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Solovki Garden; Russia’s Monastery, Gulag and Botanic Garden on the Edge of the Arctic Circle

Posted on January 20th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Artyom Parshim, Solovki Garden; Russia’s Monastery, Gulag and Botanic Garden on the Edge of the Arctic Circle, trans. Susan Causey (London: IBLF, 2005), 56 pp., 94 illus. in colour and black-and-white, £7.95 (pbk). Available from: IBLF Solovki Garden Project, 28 Stratford Villas, London NW1 9SG, UK

The Solovki archipelago is remotely situated in the White Sea less than 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The main island is a place of considerable natural beauty, densely wooded and with many lakes. A monastery was established there in the fifteenth century, and the Transfiguration Cathedral and outstanding monastic buildings of the sixteenth century still survive. A network of canals was begun in the fifteenth century and in the nineteenth century it linked more than seventy lakes. Before the First World War, many pilgrims visited Solovki each year, but monastic life ended abruptly after the Revolution in 1917 and the archipelago became a notorious gulag.

A remarkable garden was created in the nineteenth century. Thanks to a favourable microclimate, heating from a wax bleachery and considerable horticultural skills, some surprising successes under glass were reported with melons, watermelons, grapes, cucumbers, peaches and exotic flowering plants. Some of the scientists among the prisoners in the gulag were able to work on acclimatization in the garden, but many never returned to the mainland. In 1974, the Solovki Museum-Reserve took charge of the garden; and in 1984, it was listed in the register of the USSR Botanic Gardens Council as ‘the Botanic Garden of the Solovki Museum-Reserve’. An inventory in 2004 listed 147 species, forms and varieties of trees and shrubs and 255 herbaceous plants. Solovki is included in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites.

Artyom Parshin’s attractive small book, Solovetsky Sad, gives a fascinating account of the garden’s history and is part of the Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum of support for sustaining Russia’s culture. Landscape architect Kim Wilkie and garden archaeologist Brian Dix have advised on the restoration. The Prince visited Solovki in 2003. The English version (Solovki Garden) is admirably translated by Susan Causey and contains fifty-six pages with many excellent colour photographs and historical illustrations.

Peter Hayden

33:1 (Summer 2005)

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