A remote archipelago is one of Russia’s holiest places—and its most haunted.
By Jeffrey Tayler
Religious procession. Sokovetsky Monastery. Solovetskie Islands. April 2003. April 2002
Image credit: Sergey Maximishin/Panos Pictures
From the upper reaches of the whitewashed belfry—between the gunmetal onion domes of the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral—a giant bell announced the evening liturgy. Scarved women in loose woolen skirts and shaggy-bearded monks in black frocks hurried across the cobbled courtyard of Solovetsky Monastery, passing me, their eyes averted.
I turned to face the sun above the massive stone walls, seeking a warmth that’s fleeting here in Russia’s farthest-flung holy citadel, located on the largest of the Solovetsky Islands amid the gale-lashed White Sea, just outside the Arctic Circle.
The Solovetsky Monastery ranks as one of the country’s most important. But the monastery, and indeed the Solovetsky Islands (Solovki, for short) themselves, also played host to Joseph Stalin’s most notorious prison, the gulag to which he banished many of his ideological opponents. This dual purpose has made Solovetsky Monastery a kind of Russian Golgotha, a temple-graveyard haunted by both the holy and the horrifying. Mass graves are scattered across the island. My guide summed up the experience of living here: “Wherever we go here, we feel we’re stepping on bones.”
Even from Moscow, where I live, a trip to the Solovki, almost 650 miles due north, is a long one—and tough on new arrivals. A choppy flight landed me on a runway plagued with Arctic mosquitoes; a kidney-bruising ride from the airport by four-wheel-drive van took me down a pitted dirt track into the shack-and-barrack settlement of fewer than 1,000. My hotel, tranquil and half-embowered in alder trees and birches, stood by an abandoned prison open to the winds, with skulls and crossbones still painted on cell doors. Almost everywhere I went during my stay, I heard the wind, not voices, and was alone or almost alone or felt alone—a sublime, and at times eerie, experience. But perhaps not a new one.
The prospect of solitude drew the first Russians here. Early in the 15th century, two monks debarked on the island’s northern coast, seeking a place of religious retreat amid pristine taiga and bog. They initiated cloistral traditions that led, soon after, to the founding of Solovetsky Monastery. But almost from the beginning, the Solovetsky Islands were also abodes of exile and detention. The isolation and severe climate well suited the penal needs of an authoritarian state ruled by a czar. Monks both served God and acted as prison wardens. In the monastery’s darkest corners, they built cells that would hold a spectrum of prisoners, from the dissident gentry and errant clergy, to rebellious Cossacks and Decembrist revolutionaries.
I climbed stairs above the monastery’s granary and examined a few of the cells—low, vaulted brick chambers with tiny barred windows overlooking the desolate, churning Bay of Prosperity. The experience created by the monks was easily outdone when the Bolsheviks instituted a reign of sadistic terror that earned the Solovki infamy throughout the Soviet Union. Behind glass in one of the monastery’s chilly, damp corridors, an exposition of photographs and documents displays that regime’s grisly legacy—twisted corpses strewn across fields, stacked skulls, ransacked churches, smashed church bells, and orders of execution. In 1923, the authorities reconstituted the monastery-prison (and the rest of the island) as the country’s first concentration camp, designed to “rehabilitate” the most potentially dangerous “enemies of the people”—writers, poets, academics, and anyone else who fell afoul of the revolution. During the 1930s, when Stalin and Hitler enjoyed cordial, if wary, relations, German officers visited the island and studied its “correctional” regimen, gleaning elements that they would soon put to use on a far more horrific scale.
The macabre cruelties of all the Soviet gulags have been well documented, but even so, those of the Solovki stand out. Camp officials welcomed each group of arriving inmates by immediately shooting two prisoners dead, and pummeling the rest with shovels. Locked in unheated cells in the winter, the prisoners slept in piles three or four deep for warmth. Guards doused some in water and made them huddle for hours in the cold. Of the 80,000 Soviets condemned to the Solovki between 1923 and 1939, some 40,000 died here.
Finally, even for Stalinist authorities on the mainland, the Solovki’s unsanctioned atrocities exceeded the acceptable. In 1939, the camp was closed, and some of its administrators were executed. The remaining prisoners were moved to the mainland. As another tour guide, the historian Oleg Kodola, pointed out, “By 1940, the whole country had been turned into a prison camp. It made no difference which side of the barbed wire you were on.”
It does now, of course. In 1967, Soviet authorities opened a museum in Solovetsky Monastery, and monks returned in 1990. Judging from the conservative dress of most of the Russian tourists around me in the courtyard, a good number were on a pilgrimage of sorts, something the former, atheistic regime would never have countenanced. Their presence, and that of the monks heading to church for evening services, reminds one that, to survive in the Solovki’s austere setting, faith may be the one constant.
