (+1937)
Ignatius (Sadkovsky), Bishop of Skopinsky (+1938)
Hilarion (Troitsky), Archbishop of Vereya (+1929)
John Skadovsky, priest
John Steblin-Kamensky, archpriest (+1930)
Iosaf (Zhevakhov), Bishop of Mogilev (+1937)
Juvenaly (Maslovsky), Archbishop of Ryazan (+1937)
Nicholas Vostorgov, archpriest (+1930)
Nicodim (Kononov), Bishop of Belgorod (+1918)
Nicholas (Pravdolyubov), archpriest (+1941)
Onisim (Pylaev), Bishop of Tula (+1937)
Peter (Zverev), Archbishop of Voronezh (+1929)
Procopius (Titov), Archbishop of Kherson (+1937)
Seraphim (Samoilovich), Archbishop of Uglich (+1937)
Amvrosy (Polyansky), Bishop of Kamenets-Podolsk (+1932)
Athanasius (Sakharov), Bishop of Kovrov (+1962)
Victor (Ostrovidov), Bishop of Glazov (+1934)
Nicholas (Lebedev), archpriest (+1933)
Peter Cheltsov, archpriest (+1972)
Roman (Medved), archpriest (+1937)
Sergius (Goloshchapov), archpriest (+1937)
Sergius (Pravdolyubov), archpriest (+1950)
Veniamin (Kononov), archimandrite (+1928)
Innokenty (Beda), archimandrite (+1928)
Nikifor (Kuchin), hieromonk (+1928)
Nikon (Belyaev), hieromonk (+1931)
Anna Lykoshina (+1925)
Vera Samsonova (+1940)
Vladimir Pravdolyubov (+1937)
Stefan Nalivaiko (†1945)