The Solovki Transfiguration monastery was founded in 1429. Saints Herman and Savvatius were the first residents of the island and the founders of one of the most famous Russian cloisters. They spent here 6 years of hard labour and privations. Shortly before the demise of St. Savvatius (1435) the hermits left the island, but in 1436 St. Herman returned to the Solovki with St. Zosima. Soon monks and laymen from other places began to join them asking to accept them into their monastic community. The brotherhood formed in this way built a wooden church in honour of the Transfiguration and St. Nicholas the Wonderworker on the place where St. Zosima had a vision of cloister hanging in the air. Archbishop Jona of Novgorod blessed the new cloister, sent out everything necessary for the new church and appointed the monk Feodosy Hegumen of the monastery. Soon, on the petition of St. Zosima and all the brethren, a certificate was given to Jona, the third Solovky Hegumen, granting to the monastery the right for the perpetual and exclusive possession of the whole archipelago of Solovky.
Jona was succeeded by St. Zosima, who introduced firm monastic rules and regulated all the aspects of the monastic life. In 1465, behind the altar of the Assumption of the Holy Theotokos church, the undecayed relics of St. Savvatius were buried.
The center for the colonization of the North and a Russian fortified station on the White Sea coast protecting the country against the raids of the Swedes, Danes and Finns, the monastery was under a special patronage of Moscow tsars. In 1651, on the petition of Metropolitan Nikon of Novgorod, Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich granted the fathers superiors of the monastery the title of Archimandrite, giving them special ptivileges reconfirmed in 1702, during the visit of Peter the Great to the cloister.
The entire history of the Solovky monastery is closely connected with the history of the Russian state. Two historical facts are worth special mentioning. The correction of liturgical books undertaken by Patriarch Nikon was regarded by the monks of the Solovky cloister as the perversion of the ancient and pure Orthodox teaching. They resolutely refused to accept the newly corrected books, firmly decided to defend the truth and put up a stubborn resistance to the government that supported Nikon’s initiative. Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich, after trying out all peaceful means to influence the refractory Solovky monks, decided to suppress them with force and sent the regular troops against the mutineers. Thus the famous “Solovky seating” began. The siege of the monastery lasted seven years, from 1669 to 1676.
In 1854, during the hard Crimean war, the monastery was bombarded by the English fleet that caused much damage to the monastery buildings and churches (by God’s grace there were no casualties at all). The monastery defended itself bravely, and resolutely rejected the proposal to surrender.
We may only guess how great the spiritual achievements of the Solovky monks were, but in the cultivation of the land they were immensely successful. Here, in the North, the monks cultivated apples, roses and dog-roses. They treated Peter I with hothouse watermelons. A complicated channel system, connecting a multitude of lakes, was constructed, a unique dam was erected on Bolshaya Muksalma island.
In 1558-66 Hegumen Philip (Kolychev) built the five-dome Transfiguration Cathedral.
The monastery treasured an ancient “Odigitria” icon donated to the monastery by Metropolitan Philip; an ancient “Sign of the Mother of God” icon; a silver shrine with three pieces of relics of Metropolitan Philip; the relics of Sts. Zosima and Savvatius; a stone cross of St. Savvatius and Sts. Zosima and a Savvatius icon painted by disciple of St. Zosima Hegumen Dosipheus; the Assumption of the Theotokos icon painted after the same image in the Kiev Caves Laura - a gift of Tsarevna Maria Alexeevna; an alter cross made of walrus fangs with a carved crucifixion; the “Zapechnaya” ("Behind the stove") icon of the Mother of God (this icon was revealed to St. Philip on the place where later the Nativity of the Holy Theotokos church was built - near the bakery behind the stove); the relics of St. Herman - in the church named in his honor; the relics of Markel, Archbishop of Vologda, Hegumen in the Solovky monastery - in the chapel near St. Herman church. The monastery vestry located under St. Nicholas church was one of the richest depositories of relics and works of art.
