An introductory guide to Moscow’s graveyards

The Novodevichy cemetery became the burial ground for most of the USSR’s elite. Source: Lori/Legion Media

The Novodevichy cemetery became the burial ground for most of the USSR’s elite. Source: Lori/Legion Media

The Russian capital has extensive burial grounds, most of them dating back to the pre-Revolutionary times. RIR offers a short overview of the most mysterious and peculiar stories of Moscow cemeteries.

Muscovites live closer to the deceased than they might think. During the demolition of a tram line near the Simonov monastery, south of city center, hundreds of headstones with names and epitaphs emerged from the pavement. In the 1930s, when the line was being constructed, the territory of nearby monastery’s graveyard had been turned into a construction site for the ZIL motor plant, so the grubbed-up solid headstones were used for paving the street. The same thing is true for some of Moscow’s peripheral subway stations, where trimmed former headstones were used as marble coating of walls and columns.

For Russians, the graveyard was an important location in every village and town. Traditionally, every man wanted to be buried near his home church. Moscow, which had over 400 churches, was also laden with graveyards – in the 19th century, there were over 300 graveyards, most of which were demolished in the first decades of the USSR. Now, in Moscow there are only 71 graveyards and cemeteries, and a great number of parks and buildings are situated on former burial grounds, a fact which is rarely known to inhabitants.

The Novodevichy cemetery. Source: Lori/Legion Media

Graveyards inside the Kremlin walls were one of the first to appear in Moscow. After the 14th century, princes and then czars were buried in vaults in the Arkhangelsky cathedral. It is peculiar that in the first years of Soviet rule, an “alternative” burial ground was set up outside the walls – in 1917, interred here were the remains of Bolsheviks that had fallen during October revolution in Moscow. In 1924, the Lenin Mausoleum became the centre of the cemetery. Since Stalin’s death in 1953, his body was also kept in the Mausoleum, but in 1961 the remains were reinterred in the grave near the wall. To the present day, a debate persists in Russian society on the subject of whether the cemetery should be removed from the Red Square.

During the liquidation of the graveyards inside the city, ashes of many writers, military commanders and revolutionaries were transferred to a new cemetery near the Novodevichy monastery. This fate befell the remains of the great writer Nikolai Gogol. Deceased in 1852, he was buried in Danilovsky monastery, but in 1931, while the graveyard was being liquidated, the government ordered to move Gogol to the Novodevichy cemetery. Some of the contemporary writers who were present at the exhumation sit noticed that the late great writer’s head was missing. This didn’t, however, perplex the writers – it is reported that a now-forgotten writer Lidin even dared to cut a piece of Gogol’s clothes, which was later used for binding an edition of Gogol’s Dead Souls that he possessed. The ashes were reinterred nonetheless, but where did the head go? Rumour has it that in 1909, when Gogol’s grave was renovated, Alexey Bakhrushin, famous Moscow merchant and eccentric, bribed the monks of Danilovsky monastery and retrieved the writer’s head to store it in his museum. Since then, there hasn’t been a trace of Gogol’s skull. The mentioned copy of Dead Souls is reportedly in possession of Lidin’s daughter.

The new Novodevichy cemetery became the burial ground for most of the USSR’s elite - in Soviet times, entrance was allowed only to relatives of the deceased, who had special passes, but now it’s free of charge. Still, the price for the burial here is very high – as it is on the famous Vagankovskoe graveyard, the last home for many actors, painters, and other Bohemians, and, overall, on most of the old graveyards inside the city borders. Among the most “expensive” is also Vvedenskoe graveyard in Lefortovo, former territory of the German Quarter, a district organized in 17th century for foreign residents. Now, it is possibly the most quiet and beautiful graveyard, which also boasts spectacular architecture. Among the prominent monuments is the vault of G. Lion, with a mosaic reproduction of Arnold Bocklin’s Isle of The Dead, and the Erlanger family vault, designed by Russian architect F. Schechtel, the master of art nouveau. This vault bears the traces of a strangest pagan tradition – for unknown reasons, the walls of the vault were chosen by the local people as a place to write their… messages to God! Here are some of them: “Lord, help me to get a job. Vladimir,” “Lord, give me strength to get B in descriptive geometry,” “Lord, help me pass my driver’s exams and get a license,” “Lord, help me get rid of financial problems” and so on. The inscriptions are regularly washed off only to appear again. But that’s not the only strange Russian graveyard tradition.

The Vvedenskoye Cemetery. Source: Ricardo Marquina

Since time immemorial, Russians are used to having picnics on their ancestor’s graves. In the Czarist times, on big holidays Muscovites went to the graveyard, carrying baskets of food and samovars to make memorial feasts often continued as drinking sprees. In Soviet times, the tradition received an unexpected boost. When drinking in the street was banned, many people began using graveyards just to drink – even if police would spot the drinkers, they had an excuse ready: “we are commemorating our late friend”, and the cops, aware of the tradition, would let the drinkers be. That’s why most of Russian graves are equipped with benches.

On a nice day, take off a few hours and walk along the curved alleys, among the diverse vaults and headstones bearing names of those people whose lives were once also a part of this city’s history. The best part is that you won’t be bothered by crowds of sightseers – for them, Moscow graveyards are still an uncharted territory.

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