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May 26, 2005

Exegi Monumentem – Some Russian Memorials of Death

Posted by David Conway

Memorials to the dead - from the new Cathedral of the Spilt Blood in Ekaterinburg to mafia cemeteries - are springing up in today's Russia. David Conway asks, what does the way Russia memorializes the dead say about the condition of that country today?

There are two tourist attractions on the itinerary of every visitor to Ekaterinburg, and the more grandiose is the Cathedral of the Spilt Blood, on the site of the Ipatiev house where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered. During the Communist period, Sverdlovsk (as the town was then known) was a closed city, and when business visitors from the West began to come there in the 80s, they had what was felt to be an unhealthy interest in the scene of the crime. Moscow ordered the house razed to the ground, and the then governor of Sverdlovsk, a Mr Yeltsin who eventually went on to higher things, hastened to comply. Now there has been constructed an enormous structure with gilded onion domes, an extravagant iconostasis, and a crypt of which one enclosure conforms to the outlines of the cellar where the deed took place. The victims are presently proceeding through the stages of beatification of the Russian Orthodox Church. Indeed the local authorities fought hard to have the remains buried in the new cathedral, rather than removed to join the other Romanovs in the Petropavlovsk church in St. Petersburg; when the decision went in St. Petersburg's favour the present governor of Ekaterinburg went into a sulk and was one of the few political dignitaries not to attend the interment. It was a great loss no doubt to Ekaterinburg's tourist trade, although the Cathedral is already a major centre of pilgrimage.

On our way to the second tourist sight (the border between Europe and Asia which is about 15 miles out of town, and marked by a modest sculpture and a sleepy, deserted, café) I mentioned to my friend Evgeny why the cathedral had been of especial interest to me. For the last ten years I have been interested by cemeteries and memorials of death. Not, I assure you, in any morbid way. Elias Canetti, somewhere in his endlessly fascinating, annoying but compelling book Crowds and Power, notes that there is something really rather cheering about visiting a cemetery, where thousands around us are lying down immobile, whilst we ourselves are still standing. I agree.

I got the cemetery bug after visiting by chance Jim Tipton's visionary virtual cemetery Find-a-Grave site in its early days. Jim's idea was to have a record of the graves of the world's great and good available to all at a click. At the time I was living in the town of Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg) which boasted the grave of Immanuel Kant. I contributed a photo of this, the first of many subsequent uploads. Although the site has now become rather commercialised beyond Jim's original conception, I still regularly receive enquiries about some of the motley collection of people (about 2,000 of them) that I have re-interred in cyberspace.

On learning this, Evgeny made a couple of small diversions for my interest. One was to a cemetery with its own "Mafia alley". Along its main footpath are reared numerous massive black granite slabs, most engraved with photos of those lying beneath them, with heavily-jowled features and in immaculate Gucci suits or their favourite leisure-wear. Plots in this area are much sought after and go for premium prices. Unfortunately the presence of families and bodyguards visiting some of these tombs for wreath-laying (it was I understand the anniversary of the gunning down of an entire mob whilst in action in Hungary) intimidated me from taking too many photographs.

(Click the thumbnails to enlarge)

I was reminded of the day when a friend had taken me to the tomb in Moscow of the Russian actor and singer Vladimir Vysotsky, on the anniversary day of his death. Vysotsky was a Russian equivalent of Bob Dylan and John Lennon combined whose songs remain part of the national heritage. The tomb was piled high with bouquets of flowers – but not so high as that of the Georgian mobster Kvantashvili buried next door. This latter gentleman was once quoted as saying:
I am not taking anything from anyone. I don't even ask for anything. They bring money and give it of their own accord.
He was clearly the guy to whom New Russia felt it proper to offer devotion.

In general Russians prize their major cemeteries and the most notable – Novodevichy in Moscow, the Alexander Nevsky cemeteries in St. Petersburg – are consciously laid out as open-air tributes to Russian worthies. Indeed during the Communist period much reburial was undertaken to create a concentration of celebrities in these valhallas, which today attract many more visitors than, say, Kensal Green or even Highgate in London. They are comparable as park-museums with the great Parisian cemeteries or the excellent Kerepesi cemetery in Budapest. (We have Westminster Abbey of course, but that is indoors and creates a quite different effect). Here is Oistrakh with his violin – there is the exotic Alexandra Kollontai – there the aircraft designer Tupolev – it all makes for an inspiring and instructive stroll. And they are a reminder, which I think today most Russians desperately need sub-consciously, that their country has been and still can be great in many spheres. Nearly all these graves are regularly laid with flowers from admirers, even in the depths of winter. They are not only a record of the past, they may also yet be signposts to the future.

The second of Evgeny's Ekaterinburg diversions was very different – it was to a memorial ground recently laid out in memory of the 30 or 40 thousand political victims of Stalinism who died in Sverdlovsk oblast. Every name that has been recovered is inscribed on a vast series of tablets.

(Click the thumbnails to enlarge)

It is still difficult for Russia to come to terms with this phase of its history but the existence of this memorial, deserted though it is, is a welcome sign that political oppression from whatever quarter is not to be entirely airbrushed out. While in Ekaterinburg, incidentally, I attended a conference organised by Open Russia - an NGO founded and supported by the beleaguered Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who remains its chairman – on the topic of media freedom. Let us hope, regardless of the convictions in the Yukos trial, that Open Russia remains to become a more inspiring landmark of modern Russia than the tombs of the Godfathers.

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I see that one of the two "mafia" tombs has Arabic writing on it, while the other has a prominent cross. Does that mean that the person buried in the tomb with Arabic is Chechen?

Posted by: Jane at May 27, 2005 02:06 PM
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