The Solovky monastery is known as a place of exile for dissidents and religious offenders. Among the first prisoners of the Solovky were the follower of the famous publicist and philosopher Maximus the Greek and an advocate of the non-acquisition movement Silvan (died in the monastery in late 1520s). Another - in the middle of the 16th century - was the former abbot of The Holy Trinity St. Sergius Laura Artemius, who actively struggled against the church property. In the beginning of the 17th century the cloister was ruled by Simeon Bekbulatovich, a baptized Tatar prince, servant of Ivan the Terrible and, for a time, his co-ruler. Abramius Palitsyn, the author of a famous chronicle of the Time of Troubles, was also a prisoner here. Later, however, he was forgiven and buried with honors beside the Lord’s Transfiguration cathedral. In the second half of the 17th century Prince Lvov, the Printing House manager, and former Tsar favorite Archimandrite of the Storozhevsky St. Savvas monastery Nikanor, active participants of the Solovky mutiny, were exiled here.
In the 18th century prisoners were sent here on the decision of the Holy Synod and the Privy chancellery. Among other titled persons Petr Andreevich Tosltoy, companion of Peter I, diplomat, the head of the Privy chancellery, finished his life here. Vasily Lukich Dolgoruky, a member of the Supreme privy council, spent here nine years in exile.
In 1903 the Solovky jail was closed. However, 20 years later, in the Soviet time, the history of the Solovky jail took an even more tragic turn. In 1920 a penal servitude camp was arranged on the territory of the monastery. It numbered, including the escort, 350 people. In 1923 a new punitive institution of a mach larger scale was organized - the Solovky special camps. During two decades till 1939 hundreds of thousands of convicts filled the premises of the fortress and the distant sketes. The convicts lived in old dugouts, stuffy barracks, scarcely heated monastery cells. Among the prisoners were the philosopher, mathematician, chemist and engineer P.A.Florensky; historians V.P.Nikolsky, N.P.Antsyferov, V.V.Bakhtin, M.O.Gordon; poets and writers B.N.Shyriaev, L.M.Mogiliansky, V.Kametskoy, O.V.Volkov; painters O.E.Braza, K.N.Polovtsev; professor of Moscow conservatoire N.Ya.Vygodsky; the greatest researcher of ancient Russian literature D.S.Likhachev and others.
During the World War II a training detachment of the Nordic fleet was quartered within the verge of the monastery.
In 1961 the state started the restoration of “the churches, utilities and other structures of Solovetsky monastery”. In 1974 the Solovetsky State Area Museum of History, Architecture and Nature was organized.
In the first years of the Perestroika, after the celebrations dedicated to the 1000th anniversary of the Baptism of Russia, a public movement was initiated for handing over the Solovky to the Russian Orthodox Church. As soon as in 1989, the Church Authorities also raised this issue. The council of bishops assembled on the occasion of the 400th anniversary the Patriarchate in Russia addressed the government asking to restore the Solovky archipelago to the Church.
Wide public circles, including such eminent figures as Y. Yamschikov, D.Likhachev, A.Solzhenitsyn, supported this claim. At the same time there appeared a series of publications whose authors were strongly against the presence of the Church on the islands.
In October 1990, Father Herman, the newly appointed father superior of the monastery, and monk Zosima came to the Solovky. But things did not run smooth. One day the monks went to the mainland to replenish the food stock, and when they returned they found only the ashes. The cells were set on fire by a local man who had been hired by the monastery and later dismissed for regular truancies. The population was strongly prejudiced against the monks. According to the words of the present monastery abbot Archimandrite Josef (Bratischev), his predecessor had to work a lot to revive the faith in the local population.
Gradually the monastery acquired its own household. In Moscow, in the church of St. George the martyr, a representation of the monastery was opened. Father Methodius was appointed its Father Superior.
In 1992, only two years after his election, Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and all Russia visited the Solovky, bringing with him the relics of the founders of the Solovky cloister Sts. Savvatius, Herman and Zosima.
A group of Orthodox pilgrims wishing to visit the monastery should normally address it in written form asking the permission for a stay. The reply letter serves as an invitation. With this letter a special paper with instructions is sent. According to an ancient tradition a pilgrim will be accomodated for three days. If he intends to stay on the island for a longer period, he will have to work for the needs of the cloister. The Solovky is not a closed zone, everyone who wishes can visit the islands and pray with the brethren before the holy relics of Sts. Savvatius, Herman and Zosima.
The monastery has three representations: in Moscow, Arkhangelsk and Kem’ (Karelia).