If Moscow has one go-to cemetery, this is it. Novodevichy Cemetery lies just to the south of the UNESCO World Heritage site Novodevichy Convent, which was established in the 16th century (1524 to be exact). Both cemetery and convent are surrounded by high brick walls, but are separate from one another (at least to the public). The cemetery opened in the late 19th century, and like many other great cemeteries in Europe, it became quite fashionable to be buried here. One of the first notable persons to be buried here was Anton Chekov, but other famous men (and women) were buried here too, from Prokofiev and Kruschev, to Boris Yeltsin. If you couldn’t be buried at the Kremlin, then this was the place to be interred.
There is a map at the front entrance (and I think you can pick up a physical map from the office), but it’s in Russian, so unless you can read cyrillic script, I’m not sure how much use it would be to you. Personally, I almost never use the maps unless I’m looking for the WC (a common theme you may have noticed) or someone (or their monument) that has inspired me in some way. As noted elsewhere in this blog, often the graves of famous people are not that interesting, and I’m not one for celebrity-gazing in life or in death. So, I did what I always do and went exploring.
To begin with, the cemetery entrance lies to the south of the complex (the convent entrance is at the north end). When I arrived there were tour buses lined up outside and massive groups milling about within. Even at the most famous and most visited cemetery in the world (Pere Lachaise) I had never seen such large groups before. Luckily, most were there to see the ‘best of’ the cemetery, and I do have to admit I lingered whenever I came across an English-speaking one (most were Chinese though). I have to admit that it would have been nice to have had a guide, as there were so many interesting monuments there that I wanted to know more about, but unfortunately that wasn’t an option. The featured image for this post is the grave of Yuri Nikulin, a famous Russian actor/comedian/clown, known to all across Russia and neighbouring countries and whose death was greatly mourned. Of course, I didn’t know this when I saw his grave, but I was lucky enough to overhear the guide talk about him – in fact, he seemed to be quite emotional about it.
Of course, most of the graves seem to be of ‘great’ men – politicians, generals, cosmonauts, actors, writers, etc. I’ve never seen so many bust of men than I have in this cemetery. Coming across a female statue (or relief) was much more rare. Of course, there were scant religious images here – in all likelihood due to the secular power of the Soviet Union – so the images of weeping angels and Mary’s that are common to other cemeteries were not in view here. In a sense that’s what made it really interesting – I’ve become so used to seeing angels and cherubs and draped urns and broken pillars that it was nice to be shown something completely different. Everything from ‘great’ men with puffed out chests, covered in medals, to tanks and missles and occasionally some matronly women. Although there is clearly no more room for new burials, there were some very new graves there, and not out of place with any of the older ones. Stone carving is definitely not a lost art here in Moscow, and many of the graves, from the beginning of the 20th century to this one, all featured some kind of stone work. And unlike the cemeteries in Italy (let’s say), where the 19th and early 20th-century statues had a more classical look to them, while the later statues grew to be much more abstract, in this cemetery it would be hard to know when any of the statues were done, as most of them have a kind of timeless look. Not all of course, there are some Art Deco and 1950s Soviet influences, but for the most part, it’s pretty uniform.
The cemetery itself is split into two parts, with the newer graves (1950s? onwards) to the very south, while the older graves are in the section right next to the convent. Older still is the necropolis that once existed inside the convent walls (Russian nobility favoured being buried at famous sites like these; Donskoy Monastery was similarly popular). The necropolis inside the convent walls is mostly gone – there are some graves and stones still around, but nothing compared to the 2000 or so original interments. The cemetery is large and has lots of green things growing there, but it’s not overly unruly and most of the paths are quite even and easy to walk around. I spent most of the morning here, but this definitely would be a place to visit again and again, it was so rich in imagery and interesting monuments.
Quality of Monuments: Good. It’s a fairly newer cemetery, and most of the monuments are carved out of granite, or similarly strong stone, so even old graves look new, nothing has really faded. In the older section of the cemetery this is less true, but it is possible to find some monuments with religious symbols as most of these pre-date the Soviet era.
Cemetery Grounds: Large and well-maintained. When I was there, a lot of work was being done on the drainage system which meant some paths were blocked off, but the cemetery as a whole was accessible. Lots of large beautiful trees here, flowering bushes, and other interesting flora. There are toilets near the entrance, but they are all squatters and you need to bring your own TP.
Visitors: Lots of groups, but they mostly stuck to the main trails and were easily avoided. By lunchtime most of them had disappeared.
Photographer Notes: Wide angle lenses would be good for close quarters, and teles for monuments to high or out of reach to get close to.
Cemetery: Novodevichy Cemetery (in Russian: Новоде́вичье кла́дбище, or Novodevichye kladbishche)
Location: Luzhnetsky proezd, 2, Moscow, 119048. Not far from Sportivnaya metro station on the red line (many venues for the 1980 Olympic Games were held here). Right now there seems to be renovation work being done at nearly every metro station in the city, so exits are not always available. Although there were lots of signs for the Olympic sports venues, there were none for the convent/cemetery, so I just headed east and quickly saw the spires of the convent. After crossing the main road you are faced with a long red wall. Turning right (north) will take you to the convent entrance, turning left (south) will take you to the cemetery.