A Walk Through History in the Novodevichy Cemetery

by Kenneth Rayman on June 11, 2017
I had seen the monuments in documentaries but never knew they were in the same place and as such, never knew the name. So, when my guide said she wanted to stop at this cemetery I had an idea where we were going but still wondered the significance of where they were taking me.

We walked in and she finally explained in a clearer way what we were going to see. She told me in the car about the still active convent next to the cemetery but I didn’t understand the rest of the significance. The first thing she pointed out was a stone slab that was constructed to look like a waving Russian flag and explained to me that it was Boris Yeltsin’s grave and it hit me: “THIS MUST BE WHERE THOSE GRAVESTONES ARE!” At each monument, she told me an interesting story about the person or what they did and the significance of being buried in the cemetery. The Novodevichy Cemetery was a burial place for some of the Soviet Union’s most famous people. I knew about Yuri Gagarin and Sergei Korolev’s burial at the Kremlin wall but not about this cemetery, in name.
Most monuments she pointed out and gave a back story that if you paid attention in history class you might recall. I surprised her, however, by sometimes telling the story that she was about to tell or asking questions that she didn’t expect from the typical tourist. She was amazed when she pointed out the Russian author Nikolai Gogol and I lit up with fascination. She asked if I knew of him and I said I had read one of his short stories in a book with other authors including Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekov, Lev Tolstoy, and Ivan Bunin. When I told her by name the authors’ stories featured in the book she was impressed with the fact that I had such an interest in Russian literature and reacted gleefully when I said my favorite story was Ivan Bunin’s “Sunstroke.”

Knowing now exactly where I was, I asked about certain monuments and whether we could see them. After Yeltsin’s grave, we went to Raisa Gorbacheva’s. I knew Mikhail was still alive but was unaware of Raisa’s passing. She told me that the statue was an artistic rendition of her, rather than an actual likeness, but the story she told shocked me. While she was alive she was one of the most disliked people, not just for her husband’s failed policies but while Russia’s economy was stagnating she was viewed to be extravagant in appearance and perhaps arrogant/ignorant in advocacy. However, at her death, it was revealed how much she did from a humanitarian standpoint for the citizens of Russia and people lined up for hours to visit her graveside and leave flowers.

I asked about Nadezhda Allilueva’s monument, Stalin’s second wife, and I was told it was on the way out but first, I saw Nikita Khrushchev’s monument, next to his wife and a few other family members. I surprised her again asking if Sergei, Nikita’s son who is a professor and scholar at Brown University, would be buried there. She was unaware of his plans but said he was certainly able to. She let me know that the restrictions on who could be buried there had been relaxed but burial in the cemetery is extremely expensive, amounting to $100,000 USD for a plot.

I saw the monuments of the radio voice of Leningrad during the siege, Yuri Levitan, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Anton Chekov, Russian artists Dmitri Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich, Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan, and another one of a kind monument; the only woman to ever serve on the Politburo, Ekaterina Furitsyeva, who never revealed her age or would talk about her age to anyone, even in death, as her monument didn’t list any dates at all. Finally, on the way out we saw Nadezhda’s grave and again the guide was amazed at the knowledge I had of her and Stalin’s family including details of each of his children.

I felt like I had just taken a stroll through Russian history. I connected with my guide through my knowledge and passion for Russian history and culture that may not be as well known in the West, such as with her reaction to the “Sunstroke” story being my favorite. After this stop, her and I began to have the same chemistry as my guide and I had in St. Petersburg and our conversations flowed just as naturally.