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A Lovely Day for a Trip to the Graveyard

A tombstone of the actor Boris Khmelnitsky

There is a peculiar brand of Russian tourism – visiting cemeteries. First, there is the most important grave of the most important Soviet dead – the Lenin mausoleum. Second, right behind him, there is the Necropolis under the Kremlin wall – the entire length of the wall facing the Red Square is the burial site of Russian revolutionaries and Soviet dignitaries such as Dzerzhinsky, Gagarin or Brezhnev. A visit to the mausoleum also includes the tour of the “Necropolis”.

Russia is the only country I know of, that has more than one cemetery designated specifically for cultural and scientific elite and former leaders. Novodevichy, Vagan’kovo, and Kuntsevo are the most famous ones. All constitute important sites of tourism and pilgrimage. Novodevishy, for example, is listed in the top five tourist attractions of Moscow.

This phenomenon strikes me as radically different from say, a visit to the Westminster Abbey, Lincoln Memorial or Mount Herzl. Unlike other places, where people usually visit just one memorial, in Russia one visits the entire cemetery.

One of the major interests in such visit are the tombstones. Every tombstone is different from the other, has a different design (sometimes by a famous sculptor), shape, writings, letters. Some are ostentatious displays of the ways the deceased saw themselves or were viewed by the others. Some are touching micro-museums to the person whose life it commemorates.

The grave of children films director Natalia Ptushko

Boris Yeltsin's Grave

Burial of special people at special cemeteries, usually nearby a monastery or a church, preceded the Russian Revolution. Yet, the Soviet residents of the celebrity cemeteries outnumber the pre-Soviet ones.

One potential explanation is the Russian “leaders cult” – it could be argued that these are Soviet incarnation of special burial places and churches designated to the Russian royal family and nobility.

Yet, the “leaders’ cult” explanation is not enough if we consider that the most popular tombstones are not those of the Soviet heads of state but of the cultural figures: poets, writers, musicians, scientists, journalists, directors, actors, singers, and even… clowns. The importance of these tombstones suggests not a primordial “submission to the leader” but rather the unique, outstanding respect paid in Russia to its cultural elite.

This tombstone (Kuntsevo cemetery) merely says "Clown Karandash". No other explanations were required.

Tomb of the journalist Artem Borovik, who died in a plain crash

Another possible explanation is that like everything else in the Soviet Union, burial sites also adhered to their own system of allocation of privilege. Cultural and political elites enjoyed a variety of special stores, special hospitals, special buildings, and dachas. All those “special places” had also internal rankings and were allocated according to the internal rankings of the elite. For example, all Soviet heads of state are buried at site #1 – the Kremlin wall. The only exception is Nikita Khrushchev – whose falling out of favor is evident in his burial at site # 2 – Novodevichy cemetery. Another example is the bard Vladimir Vysotsky – who enjoyed immense popularity with the Soviet people but was “demoted” to cemetery #3 – Vagan’kovo.

Vysotsky's grave at Vagan'kovo Cemetery is the most visited grave in Russia

Many of the cultural figures buried at the special cemeteries were far from being the regime’s favourites, and obtained their burial sites, not through the allocation of privilege from the party, but through their sheer popularity with the public. If the state leaders could help it, Vysotsky would have been buried in a distant and unknown cemetery, for they feared that his grave would evolve into a site of admiration and protest against the regime. Yet, in a country where cemeteries matter such a great deal, the party did not dare to bury the bard in an utterly unimportant place and had to settle for merely a “demotion” in location.

Unlike the interesting tombstones of the creative intelligentsia, the state and party leaders remained in their death what they have been throughout their lives: heads. Boring and monolith tombs not only resemble the earthly shapes of the people whose graves they guard (rectangular) but adhere to the form of the conventional socialist bust, the likes of which can be seen also at the Kremlin Necropolis.

That the ticket to a “celebrity cemetery” was either one’s position in the state apparatus or his or her appreciation by the public, resulted in some interesting paradoxes. One such paradox is that the Soviet creative elites are buried alongside their oppressors, censors and critics from the party apparatus. Another interesting one, is that the tombstone of Nikita Khrushchev was made by the sculptor Ernst Neizvestnyi, whose work Khrushchev criticized as “degenerate art”.

Neizvetsnyi's sculpture on Khrushchev's grave

Yesterday I visited the grave of Boris Strel’nikov – a renown Pravda correspondent and one of the main protagonists of my dissertation. While searching for his last place of rest at Kuntsevo cemetery, I realized that the special cemeteries and uniquely designed tombstones are also about something else: individuality.

Soviet Union emphasized uniformity. One just has to look at rows on rows of similar looking huge apartment buildings, similarly looking Soviet era cars (two brands, two models and two colours were available to the “regular people”) or Soviet-produced clothes and shoes. People found ways to escape this uniformity – decorated their flats in a unique way or made their own clothes. The special, custom made, elaborate tombstones, telling the story of the people who lay underneath, were another way to stand out in the crowd and to assert the unique personality of the deceased. It is kind of sad to think that one of the instances when the Soviet people asserted their own individuality was their death.

The tomb of comedian, actor, and circus man Yuri Nikulin

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • http://www.criticalflare.com/ Zohar Manor-Abel

    I guess the one big difference is the collection of all of the graves in very few cemeteries. It comes to mind (especially in relation to the caption under Vysotsky's grave) that around the world people are traveling especially to see the graves of known artists and leaders in a sort of pilgrimage. Elvis's grave in Memphis and Jim Morrison's grave in Paris are a good example.

    In an after thought, the old cemetery in Tel Aviv, 'Trumpeldor Cemetery', has a collection of the highest cultural and political dignitaries of the early state of Israel in a similar way to what you described here.

    The idea of “the Soviet people asserted their own individuality [in] their death” through the shapes of their statues is very strong. I'm sure it could be explored further. On the other hand, it seems to be quite unique to see all the faces of 'heroes of old' – it seems unusual compared to other cemeteries. It feels that their stares could be quite disturbing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ory-Amitay/779266543 Ory Amitay

    With such tombstones, it is small wonder that the cemeteries become hot-spots for tourists. I've never seen anything like it, anywhere.

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  • Juan

    I visited Novodevichy the other day. It certainly was one of the more interesting things I have seen recently. I understand that the style of grave has been maintained by some groups post fall of the USSR, in particular Mafia groups – although this is third hand. Has anyone seen examples of this?

  • dina

    The mafia (oligarch) narrative could have something to it – after all, even is you are a celebrity, it still costs a fortune to be buried in one of these places. Maybe people saw a grave and just didn’t know it was some mafia guy. I know that I’ve pretty much recognized all the names that I saw, but then the cemeteries are enormous in size.