July 01, 2020

Journeys through the Russian Empire

Journeys through the Russian Empire
Left: Solovetsky Transfiguration Monastery west wall with Korozhnaya Tower and Church of the Icon of the Virgin, Succor to All Who Grieve. Southwest view. Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, 1916. Right: Solovetsky Transfiguration Monastery west wall. From left: Korozhnaya Tower, icon workshop and Church of the Icon of the Virgin, Succor to all Who Grieve (cupolas removed in Soviet period), Superior’s Building, Chapel of Saint Alexander Nevsky, Dormition Tower. Southwest view. William Brumfield, June 29, 1999.

Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky traveled throughout Russia prior to the Revolution, photographing churches and mosques, railways and monasteries, towns and remote natural landscapes. His images are now archived at the Library of Congress. William Brumfield has recreated Prokudin-Gorsky’s journeys and photographed those same sites today and the photos are laid out side by side int his new book – a testament to two brilliant photographers whose work prompts and illuminates, monument by monument, questions of conservation, restoration, and cultural identity and memory. 

Brumfield book cover
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In terms of its circumstances, Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky’s final expedition was also his grimmest. With the outbreak of World War I on July 28, 1914, Russia underwent a draconian transition to a war footing. For Prokudin-Gorsky this would mean an increase in travel restrictions and a lessening of financial and logistical support. Yet, unexpectedly, support was renewed in 1916 when he received a commission to photograph construction during the summer along the new railroad to the northern ice-free port of Romanov-on-Murman (now Murmansk), which was to serve as a depot for allied war materiel shipped to Russia forces. The strategic project lasted from 1914 to the spring of 1917, when the rail link was connected to Petrograd.

Although Prokudin-Gorsky’s primary purpose was to photograph construction related to the railroad, he also photographed the area’s few towns and their churches. Among the towns was Petrozavodsk (“Peter’s factory”), founded in September 1703, just four months after St. Petersburg. In the first image in this chapter, the panoramic view toward the northeast, taken from Golikovka Station, includes the white churches and administrative buildings of the central part of town, as well as the area of wooden houses to the southwest of the Alexandrovsky Factory, whose red metal roofs are just visible.

The largest church is the Cathedral of the Descent of the Holy Spirit. To its right is the factory Church of Saint Alexander Nevsky. Beyond are the towers of the Resurrection Cathedral and the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. In the background is the view across to the other side of Petrozavodsk. Most of the historical architecture that Prokudin-Gorsky photographed was destroyed in the Soviet period and during battles in 1944.

An exception is the Church of Saint Alexander Nevsky, built in a simple but monumental neoclassical style with a Doric portico and a central dome flanked by square belfries. Closed in 1929, the church was converted to a museum in 1931. Returned to the Orthodox Church in 1990s, the structure underwent a prolonged restoration and in June 2000 was consecrated as the primary cathedral of the Petrozavodsk and Karelia eparchy (bishopric). My photograph was taken a month after this momentous event.

Images of Solovetsky then and now
Left: Prokudin-Gorsky’s 1916 image of the west view of Solovetsky Transfiguration Monastery from the harbor.
Right:  William Craft Brumfield’s photo from 1999.

Some four hundred kilometers to the north of Petrozavodsk is Kem, a small regional center and White Sea port in the Republic of Karelia.

Known as a major route to the Solovetsky Archipelago and its Solovetsky-Transfiguration Monastery, the town has a dramatic history, which, like that of the Solovetsky islands, combines elements of the spiritual with human tragedy. The setting of Kem is dramatic, with a rocky coastline bounded by dense forest that reaches the west shore of the White Sea. The town is located primarily on an island known as Lepostrov (“Lappasaari” in Karelian), which is flanked by the arms of the small Kem River near its confluence with the White Sea. During the medieval period these northern lands were held by the commercial power of Novgorod. In 1450 Novgorod granted the settlement at the mouth of the Kem River to the Solovetsky Transfiguration Monastery, which had been established in 1436 on a group of islands in the southwestern White Sea. Through this grant the Solovetsky Monastery, protected on its archipelago, acquired a land base and port some sixty kilometers over water to the west.

Because of its strategic location, Kem gained the attentions of hostile neighbors in the late sixteenth century. Ivan the Terrible was at that time mired in the Livonian War (1558–83), a protracted conflict that in its latter phase involved a struggle with Sweden for control of the eastern Baltic region.

In 1589 Kem was raided by Finnic forces, and in 1590 the region was attacked by the Swedes. The following year Moscow reaffirmed Solovetsky Monastery’s title to the Kem territory. The power of the monastery allowed it to function as a surrogate for an exhausted Muscovy, and during the next century Kem was defended and fortified under the monastery’s direction.

