I still hadn’t been inside the Kremlin, but, as with previous days, I couldn’t bear the crowds, so I opted for the Donskoy Monastery and it’s old cemetery. There are actually two cemeteries here – the old necropolis, within the monastery walls, and the new cemetery, outside the walls (but enclosed just the same). While I did do a brief stroll through the new cemetery, I gave it a pass as it was mostly a modern working cemetery, with new graves and recent mourners. Note: I should have done my research beforehand – the cemetery was the burial place of thousands of people who perished during Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937-38. Of the 40,000 people who were killed in Moscow between 1930 and 1953, approximately 10,000 were cremated and buried here. There are three monuments to these mass graves at the cemetery. Alas…if I ever come back to Moscow again, I will definitely spend more time here.

The old necropolis, which was the first one I entered, was fascinating. The majority of burials here were pre-20th century, which meant a lot of old cemetery/funerary imagery. Stone tombs/caskets with clawed feet, plenty of skulls (winged or not), winged hourglasses, inverted torches, pyramids, obelisks, globes, crosses and other religious imagery – it was all here. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first came here – in fact I was a little leery of bringing out my camera since the church was in use there, but when it became clear I wasn’t the only tourist there, I became much more confident.

Right now, like so many other places in Moscow, there is a lot of restoration going on at the monastery/cemetery. (In fact, I can’t think of a single place I have visited that didn’t have some kind of restorative work going on). Part of that is due to the fact that one of the towers had a bad fire 3 years ago and they are still trying to repair it. It’s also clear that the cemetery needs work too – graves are (or have been) subsiding into the ground, headstones are listing, and other markers are literally falling or cracking apart after the ravages of time and weather. That said, the grounds are mostly accessible to all, so I had a nice afternoon exploring all of the old stones and monuments.

From what I can tell, the monastery itself was founded in 1591 and the cemetery in the late 18th century. In 1771 the plague ravaged Moscow, and that, combined with Catherine I’s edict that cemeteries be outside the city limits, led to the creation of 7 cemeteries, one of which was Donskoy Cemetery. For many years it was the go-to cemetery for the Russian nobility and wealthy merchants. In the 1920s and 30s the monastery became a museum and depository for sculptures and ornaments from destroyed convents and churches (I belived Novedevichy was one of them, luckily Donskoy was spared). Even though it is an old cemetery, there is still room for new burials, and those that are done in the cemetery tend to be for anti-Soviet partisans, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

So back in the late ’90s (!) I did one of my master’s research papers on cemeteries, and I learned everything I needed to know about cemetery imagery. However, since a lot of the most iconic imagery resides in really old cemeteries, and I mostly visited newer ones (19th century or later), it meant that I only ever came across a few of those old symbols only rarely. The Donskoy old necropolis, however, IS old, and it has a fantastic array of various old symbols – some done in a more primitive style, others more sophisticated. I’m not used to seeing skulls or winged _____ (skulls, hourglasses, etc), so in the beginning I took a lot of photos, but after a while, I just had to stop. How many skulls do you really need to see anyway? 😉 There were some ornate tombs, small pyramids, obelisks, broken columns, globes, and more. In particular I was fascinated by the above-ground graves – literally sealed stone coffins with ornate imagery carved into them – family seals, angels, skulls, and more. Some of the coffins were obviously placed together more recently, but as I walked through the cemetery I also noticed a number of these stone coffins kind of half-in/half-out of the ground. Quite a number of them were rather small, I’m assuming for children and babies. There were some statues here, mostly religious in nature (angels and Jesus), but some were more classically-inspired, and others were of normal people in grief.

The monastery has high brick walls surrounding it, similar to Novodevichy, but on the back wall there were huge mural-like statues set up in a kind of diorama. From what I have been able to find, these figures represent real people, but why they were set up this way, I have no idea. I really wish I could read Russian! Maybe I could find out some more information about these really interesting cemeteries.

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Quality of Monuments: Great – a fascinating blend of old, worn out carvings and newer statues. Lots of old stone and metal (iron) work, both in terms of coffins and statues and bas-reliefs.

Cemetery Grounds: They surround the monastery, and as such it’s not as large as some of the bigger cemeteries like Novodevichy. There are paths, but due to the haphazard nature of some of the graves and flora, some paths are not as accessible. However, it is a smaller cemetery so it’s easy to get alternative views if needed.

Visitors: This is both a religious and tourist site, so there were some visitors there, but they were mostly in small family/friend groupings.

Photographer notes: This is a treasure trove of all kinds of imagery, so well worth visiting.


Cemetery: Donskoy Monastery and Old Donskoy Necropolis (Russian: Донско́й монасты́рь)

Inaugurated: Monastery (1591), Cemetery (1771?)

Location: 3-y Donskoy proyezd. The nearest metro stop is Shabolovskaya, although Leninskiy Prospekt is not that much further away.

Hours: 07:30 – 19:00