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Novodevichy Cemetery

June 2, 2012 at 6:26 am
By Mary and Evia

On a beautiful morning before class, we visited Novodevichy Cemetery. Inaugurated in 1898, this cemetery is a “who’s who” of Russian literature, art and public figures. Second only to the Kremlin wall, this is the place to be buried if you are famous in Russia. The cemetery is adjacent to a 16th century convent of the same name. The cemetery and convent were spared from the massive demolitions of the Soviet period because the convent was turned into apartments.

Walking through the cemetery, we were stunned by all of the names we recognized. Many of the people we have been studying are buried there. However, a lot of them were unknown to us before studying Russian. We have now studied their lives, works, legacy, and even visited some of their homes. Seeing their burial place seemed a necessary part to complete our studies.

One of Evia’s favorite Russian authors, Nikolai Gogol is buried in this cemetery, and his was one of the first graves we saw. Gogol was born 1809 in the Ukraine and spent most of his life in Petersburg, though he sporadically visited Moscow and spent his last winters here. He moved to St Petersburg in the hopes of finding fame for himself, but ended up a clerk in a government office. His most famous works were written between 1832 and 1841, and he is most renowned for The Nose, The Government Inspector, The Overcoat, and Dead Souls. We read The Overcoat in preparation for our trip to St. Petersburg, as the story takes place there. The harsh Petersburg climate is central to this story. He was a very religious man, and though he received a lot of critical acclaim, he had hoped for Dead Souls to spread a more religious message. He intended to continue it into another novel as well, but he struggled a great deal with this and ended up casting what he had written into the fire, on more than one occasion. The last time he consigned his manuscript to burn (though, according to author Mikhail Bulgakov, a great admirer of Gogol who actually lies in the same plot as his idol, this is impossible, as “Manuscripts don’t burn.”), he convinced himself he failed in his religious duty, and starved himself to death. He died in February of 1852. Gogol was originally buried at Danilov Monastery, but when it was destroyed in 1931 he was moved to Novodevichy.

Mikhail Bulgakov, born 1891 in Kiev, has played a large role in our studies here. Most famous for Master and Margarita, Bulgakov originally trained to be a military doctor. He was injured in WWI, and suffered from chronic pain for the rest of his life. This pain led to morphine and heroin addictions. After the Russian Civil War, he moved to Moscow, where he lived near Patriarch’s Ponds. This week we went on two tours of Moscow correlating to events of Master and Margarita, and we spent much time at Patriarch’s Ponds dissecting the scene from Master that occurred there; Berlioz’s decapitation by way of railcar. Bulgakov’s birthday was yesterday, May 15th, and we paid a visit to his apartment. There was a celebration of sorts happening in the courtyard outside. The stairs leading to the apartment were covered in graffiti with lines from Master. Earlier in our time in Moscow, we attended a production of Master that used technology and artistic license (perhaps a bit too much) to stage the novel. Now that we have seen where he lived, read and analyzed his greatest work, traipsed around the city tracking his life and the scenes of the novel and even celebrated his birthday, seeing Bulgakov’s final resting place adds a conclusion. The rock on Bulgakov’s grave was originally used in Gogol’s headstone at Danilov, but re-appropriated to show his appreciation for Gogol.

Our path next led us to the grave of Anton Chekhov, who in fact references Gogol in his work The Seagull. Now, most everyone is familiar with this Russian author, born in January of 1860. He moved to Moscow when he was 19, and he started his career as a doctor, and continued his practice through his literary career. His first works were short stories and plays, written for financial gain. Once he got older, however, and once he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, he began writing more creatively, and helped shape the concept of the short story to date. He also wrote a great many plays and worked in close conjunction with the Moscow Art Theater. In St. Petersburg, we used Jacob’s copy of Chekov plays to act them out ourselves. We preformed The Bear and several others. He eventually succumbed to tuberculosis in 1904, and was buried where we stood.

Another famous writer laid to rest in the Novodevichy Cemetary is Vladimir Mayakovsky. Before coming to Moscow, we had never heard of him, but through his numerous monuments and the Metro station in his name, it was hard to stay ignorant of his legacy for long. On our first day in Moscow, we visited the beautiful Mayakovskaya metro station on our metro tour. The architecture there is a reference to Futurism and Mayakovsky’s interest in the style. He was born in Georgia in 1893, but moved to Moscow when he was young. He was a revolutionary, and was imprisoned when he was only 16 for six months. He considered himself an artist, and wrote poetry in the style of Futurism, an avant-garde movement. Once the Revolution took place, he threw himself into its efforts through his poetry and plays as both journalism and propaganda. However, he soon grew critical of the Soviet movement, and his critiques of the government were not taken well. He shot himself in his apartment in 1930, and his motives for suicide are not clearly known.

One of the more startling monuments in the cemetery is the outline of a huge plane, with a great number of plaques underneath, commemorating people who died. After reading the inscription and doing some research, we found that the memorial marked the crash of the plane Maxim Gorky. The plane was the largest fixed-wing aircraft of the 1930s, and on May 18th 1935, it and two other smaller planes (for comparisons sake) took off for a demonstration flight above Moscow. However, a poorly executed loop turned deadly, and the Maxim Gorky crashed into a residential neighborhood, killing 45 people – mostly the families of those who built the plane. They are memorialized, and buried in the Novodevichy cemetery. This cemetery was as full of beautiful flora as it was historic memorials.

We very much enjoyed our stroll through the gravesites of Moscow’s most famous. While not exactly the most cheerful tourist attraction, this cemetery is worth a visit.