27 May 2022
We continue a series of publications in memory of the late Francis Greene (1936-2022) with this extract from Solovki. Labyrinth of Transformations by Yury Brodsky [2005-6]
Source: Yury Brodsky, ‘Solovki. Labirint preobrazhenii,’ Kultura i obshchestvo [almanac of the D. S. Likhachev Mezhdunarodony blagotvoritelny fond], issues 1-3, 2005-2006
The book variant of this text can be read here: Yu. A. Brodsky, Labirint preobrazhenii, Novaya gazeta, Moscow, 2017, pp448, ISBN 978-5-91147-027-2 [see page 370]
The English war photojournalist Francis Greene was, by all accounts, the first foreigner to set foot on the Solovetsky Islands after the closure of the Soviet prison camp there. Greene criss-crossed the whole world, filming wars and conflicts, adhering to the maxim of his legendary American colleague Robert Capa: ‘If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.’ Like the great Robert Capa, Francis despised marching in formation and soldiers who blindly follow orders. He repeatedly risked his life in an effort to strip away from the army its aura of romantic heroism.
Francis first visited the Solovki border zone under cover, back in Brezhnev’s time. We arrived from the mainland on a small steamboat, hiding what we were up to from the security forces and local snoops by pretending the Englishman was a guest from Soviet Estonia.
Our risky expedition’s skipper and smuggler-in-chief was the swashbuckling sailor and artist Sergei Malinovsky. When his grandmother was told in confidence that her guest had come from a capitalist foreign country, she surprised everyone by asking, ‘May I touch you?’, and stroked Greene’s shoulder. It was a very moving gesture that contrived to lift the tension at once, and helped establish a trusting friendship lasting many years.
Francis is a born explorer and tireless traveller who has taken in a succession of new places. He is in a position make any journey he fancies, and yet he has returned to the Solovetsky Islands over and over again.
He is the son of the famous writer, and by no means short of money, yet Greene’s everyday life is marked by modesty and unpretentiousness. He has the ability to find his bearings in unfamiliar surroundings with phenomenal accuracy, and to identify intuitively the right way to behave. He is an amateur aviator, and the owner of a medieval castle and wine cellars and God only knows what other expensive things, but working as a professional photographer on the islands, he has been content to stick with with his shabby but reliable automatic Nikon.
One time we stayed in a cabin on the shore of Starye Gorodki Bay, opposite a mysterious ancient pyramid that sticks out of the sea. Reindeer and hares came up, and we photographed them. We set a big bonfire, burning logs whitened by the salt water and washed up by the sea. Mushrooms grew in abundance around the cabin. I remember Francis asking us to fry each type of mushroom in a separate pot and not mix them. Then he spent quite some time tasting his own portion and making notes, sitting there by the fire. To this day I’m burning with curiosity to know how he described the taste in words.
There was a sanctuary on Mys Labirintov, near the pyramid and our cabin. Greene said he wanted to come back and photograph it from his aeroplane in raking light. He believed the labyrinths there were connected to Stonehenge by more than their outward appearance and the era in which they had been constructed.
Once, in a Christmas card, Francis Greene articulated in painstaking Russian the feelings Solovki aroused in him. ‘All over again, I’m missing the scent of your bonfires on Anzersky. Sit near the fire and you’ll feel the breathing of the world’s great mysteries.’
Translated by Richard Coombes