A film by Pawas Bisht & Alena Pfoser
The Solovetsky islands in the White Sea in Russia’s Far North were the site of one of the first and most significant prison camps of the Soviet Union. Here, in the Solovky special purpose camp (1923-1939) the Gulag and its system of forced labour and repressions was developed. The islands are also home to the Solovetsky monastery, a spectacular 15th century Christian citadel, which used to house part of the camp but has been reestablished as a working monastery and site of pilgrimage of the Russian Orthodox church in the 1990s. Following the route of tourists travelling to the islands, the film documents what memories of the camp are performed for visitors. We see tourists being led through a landscape of religious symbols and narratives; martyr-priests, their suffering and resurrection provide a powerful template for commemorating the past and point to the increasing local, and national, significance of the Russian Orthodox church in the organisation of the Gulag memory. At the same time, the landscape is pierced by traces of the camp hinting at what cannot quite be contained by the religious narrative.