The history of the Solovetsky Islands, like many attractions in Russia, also contains a dark side. The islands are perhaps best known for being the site of the Solovetsky Monastery, a fifteenth-century abbey and influential religious center. Solovetsky Russia gained notoriety in recent history as being the site of the first Soviet prison camp, established in 1921 after the October Revolution. Travelers today visit Solovki, an archipelago of six islands, mainly to see the monastery. The area is served by the Solovki airport, and the islands are located in the White Sea in the north of Russia.
Like many religious institutions, the Solovetsky Monastery was built with extreme care and delicate planning as a result of availability of funds. Sponsored by the government, buildings celebrating religion are often the most impressive across Russia. During periods of unrest, the Solovetsky Islands played a defensive role for Russia. Powerful fortresses repelled a number of foreign attacks throughout the centuries, such as during the Crimean War. In 1992, attention was once again brought to Solovetsky Russia when it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.
The USSR recognized the beauty and importance of the islands before UNESCO, and in 1974 were designated both a historical/architectural museum and a nature reserve. Transportation to the Solovetsky Islands has become more widely available, and tourists can now reach the attraction both by air or boat. Water options include boats from the towns of Kem and Belomorsk (with a ride of 2.5 hours or more), or cruise boats often depart from from Arkhangelsk and Moscow. From 1921 through the beginning of World War II, a detention camp and prison was present on the islands. This prison camp was begun during the time when Lenin was still in power, before his death in 1924.
During World War II, Solovki was recognized as a strategic location, and it become home to a naval fleet. Despite its military involvement throughout the country's history, Solovetsky Russia is still best known for its monastery. Considered one of the most important monasteries in the country, it is also one of the most well known. Its remote location made the monastery a peaceful site, but also a place of exile for the church and government. When three monks built a small monastery on a deserted island in the fifteenth century, they had no idea just how influential their religious retreat would become.
Visitors to the islands will now see exhibits regarding the Soviet gulags; this dark part of history is out in the open for tourists to learn about. For Orthodox Russians, the islands are also a place of pilgrimage. Church services are held on the islands and are open to any visitors who might be interested, but women should remember it is important to cover their heads with a scarf at any religious ceremony. When visitors see the mountains, forests, and beautiful lake, they will understand why the monks chose this remote, peaceful location in the first place for their monastery.