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Solovki: A Gulag Legacy Lies Amid Peace and Quiet

About a 150 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle lie the Solovetsky Islands. The islands, also called Solovki, are famous throughout Russia for their stark beauty, but they are also known for a Russian Orthodox monastery that was begun in the early 15th century. During Soviet times, the monastery was converted into one the first labor camps in the Soviet Union.

This monastery at Solovki dates back to 1429, when two Russian Orthodox monks looking for solitude rowed to the main island in the Solovki archipelago.

They built a small wooden monastery that was expanded by succeeding generations of monks.

Oleg Volkov is the deputy director of the local museum on Solovki, as the main island is known. Pointing to the tall ceilings of the main church, he said when it was finished in the 16th century it was the largest in all of Russia.

"Even the cathedrals of Moscow Kremlin were not so huge. It is about 50 meters high. And the walls are more than five meters thick here," he said.

For centuries, those walls were adorned with brilliantly colored religious icons and frescoes. But during the Soviet years the cathedral was transformed from a place of worship to a place of punishment. The icons were torn down, the frescoes were painted over, and the windows barred.

The monastery in Solovki became part of the Soviet Gulag, a vast network of concentration camps in which millions of people, ordinary criminals as well as political prisoners, lived - and died - under the most brutal conditions.

Solovki, however, didn't last as long as many other Soviet camps. The authorities closed it in 1939, not as an act of mercy but to save money. The camp's isolation made it too expensive to maintain. It is estimated that during its years of operation, from the early 1920s to 1939 Solovki housed a total of 100,000 people; about half of them died in the prison.

All the people on the island today moved here after the Gulag was closed. It has a year-round population of about 950 people. They are attracted by the same qualities that brought the two Orthodox monks to the island almost 600 years ago. Peace and quiet, two things Solovki has in abundance.

There is only one kilometer of paved road on the whole island, which makes life fairly easy for Solovki's lone traffic cop. In the winter, his job is even easier, as heavy snows make driving all but impossible.

During the winter, with temperatures usually around 20 or 30 degrees below freezing, Solovki is frozen shut. The only way on or off the island is by plane, which is also the only way food and other supplies can get to Solovki. Because of this, most products for sale are almost twice as expensive as on the mainland. The islanders pay a price for their isolation.

Alexander Kostin, 73, pours a cup of tea for a visitor. He came here in 1969 with his wife under a Soviet program that gave people financial incentives to move to isolated areas in northern Russia.

Mr. Kostin eagerly shows visitors pictures of his children and the house the family built in the countryside. But none of his children, now long grown, live here anymore. And he and his wife are thinking of leaving as well because it's so expensive. Just flying to the nearest mainland hospital in Arkhangelsk costs almost as much as Mr. Kostin's monthly pension.

"They pay us pensions that are small compared to Soviet times. The prices went up thousands of times. So that's how we live. We fish. We grow vegetables, mostly potatoes. Nature supports us," he said.

But for other people, living so close to nature is one of the big attractions of Solovki. Twenty-nine-year-old Lyudmilla Kamkina used to visit the island every summer and recently decided to move here. She likes its small-town atmosphere, the fact that she knows all her neighbors. For Ms. Kamkina, the island is a special place.

"People here feel better. When you come here, even if you just walk along the seashore, you can breathe with full lungs. You breath in and then you feel satisfaction that you're close to nature. You come together with the sea. The smell of seawater. Seaweed," she said.

It is that special quality Ms. Kamkina described, that drew the monks to Solovki centuries ago. And some of that special quality still remains.