Stone labyrinths and burial mounds from the 3rd to 1st millennia BC prove that the islands had a human presence in ancient times. Some writers posit that the islands were considered a gateway to another world and were only visited for ritual purposes.
In 1429 Savvaty and German, monks from the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, founded a wooden monastery in the area now called Savvatevo. They and a third monk who came in 1436, Zosima, are considered the founders of the monastery which grew fairly quickly into a rich and powerful monastery that owned vast amounts of land around the White Sea. Its mid-16th-century father superior, Philip Kolychov, founded the large stone churches and thick fortress walls that still characterise its architecture. The monastery suffered a seven-year siege and plunder by tsarist troops in the 17th century for its opposition to Patriarch Nikon's reforms, but remained important until the Soviet government closed it in 1921.
In 1923 a work camp for 'enemies of the people' called the SLON (Solovetsky Lager Osobogo Naznachenia - Solovetsky Special Purpose Camp) was opened. At first, prisoners worked fairly freely, keeping up the botanical garden and libraries. Many of them were scientists, writers, artists or priests. In 1937 Stalin reorganised the SLON into one of his severest Gulag camps, where prisoners were kept in intolerable conditions and tortured or killed at will. The prison was closed in 1939.
Restoration work on the badly damaged monastery began in the 1960s and monks began to return in the late 1980s. The islands acquired Unesco World Heritage listing in 1992. Today there's a flourishing monastic community but reconstruction of the main monastery and the numerous minor ones is a long-term task. Following in the monks' footsteps has come an ever-growing stream of pilgrims and tourists.