The weeks surrounding the summer solstice in northern Russia are known as the ‘White Nights’, when the sun barely sets and the country celebrates its round-the-clock glow.
From May to July each year St Petersburg basks in the cultural light of ballet, opera and musical events. While in more remote regions the festivities may be a little less flamboyant, as Intrepid’s Tara Kennaway discovered, seeing the sun almost set on Solovki is a very special experience…
“It’s 2am and the sun is only just starting to set, streaking the sky with strips of pink and purple which reflect on the waters of the lake and mingle with the image of the 12th century monastery that stands in front of us. This is summer on the Solovetsky Islands and White Nights celebrations are in full swing.
The Solovetsky Islands, known commonly as Solovki, are filled with the awesome beauty of forests, lakes, windswept rocky bays and picturesque churches, conflicting with their horrific history. For hundreds of years this isolated region was home to one of the world’s greatest monasteries, before the creation of the Russian empire turned it into a place of exile. During the Soviet years Solovki housed one of the USSR’s most notorious prison camps, the tragedy of which is described in Solzhenitsn’s ‘The Gulag Archipelago’.
It’s these incredible contradictions that confront us as we explore the islands. It is the middle of the night, yet it is still light enough for us to be cycling around on bikes that we’ve hired from local villagers. In the middle of the tranquil forests and fields of wildflowers you can come upon remains of abandoned prison camps. Russian orthodox pilgrims visiting the island’s sacred sites picnic where political prisoners once gathered for morning role call. We ride past a cluster of wooden churches and a modern day monk nods in greeting as he walks by choosing ring tones for his mobile phone.
As we pedal to the shoreline of the White Sea and dismount our bikes the sun is already starting to rise, although it never really set at all. On a grassy patch near the beach is one of the island’s labyrinths – mysterious stone spirals constructed by the earliest settlers of this territory, most likely in the 2nd millennium BC. To this day, no one is really sure whether they were built as sites for pagan rituals or elaborate hunting traps. To us it doesn’t really matter. We are in one of the most remote, magical and moving places I can imagine and experiencing the full spectrum of Russian history.”
Be enchanted by the White Nights of Russia a time when the sun almost never sets. Travel from St Petersburg through the remote and rugged landscape of the country’s northern regions, discovering secluded islands, ancient wooden villages and overwhelmingly warm hospitality from the locals along the way.