The islands of martyrdom. From monastery to Soviet work camp


‘The monastery of the Solovki islands, in the far north of Russia, on an archipelago in the White Sea, is one of the most significant places in the history of the Russian people. It was founded in the mid-15th century, following the growth of monastic fervour begun by Saint Sergius of Radonez in the second part of the 14th century and for some years carried on by Saint Philip, subsequently made metropolite and martyrised by Ivan the Terrible. In 1920, following the revolution, the monastery of the Solovki islands was transformed into a “model work camp” by Lenin, who here experimented the organisation and life style of future Gulags. It became one of the “Colosseums of the 20th century” (as John Paul II put it), in which numerous believers were imprisoned, both Catholics and Orthodox. This work camp is mentioned in some of the most terrible and poetic pages of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. The exhibition on this place is split into two parallel concepts that cut across each other, the work camp and the monastery, through photographic documentation, architectural surveys, written documents and testimonies. Holiness is the idea at the bottom of the exhibition, which continues throughout time, assuming different shapes, but forever proclaiming Christ as the presence that changes life: the monks who create a paradise in the terrible natural surrounding of the far north, the martyrs who make Christ a reality and life more human in the hell of the work camp. This way, life is not a dream but Presence. The exhibition is made up of three sections: the work camp, the stories, the monastery. In the first are presented documents and details on how the work camp came into existence, starting with the secret letter sent by Lenin to Molotov in 1922. The exhibits provide an idea of how the Soviet authorities gradually learnt how to “manage” a work camp. There is a gradual worsening of living conditions in the camp throughout the ’20s until, at the end of that decade and early-30’s it became a true extermination camp. Though, in the early years, religious activity was allowed (even the Catholics had a chapel), this was subsequently forbidden. The priests were deported to smaller islands. The first part of the exhibition also documents daily life in the work camp: the huts, the food rations, the work, the medical treatment, the executions, the tortures. The second part traces the stories of believers (almost the entire Orthodox and Catholic hierarchy was imprisoned in this camp) and of foremost figures of the cultural, political and religious worlds. The third section, which is part of the history of the work camp, traces an outline of the monastery, of its founder saints, of its spirituality, of the flourishing economy and architecture of the 16th century.’


23 Agosto 1998 - 29 Agosto 1998


Exhibitions Meeting Exhibitions