Roy R. Robson “Solovki: The Story of Russia Told Through Its Most Remarkable Islands” [Yale University Press, 2004]
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“Located in the northernmost reaches of Russia, the islands of Solovki are among the most remote in the world. And yet from the Bronze Age through the twentieth century, the islands have attracted an astonishing cast of saints and scoundrels, soldiers and politicians.
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The site of a beautiful medieval monastery—once home to one of the greatest libraries of eastern Europe—Solovki became in the twentieth century a notorious labor camp. Roy Robson recounts the history of Solovki from its first settlers through the present day, as the history of Russia plays out on this miniature stage. In the 1600s, the piety and prosperity of Solovki turned to religious rebellion, siege, and massacre. Peter the Great then used it as a prison. But Solovki’s glory was renewed in the nineteenth century as it became a major pilgrimage site—only to descend again into horror when the islands became, in the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the “mother of the Gulag” system.
From its first intrepid visitors through the blood-soaked twentieth century, Solovki—like Russia itself—has been a site of both glorious achievement and profound misery.”
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“If there is one thread that runs through the history of the Solovki, a frigid archipelago in the White Sea that has played a surprisingly large role in Russian history, given its small size and remote location, it is suffering. Beginning in the 15th century, when the first Orthodox monks arrived to escape the temptations of society, the islands became a place where the most fervent of the faithful led lives of great austerity. But it didn’t take long for politics to heap on more suffering. In 1676, tsarist soldiers massacred almost 500 monks who refused to give up their Old Believer practices. Even this tragedy, however, was trumped by the harrowing events of the 20th century. In the 1920s, the freshly minted Soviet regime set up its first prison on the islands. The camp, which Alexander Solzhenitsyn later called “the mother of the Gulag,” distinguished itself for its extreme cruelty.
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Roy R. Robson, an associate professor of history at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, vividly recounts all this suffering in his new book, “Solovki: The Story of Russia Told Through Its Most Remarkable Islands”. But he also paints a nuanced picture of day-to-day life across the centuries. He includes details like the daily menu served in the monastic cafeteria, the expenditures of the monks’ budget (broken down ruble-by-ruble) and even the sexual habits of the brethren, which are hinted at through stern injunctions from their superiors. Finally, against the horrific backdrop of the Gulag era, there are the odd tidbits that go against the grain. For example, there was the camp theater that operated in the 1920s, providing both guards and inmates with a respite from their everyday chores. To dwell on the suffering, it turns out, does not tell the whole story.”
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Roy R. Robson is the author of “Solovki: The Story of Russia Told Through Its Most Remarkable Islands” (2004), which the “New Yorker” called “an epic drama of spiritualism and savagery” while the “Times” (London) described it as “hauntingly beautiful” and “Condé Nast Traveler” claimed it was the “the only book you absolutely must take.” Roy has studied Russian history for 25 years and has traveled extensively in Russia as a Fulbright scholar. He currently teaches history at the University of the Sciences in Pennsylvania. His latest book, “Think World Religions”, was published in 2010.


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