Monastery Prisons

The History of Monasteries as Prisons, the Inmates Incarcerated there, Religious Dissenters and Sectarians, Political Activists and Criminals, the Intolerance of Imperial Russia, and the Struggle for Orthodox Supremacy. by Daniel H. Shubin

Monastery Prisons in Holy Russia. Savvatiev and Zocima were both canonized by the Orthodox Church in 1551. Rumors spread throughout Russia of the miraculous powers accredited to their relics and remains. Rapidly the monastery gained quite a reputation as a Sacred Shrine. Pilgrimages began at the monastery with 10,000 to 15,000 pilgrims a year visiting the holy island and leaving their charitable donations in vast amounts.



Whoever has had the opportunity to visit Solovki will surely never forget the indelible and melancholy impression which the monastery has permanently etched on all there. The place is well known by the local residents as "the island" and "the dungeon."

The initial places for confinement of inmates at Solovki were monastic cells built into the walls and towers of the monastery fortress during its construction in 1584. The original plan of the inner parts of the fortress is unknown to us, but its designer, the Solovetski monk Trifon, was careful to include cells inside the walls where no one could escape from and where no light was able to penetrate, these were the rock coverts. The cells built into the monastery walls carried various designations or were named based on their location, or based on the famous person that may have been confined there. Built during the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1539-1584), they are deep pits in the wall: narrow, low and short. The inmate of such a rock covert is always lying down but cannot stretch out, and only moves with difficulty. These coverts were normally infested with lice, roaches, vermin, etc. These types of prison cell existed not only in Solovetski, but in several other monasteries. There were cells at the Nicholski gate, at the Saintīs gate, and under the balcony along the Uspenski (Assumption) Cathedral. Later and little by little, prison cells were constructed, but not in the fortress walls, but in the cellars and underground levels. Both the Uspenski and Preobrazhenski (Transfiguration) Cathedrals, build by St. Phillip, had underground prison cells, which were designated as the Uspenski and Preobrazhenski prisons.

The most difficult punishment was considered incarceration in an "earth prison cell," In Solovki the underground cells were built under one of the monastery towers, most of them located in the north-west corner of the fortress. Judging using ancient documents, the earth prison cells are pictured as a hole dug into the ground about 8 feet deep. We could estimate the floor space at about 5 or 6 foot square. The sides were laid with bricks: the roof was made of wood boards, over which dirt was spread. In the roof was a small opening with a door that could be secured with a lock. The door in the roof was made of steel grating to allow ventilation. Through it they raised and lowered the prisoner, and likewise gave him food. For sleeping the floor was covered with straw. For natural needs he was given a special pot, a latrine bucket, which was removed and cleaned once a day. Whether there were any stoves in these cells remains unknown. Into this dark, damp cellar dug into the earth a living person was lowered, often shackled hand and foot. The stench of the latrine bucket permeated the cell. The inmate of an earth cell never saw the sun, and could not distinguish day from night, and lost tract of days, weeks and years.

In the cells rats thrived in considerable numbers, which occasionally attacked the unarmed prisoner. There were occurrences where the rats would eat the nose and ears of a prisoner sitting in this underground cell. To give them something for defense against these small animals of prey was strictly forbidden. Anyone found guilty of violating this rule was severely punished. Concerning this for instance was one sentry in the Solovetski prison who gave to Ivashka Saltikov a stick to repel the rats. The sentry was beaten mercilessly with a whip for this accommodation.

It was only rarely, and far from everybody, that someone confined in an underground prison was permitted to leave and allowed into Godīs light and attend church. Thus in one order, pertaining to the end of the 17th century, pertaining to a prisoner confined to an underground cell, Mishka Amirev, he was removed from the prison during church singing, and at the end of services was again put back. Incarceration in underground monastery prisons was especially widely practiced during the reign of Peter the Great. This medieval manner of incarceration became an anachronism during the age of so-called Enlightenment, and in contradiction to reforms of the era of Peter the Great, and so had to be dealt with by the government. In 1742, the Holy Synod issued an order to destroy these underground earth cells and to wall up the entrances to them. The Solovetski monks however did not fulfill the order, which authorities in St. Petersburg discovered, and which forced intervention by the Senate. On January 28, 1758, the Senate issued a statement to the Holy Synod that there would be an inspection of the monastery by a select staff officer from the Archangel provincial government office, to verify that all of the earth cells were filled. If not, the staff officer was to personally remove any inmates still incarcerated in any earth cells and relocate them to other prisonersī quarters in the monastery, and then personally order all of the earth cells to be filled in, and in his presence, and to report the termination of earth cell incarceration in a report to the Holy Synod. The Senate courier was Vasili Stepanov, and the staff officer assigned to this was second-sergeant of the Archangel garrison Ivan Putimtsev. The monks however, forewarned by the Holy Synod of their arrival and intentions, prepared for the visit by these guests by walling up the entrance to earth cells.

They were afraid of any repercussions that might occur if the cells were discovered to still be in use. In April of 1758, the inspectors visited the Solovetski monastery prison and did not find any earth cells, and which they reported to the Archangel Chancellery and Senate. The monks were relieved and archimandrite Gennadie even went to the point of portraying emotional agitation at the fact that they were accused of still utilizing the earth cells. As soon as the dust settled in St. Petersburg, and all involved were satisfied with the inspection, and the interest ceased in the matter of earth cells, the monks removed the wall to the entrance to the underground area and again began to locate there inmates, both religious and political. They were continued to be utilized clandestinely until the middle of the 19th century. The last record of an inmate incarcerated in a earth cell was Gorozhanski in 1832.



In 1718 a large two story pavilion was built in the northwest corner of the monastery near the Korozhenski Tower with its earthen dungeons. The lower floor of this building was half-way into the ground, so that the windows were only a couple of feet above ground. In 1798, this lower floor was renovated as a prisonerīs quarters. There were 12 cells built originally in it, that is, prisonerīs closets. After 30 years, in 1828, during the reign of Nicholas I Pavlovich, the second floor of this pavilion was turned into a prison; there were then built 16 cells or closets. At the beginning of the 19th century, the sentries who guarded the prisoners were quartered in the same building as the prison: the corridors between the prisonersī cells served as quarters for the soldiers. This type of close residence between the guards and prisoners often created various unpleasant collisions between them. Later in 1842 by the request of archimandrite Ilarie, special barracks were built for the soldiers and officers while the prison was enlarged by the addition of a third story. The work was completed in 1848. This completed sullen building of three stories rose high above the rock wall which separated it from the other monastery buildings. It existed in this condition up to the final period, autumn of 1903. A personīs attention was especially attracted by the rows of small dark windows with dark glass - turned green from age - in triple-thick frames and double iron shudders.

On March 1, 1826, the Archangel military governor communicated to the Tsar, Nicholas I, some information in response to his questions on the situation with the monastery prison at Solovki. Based on information he acquired from the monastery archimandrite, at that time there were 28 inmates in the prison.


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