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Book reviews >


by Mariusz Wilk

The Harvill Press £15.99 (1-843-43047-9)

FAR AWAY in the Russian Arctic lies a holy and a desecrated land. The Solovetski Islands fill the visitor with wonder and dread in equal measure. In the summer the approach by boat from Arkhangelsk is magical; in the winter, cut off by the ice of the White Sea and plunged in almost total darkness, the place is all but inaccessible, and can be terrifying.

Solovki — as the Russians usually call it — was once one of Russia’s greatest monasteries. The Soviets expropriated it from the Orthodox Church soon after the 1917 Revolution, and turned it into a prison. Alexander Solzhenitsyn considered the prison to be the paradigm of the system, and called his great documentary work The Gulag Archipelago in a reference to these islands.

The return of the monastery and its dependencies to the Church, and their gradual rebuilding from ruins, is one of the great stories of the restoration of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Mariusz Wilk ("Wolf" in Polish, hence the title) went to live on the main island after the collapse of Communism. He is a Polish journalist who was himself formerly imprisoned for participating in the Solidarity Movement in the 1980s. He came to know personally most of the thousand or so inhabitants of the islands (the majority are secular people who have no direct connection with the monastery), and shared their hardships for two years.

The Journals of a White Sea Wolf is a travel book of distinction. Wilk presents Solovki as a microcosm of rural Russia in transition from Communism to — what? The destination is not clear to him, nor to the inhabitants. The book recounts the economic hardships, and the struggle of the islanders to contrive the basic necessities of life.

It is also a magnificent evocation of the Arctic landscape. Few books on Russia have come closer to an accurate presentation of the thinking and customs of the people: the terms listed in the glossary make an informative read on their own.

The book also has its disappointments. The Polish original was published in 1998, since when the monastic community has become stronger. Wilk devotes less attention to the monastery itself than one might have expected, and his portrait of it is not very sympathetic (he is a Polish Roman Catholic, after all). But Danutia Stok’s translation is excellent, though there is sometimes confusion with Russian names that are transliterated into English via Polish.

Canon Dr Michael Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Institute, Oxford.

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