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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.