This article available online at:
Copyright © 2012 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.
January 20, 2012
Etta James, Powerful Voice Behind ‘At Last,’ Dies at 73
By PETER KEEPNEWS
Etta James, whose powerful, versatile and emotionally direct voice could enliven the raunchiest blues as well as the subtlest love songs, most indelibly in her signature hit, “At Last,” died Friday morning in Riverside, Calif. She was 73.
Her manager, Lupe De Leon, said that the cause was complications of leukemia. Ms. James, who died at Riverside Community Hospital, had been undergoing treatment for some time for a number of conditions, including leukemia and dementia. She also lived in Riverside.
Ms. James was not easy to pigeonhole. She is most often referred to as a rhythm and blues singer, and that is how she made her name in the 1950s with records like “Good Rockin’ Daddy.” She is in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.
She was also comfortable, and convincing, singing pop standards, as she did in 1961 with “At Last,” which was written in 1941 and originally recorded by Glenn Miller’s orchestra. And among her four Grammy Awards (including a lifetime-achievement honor in 2003) was one for best jazz vocal performance, which she won in 1995 for the album “Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday.”
Regardless of how she was categorized, she was admired. Expressing a common sentiment, Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote in 1990 that she had “one of the great voices in American popular music, with a huge range, a multiplicity of tones and vast reserves of volume.”
For all her accomplishments, Ms. James had an up-and-down career, partly because of changing audience tastes but largely because of drug problems. She developed a heroin habit in the 1960s; after she overcame it in the 1970s, she began using cocaine. She candidly described her struggles with addiction and her many trips to rehab in her autobiography, “Rage to Survive,” written with David Ritz (1995).
Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on Jan. 25, 1938. Her mother, Dorothy Hawkins, was 14 at the time; her father was long gone, and Ms. James never knew for sure who he was, although she recalled her mother telling her that he was the celebrated pool player Rudolf Wanderone, better known as Minnesota Fats. She was reared by foster parents and moved to San Francisco with her mother when she was 12.
She began singing at the St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles at 5 and turned to secular music as a teenager, forming a vocal group with two friends. She was 15 when she made her first record, “Roll With Me Henry,” which set her own lyrics to the tune of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ recent hit “Work With Me Annie.” When some disc jockeys complained that the title was too suggestive, the name was changed to “The Wallflower,” although the record itself was not.
“The Wallflower” rose to No. 2 on the rhythm-and-blues charts in 1954. As was often the case in those days with records by black performers, a toned-down version was soon recorded by a white singer and found a wider audience: Georgia Gibbs’s version, with the title and lyric changed to “Dance With Me, Henry,” was a No. 1 pop hit in 1955. (Its success was not entirely bad news for Ms. James. She shared the songwriting royalties with Mr. Ballard and the bandleader and talent scout Johnny Otis, who had arranged for her recording session. (Mr. Otis died on Tuesday.)
In 1960 Ms. James was signed by Chess Records, the Chicago label that was home to Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and other leading lights of black music. She quickly had a string of hits, including “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “Trust in Me” and “At Last,” which established her as Chess’s first major female star.
She remained with Chess well into the 1970s, reappearing on the charts after a long absence in 1967 with the funky and high-spirited “Tell Mama.” In the late ’70s and early ’80s she was an opening act for the Rolling Stones.
After decades of touring, recording for various labels and drifting in and out of the public eye, Ms. James found herself in the news in 2009 after Beyoncé Knowles recorded a version of “At Last” closely modeled on hers. (Ms. Knowles played Ms. James in the 2008 movie “Cadillac Records,” a fictionalized account of the rise and fall of Chess.) Ms. Knowles also performed “At Last” at an inaugural ball for President Obama in Washington.
When the movie was released, Ms. James had kind words for Ms. Knowles’s portrayal. But in February 2009, referring specifically to the Washington performance, she told an audience, “I can’t stand Beyoncé,” and threatened to “whip” the younger singer for singing “At Last.” She later said she had been joking, but she did add that she wished she had been invited to sing the song herself for the new president.
Ms. James’s survivors include her husband of 42 years, Artis Mills; two sons, Donto and Sametto James; and four grandchildren.
Though her life had its share of troubles to the end — her husband and sons were locked in a long-running battle over control of her estate, which was resolved in her husband’s favor only weeks before her death — Ms. James said she wanted her music to transcend unhappiness rather than reflect it.
“A lot of people think the blues is depressing,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1992, “but that’s not the blues I’m singing. When I’m singing blues, I’m singing life. People that can’t stand to listen to the blues, they’ve got to be phonies.”