800-mile journey uncovers the hard, truthful face of a transfigured nation


September 10, 1995|By Will Englund

Though despair, vodka and poverty are ravaging Solovetsky Island, none of that is Father German's concern.

If people need spiritual succor, he says, let them come to God. If misery is driving them from this infamous, wind-swept outpost in the middle of the White Sea, then that is all to the good, because they are unbelievers and Solovetsky is rightfully God's.

"I don't believe this is the place for them to live," he says. "It is as though this place were specially chosen for us -- for the monks."

Father German's eyes are hard and clear, his nose sharp and angular. He is the spiritual leader of the reopened monastery here, a cold, stony redoubt less than 100 miles below the Arctic Circle, a holy spot in Russia since 1436.

He and the other monks of the Russian Orthodox Church came here just three years ago, but already their humility and ascetic ways mix easily with a certain arrogance of belief.

Theirs is a life dedicated not to their fellow man -- especially not to their fellow islanders -- but to God.

Spiritual work among the people around them, among people barely holding on to the ragged edge? The question brings the first faint smile.

"It shouldn't come from us," he says. "It's up to them. We ring the bells every day. Everybody knows there's a service going on. Any person can come. There is no point in our going out to them."

The Russians call this place Solovki for short, and it has a terrible place in their imagination, because when it stopped being God's island in 1920 it became the first true island of the archipelago that is perhaps the Communists' most unimaginable achievement. The archipelago of state labor camps -- the gulag -- took form on Solovki.

It was always a place beyond thinking, a place too far. It was where you could be close to God -- or close to hell.

Even now, the north is not a bad place to come to seek the hard, truthful face of Russia, and Solovki is not a bad ultimate goal. Go by riverboat; it sets a pace, and provides a sweep to the long journey northward, away from the burdened heart of the country.

An 800-mile voyage up from St. Petersburg, through the lakes and rivers of Karelia, along the length of the White Sea Canal and into the stormy salt waters of the White Sea itself, ties together a skein of Russian stories, new and old. They are sharper and clearer here, as though the Arctic light of summer had washed away the shades of gray.

From the Second World War invalids tossed into obscurity on the lake island of Valaam to the Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream partners in Petrozavodsk; from the members of the bewildered fishing collective in Belomorsk to the hard-driven and self-sufficient kelp cutter on Solovetsky, the route north draws the traveler into a complex, layered picture of Russia in its time of great transfiguration. Hope mixes with despair, reversals disrupt the road to success, hard work sometimes pays, and sometimes doesn't.

But Solovki, as it turns out, is not the end of the world. The White Sea stretches farther north, and it reaches a place above the Arctic Circle where an elemental wildness still reigns, where the rhythms of nature play themselves out beyond the reach of either Christians or Communists. Yet even here, in a place called Kandalaksha, the new Russia is making itself felt. Great black-backed gulls and red mergansers screech and caw as always, but change is in the air.

The riverboat is named the Ladoga, after Europe's largest lake. It was built in East Germany 41 years ago, and with wooden decks and brass fittings has a distinctly old-time nautical feel.

Late on a sweltering afternoon it pulls away from the pier in St. Petersburg, a nearly empty and decrepit concrete structure built in the days when Soviet tourists had the time and money to enjoy the variety of their huge country. The water in this stretch of the Neva River is flat and greasy. A streetcar rumbles by on the shore, but otherwise the riverbanks are deserted in the heat.

The Ladoga passes shipyards, oil tankers, a diesel submarine in dry dock. Heading upstream and out of the city, it comes upon villages of old wooden houses tumbling down to the shore, abandoned churches and grazing cattle. On the higher bluffs stand the recently built brick dachas of St. Petersburg's newly rich.

Already, just three years into Russia's post-Communist era, the newer houses display more restrained taste than the gaudy showpieces that were flung up in 1992 and 1993. The grandchildren of the often gangsterish men and women who live in these houses will someday be Russia's respectable old money.

The Neva is not long, and by evening the Ladoga has come abreast of the forbidding fortress once known as Schlusselburg. Dank, dark, dripping, it was the most-feared prison of the czarist regime.

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