The ghosts of Russia's past haunt the remote Solovetsky Islands, and travellers prepared to make the sometimes bumpy plane journey to the small archipelago, 100 miles below the Arctic Circle in Russia's White Sea, will be rewarded with powerful memories.

Russian history and outstanding wildlife meet head-on in an eerie atmosphere that pervades the unspoilt landscape – it could be mistaken for the Scottish Highlands, until you come across a traditionally garbed orthodox monk, or a bemedalled Navy veteran reliving old Soviet glories.

Known locally as Solovki, there are six main islands and around 100 in total, but it's the largest, Greater Solovetsky, with its famous medieval monastery, which draws pilgrims and tourists, from Russia and beyond, and chronicles the islands' long and often brutal past.

The ghosts of Russia's past: A religious procession marking the Feast of Saints Peter at Solovetsky Monastery. Photo / Sergei Bobylev, Getty Images
The ghosts of Russia's past: A religious procession marking the Feast of Saints Peter at Solovetsky Monastery. Photo / Sergei Bobylev, Getty Images

Founded by a handful of monks in 1436, Solovetsky Monastery quickly grew to become one of the most important and influential religious centres in Russia.

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Looking out to sea from the ancient building, across the main village, to the smaller granite islands beyond, the natural beauty is stunning – lakes and sweeping forests of Scots pine and Norway spruce… the perfect habitat for a huge colony of nesting Arctic tern and a summer nursery for the beluga whale.

Past reflections: The gulag closed in 1939, when it became a naval cadet training camp. It returned to use as a monastery in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Photo / Getty Images.
Past reflections: The gulag closed in 1939, when it became a naval cadet training camp. It returned to use as a monastery in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Photo / Getty Images.

But Solovetsky holds a darker fascination, from the Soviet past, for this monastery complex was the site of the first and cruellest gulag in the empire.

Created under Lenin's leadership after the October Revolution, the camp was officially opened in 1923. It became a model for the gulag system that was to span the country in the years that followed.

The Solovetsky camp is said by historians to have had the harshest regime of all, with more than one million prisoners dying here. Photo / Olga Rakhm, Getty Images
The Solovetsky camp is said by historians to have had the harshest regime of all, with more than one million prisoners dying here. Photo / Olga Rakhm, Getty Images

The Solovetsky camp is said by historians to have had the harshest regime of all, with more than one million prisoners dying here. It served the double purpose of ousting the monks from their influential monastery, and providing a base for the first Soviet Special Purpose Camp, called Ston.

Anyone persecuted by the Soviet government could be sent here for imprisonment in the main building and surrounding camp and even children were detained as punishment for a variety of offences including "political crimes".

The famous bells of the Solovetsky Monastery, returned to use in the 1990s. Illustration / Magazine L'Illustration, 1898.
The famous bells of the Solovetsky Monastery, returned to use in the 1990s. Illustration / Magazine L'Illustration, 1898.
A peal: Solovetsky Monastery's belltower Photo. Photo / Sergei Bobylev, Getty Images
A peal: Solovetsky Monastery's belltower Photo. Photo / Sergei Bobylev, Getty Images

Prisoners were used as cheap manpower by the government and were ordered to carry out back-breaking manual labour. Many of the wooden barrack-style huts built by convicts are still standing today with some used as accommodation by villagers.

The most tragic remnant of the regime though is found at nearby Sekirnaya Hill, a short drive from the main village up a steep mountainside providing breath-taking views across the islands.

A punishment isolation cell was built at this spot and became the site of mass torture and executions of prisoners from the gulag. Despite the beauty of its location, anyone sent here had no chance of returning home. A small 16th Century church, which also served as a lighthouse, still stands, alongside a commemoration cross later erected in memory of those who suffered unimaginable deaths.

The gulag was closed in 1939, just ahead of World War II when it became a naval cadet training camp. Its monastery function was restored in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A few monks can occasionally be seen walking outside the monastery and add to the feeling that you may have stepped back in time.

Fortified island: The Solovetsky Monastery was turned into the first and cruellest Soviet gulag. Photo / Sergei Bobylev, Getty Images
Fortified island: The Solovetsky Monastery was turned into the first and cruellest Soviet gulag. Photo / Sergei Bobylev, Getty Images

In 1974, the Solovetsky Islands were designated a historical and architectural museum and a natural reserve of the Soviet Union. In 1992 Solovetsky joined the World Heritage List and renovations to the monastery continue to this day.

It can be explored inside though it is the views from outside that are most impressive. Walking tours around the main Solovki village with local guides are easy to arrange and smaller islands are also reachable via a short boat ride from the main village, which itself remains relatively free from modern development.

If the history of the main island becomes too much, by escaping to the smaller uninhabited islands you could really be anywhere in the world. Organised tours include visits to smaller churches and ancient labyrinths.

There are a number of options for travel to Solovetsky, with the main island having its own airport, Solovki Airport, which offers regular flights to Archangel, from where onward flights to Moscow are frequent.

Depending on weather conditions flights between Solovetsky and Archangel can be a little unnerving and not for the fainthearted, though the views over the archipelago make it more than worthwhile.