Synopsis by Clarke Fountain
One of the more hopeful moments in recent history was the thawing in the 1980s of decades of Soviet government oppression. This thawing was known as glasnost. This 1989 documentary, Vlast Solovetskaya, is about the granddaddy of all the gulag prison camps, and the film's release was made possible by glasnost. In addition to the massive relocation of whole populations and similar measures, the earlier Soviet government made extensive use of gulags as a tool for social control and reorganization. Political detainees at gulags were usually under the brutal control of the camp's "honest" prisoners: thieves, murderers, prostitutes and the like. The Solovki camp was located on an island in the White Sea, formerly the site of a great monastery full of learned monks. However, the island had also been used as a prison by Ivan the Great, sometimes known as "the Terrible," (1440-1505). Between 1923 and 1939, Solovki was set up as the first gulag, known as SLON, and it set the pattern for all subsequent internment camps (and there were to be many). Curiously, the government was proud of this place, and commissioned a film (made in 1927-28 but never before released), to broadcast its important place in the new enlightenment of the early Soviet regime. Officially, SLON was "a re-education center for dissenting elements." This documentary takes the earlier film as its core and comments on it, using (among other things) interviews with some of the now quite elderly survivors of that camp to that end. Connoisseurs of the sharp ironies of the period will appreciate the approval this prison received from no less a figure than author Maxim Gorky.