Text and photos Ian Mitchell
As it is the season of both Easter and spring, there can be few places more worth a visit in Moscow than Novodevichy Cemetery, the second most-famous burial ground in Russia.
In the Soviet period, the greatest celebrities were buried alongside the Kremlin wall in Red Square, including Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, Brezhnev, Gagarin, and John Reed, the American author of Ten Days that Shook the World. But there is not much to see as there are only twelve memorial statues arranged in a line behind a large, box-like structure in red granite that dominates the square and that should perhaps, reflecting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier around the corner in the Alexandrovsky Gardens, be known as the Tomb of the Well-Known Communist.
Novodevichy, by contrast, is a bit removed from the city, allowing it to exude an aura of sanctity and peace. It was opened in 1898 when the small cemetery inside the adjoining Novodevichy (New Maiden) Convent had filled up. Even though today the new cemetery is also nearly full, a visitor last summer could nevertheless see there the freshly dug graves of Boris Yeltsin and Mstislav Rostropovich.
President Vladimir Putin attended Rostropovich’s funeral, which was significant since the musician had lived in self-imposed exile from the Soviet Union in protest at its restrictions on cultural freedom during the whole period when Putin worked in the KGB restricting that freedom. In recent years, though he had homes in Russia, Rostropovich lived mainly in Paris. Despite having being born in Baku, the famous cellist chose to be buried in Moscow.
The range of other celebrities to find ultimate rest in Novodevichy is wide. Among cultural and political figures whose graves can be visited there are Nikolai Gogol, Konstantin Stanislavsky, Fyodor Chaliapin, Anton Chekhov, Dmitri Shostakovich, Alexander Scriabin, Svyatoslav Richter, David Oistrakh, Sergei Prokofiev, Galina Ulanova, Ilya Ehrenburg, Madame Furtseva, Nikita Khrushchev, Nikolai Podgorny, Anastas Mikoyan, Andrei Gromyko, Madame Dzerzhinsky, General Panfilov, Polina Zhemchuzhina (Molotov’s wife), General Lebed, and Raisa Gorbachev.
At the cemetery gate, the visitor can buy a small chart with the graves marked and an alphabetical list of the most famous names. But so densely packed are the plots, and so lush is the vegetation, that it is hard to find them all. Among the ones I tried but failed to locate was, most grievously of all, Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva. Others were Kropotkin, Alexandra Kollontai, Isaac Levitan, Mayakovsky, Molotov himself, and Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador in London before and during World War II.
Hard to miss because of their size were the graves of Brunov the famous Russian clown who died not long ago and, more somberly, “Aircraft Ilyushin-18 (Yugoslavia 1961).” All the people on the flight are named and therefore remembered, even if none of their remains were identifiable.
The headstone that I particularly wanted to find was above an unkempt, weed- and bramble-covered grave, which held the remains of Vasily Vasilivich Ulrikh, the judge who presided over most of the great show trials of the 1930s. Ulrikh was a Latvian, whose father had been a German revolutionary and mother a Russian aristocrat. He so enjoyed his work applying Stalin’s predetermined sentences that he often watched the executions he had ordered, and occasionally carried them out himself.
In his book Assignment in Utopia, the left-wing American journalist Eugene Lyons describes Ulrikh’s appearance in court in terms that reflect exactly the faded but still discernible photograph in the middle of the otherwise unadorned, lichen-covered headstone. “In his round pudgy face the gods had modeled a mask of impish, gloating cruelty. His flushed, overstuffed features were twisted continually into a grimace of brutal sarcasm... That melon-face, hovering above the trial, sneering and jeering, was a caricature of the very idea of justice.”
Despite this, Ulrikh’s body lies in consecrated ground, reflecting the Orthodox idea that there are no sheep and goats, some of whom will be saved and others not, as in western Christianity, but only sinners and other sinners. No one will get to heaven until the most wretched among us has been gathered into the fold.
There can be few better illustrations of this generous-spirited idea than the continuing presence of Ulrikh in the same cemetery as the likes of Levitan, Ulanova, and Rostropovich: During the fat Latvian’s time on the bench, 95,000 out of a total of 130,000 priests of the Orthodox Church were shot, and most of the rest sent to the Gulag. May God rest his soul.
How to get there:
Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery lies on the Moscow river, a few hundred yards upstream from Luzhniki Stadium, a venue for the 1980 Olympic Games. Take the metro to Sportivnaya on the red line. Walk east, that is with the Moscow University building over your left shoulder, for about a hundred yards until you come to Lyzhnitsky Proezd, then look to your left, down towards the Third Ring Road, which will be between you and the stadium. The cemetery entrance is about 50 yards up from that road.