SpeakerWilliam C. Brumfield

Institution Library of Congress

Subject Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Savior

The Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Savior is a central part of the Transfiguration monastery on Solovetskii Island, in the Russian north. This monastery is one of the most important sites, historical sites in Russia. Important from the point of view of the Russian north. Important from the point of view of ecclesiastical history, church history, social history. The monastery of the Transfiguration, it seems to be at the center of Russia’s soul.

The cathedral itself is the center of the monastery. Every monastery had a main church. And what we see in this photograph, on the right side, is the cathedral built in the middle of the 16th century by the very active Hegumen, or Abbott, of the monastery, Filipp, who later became metropolitan of the Russian church and met a sad demise in the reign of Ivan the Terrible. But while he was at the transfiguration monastery, he oversaw a program of remarkable scale and enduring aesthetic power. We see the cathedral rising above with its five cupolas dating from the middle of the 1560s—the middle of the 16th century. The church to the left is a later replacement. It’s dedicated to another church feast, the Resurrection. Behind it, there was still another large church, the Trinity. It too was rebuilt but the cathedral, in the right center of the photograph, dates from the earliest days of the monastery’s reconstruction during the 16th century. The monastery itself was founded in the early 15th century. And that is a story to be told in other images.

You’ll also notice in the foreground, the gallery that was built later in the 16th century to connect to the various churches that existed in the central monastic compound. This would protect the monks from the very severe climate of that region, the very long winters. And you’ll notice the gallery is elevated so it would be above the snow drifts that would be a feature of the landscape for several months each year. But the primary focus here, and one of the most important spiritual sites in all of Russia, is the cathedral itself, dedicated to the Transfiguration of the Savior.

The gallery was also the tragic focus of a very destructive event in the monastery’s history in 1923. The Bolsheviks had already nationalized the monastery and a fire in the spring of 1923—a fire of mysterious origins—swept through every building of the central monastic complex. And, it was shortly after that, the monastery was turned into the prototypical system for political repression. It was here that the famous “Camp of Special Designation,” the Russian acronym is SLON, was established by the Cheka (later the NKVD). And it would serve until 1939, as one of the most savage points of incarceration and outright murder during the Stalinist period. By the 1930s, there were vaster territories that served this purpose but the Solovki camp was always seen as the prototype. And Solzhenitsyn, in his monumental work Archipelago GULAG, actually takes the central image of an archipelago from the Solovetskii Islands. So they became a symbol of the spread of systems of political repression. So in that sense, the monastery also is the center of an episode in Russian history. One that is of great sorrow, but that too is its legacy as being remembered in honor, to commemorate the victims who perished.