Kem briefly returned to state control from 1704 to 1711 during the early phase of Peter the Great’s struggle with Sweden in the Great Northern War (1700–21). With Peter’s victory over King Charles XII at Poltava (July 1709), pressure on Russia’s White Sea territory diminished. During the nineteenth century the town existed primarily on fishing. In 1903 Kem gained a large masonry church, the Cathedral of the Annunciation, visible in Prokudin-Gorsky’s photograph. During the Soviet period, the cathedral was modified for use by the administration of the penal camp established by the Cheka (the Soviet political police) in 1919 on the territory of the former Solovetsky Monastery. The Annunciation Cathedral is now being restored as part of the recently established Monastery of the New Russian Martyrs and Confessors.

My photograph almost a century later shows the damage inflicted upon building.

The port of Kem served as the gateway to the Solovetsky Transfiguration Monastery, one of Russia’s most renowned monastic institutions. The monastery is located primarily on Great Solovetsky Island, part of an archipelago in the southwestern part of the White Sea. The archipelago’s first known Russian settlement dated from 1429, when the monk Zosima joined forces with Herman, a hermit who had periodically visited Solovetsky Island. The elderly Zosima died in 1435, but the following year another monk, Zavvaty, returned to the island and founded a retreat dedicated to the Transfiguration of the Savior. During this early period, the monastery belonged to the domains of the Russian city-state of Novgorod. After Novgorod’s subjugation to Moscow in 1478 the Muscovite grand princes reaffirmed the strategic importance of this remote monastic outpost.

The great flourishing of the monastery occurred in the sixteenth century, under the direction of Philip Kolychev, a Moscovite monk of noble origins who left his privileged existence in 1537, joined the Solovetsky monastic community, and in 1547 became its spiritual leader (hegumen). During the next eighteen years Philip guided a program of construction that transformed the monastery and created monumental buildings of stone and brick such as the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Savior (1558–66) and the Refectory Church of the Dormition (1552–57), among the most impressive manifestations of late medieval Russian architecture. In the summer of 1566, Philip was called back to Moscow by Ivan the Terrible, who supported Philip’s appointment as metropolitan of the Russian Church. Later, Philip’s resistance to Ivan’s misrule led to his exile and death in 1569.

Despite the turbulence of the late sixteenth century, construction at the monastery continued. Late sixteenth-century churches in the monastery include the Church of Saint Nicholas (1577; razed and rebuilt in 1830–34) and the Gate Church of the Annunciation, built in 1596–1601 over the west gate and much modified in the nineteenth century. Between 1582 and 1594, monks and hired labor manhandled thousands of granite boulders into place as the walls and round towers of the monastery arose from the marshy ground.

Despite the conflicts of the seventeenth century, the Solovetsky Monastery remained one of Muscovy’s most prestigious among the privileged religious centers, closely connected to the court. It received many donations, the churches were repaired, and other buildings were added in the eighteenth century. During the nineteenth century, the monastery became a major pilgrimage site, with its own steamship and hotel. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the monastery built an electric generating station with equipment provided by the St. Petersburg affiliate of the Siemens Company. These improvements were very much in the spirit of Philip, who maintained a steady view of practical aspects necessary for the monastery’s existence as a self-sustaining community. In that vein he initiated a system of canals to improve transportation through the boggy terrain. Expanded throughout the nineteenth century, the canal system continued to be developed, as photographed by Prokudin-Gorsky. Although no longer essential to the economic position of the monastery, the canals are still used.

The highest point on the main island – and the entire archipelago – is Sekirnaya Gora (Poleaxe Hill), almost eighty meters in height. In the nineteenth century a special monastic retreat (skete) was founded here and dedicated to the Ascension. A simple but sturdy two-story brick church of the same dedication was erected in 1860-62 to a design by A. I. Shakhlarev. Because of its commanding height and the dangerous waters surrounding the island, state authorities decided to place a small lighthouse above the cupola – a unique case in Russian church architecture. Its light can be seen from ten miles away.

Indeed, there is a haunting, strangely prophetic aura surrounding these photographs taken in the midst of a cataclysmic world struggle. Five years later, toward the end of the Russian civil war in 1921, the Bolsheviks expropriated the monastery. Two years later, a fire of mysterious origins spread throughout the central stone churches and reduced their interiors to ashes.

It was here, in 1923, that the Soviet regime established a prototypical concentration camp, named the Solovetsky Camp of Special Designation (SLON), described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his book The Gulag Archipelago. Superseded by larger camps, the Solovetsky camp closed in 1939, and the territory became a military base. Attempts to restore the monumental Transfiguration Monastery began in the 1960s. In 1992, Patriarch Aleksy reconsecrated the relics of the monastery’s founders with solemn ceremony, and worship began on a regular basis. Much of the monastery has now been returned to the Orthodox Church.

© Duke University Press, 2020. Excerpt from chapter 8. Reprinted with permission.

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