After failing to see the Bulgakov museums, the guide took my mother and I to Bulgakov’s burial site: the cemetery at Novodevichy Convent. It was opened in 1989 and is filled with the graves of important Soviet-era Russians. After a bit of searching–the place covers several acres of densely-packed markers below a cover of pine trees–we found Bulgakov’s gravestone. Bulgakov’s grave was completely unremarkable except for it’s rather lumpy appearance.
I mention it only as an excuse to tell you about the rest of the cemetery, which was amazing. I’m a fan of cemeteries. I love seeing the care put into cutting stone before water jets and laser etching took the human hand out of the marking of graves. I love wandering around quiet parks, and cemeteries are made for quiet contemplation. I love the implied stories. And I love to see how different cultures honor their dead. I visited a pet cemetery on a private estate in Ireland that had small marble stones for each of their dogs, marked with a description of their personalities. I’ve visited small cemeteries next to tiny mission churches in New Mexico where the markers, exposed to the sun and the sky in a landscape without trees, feel small and lost. I’ve been to pauper’s graves marking unknown immigrants that died trying to cross the Arizona desert. And I’ve strolled along the stone-lined streets of the Buenos Ares cemetery that resembled a tiny urban city with rows intricately-formed sarcophagi lining the streets. The New Maiden’s Cemetery at first glance looked like many I had visited before, in deep shade with neatly-tended lanes of unique markers. But I’ve never seen anything like it: an atheist cemetery. (That’s not precisely true. There is an occasional cross–Gogol’s grave, which was moved to the cemetery, has one, though apparently his marker has gone through several changes over the decades–or other religious marker.) It’s a cemetery dedicated to honor individual’s contribution to the state. Military cemeteries honor service to a country, but the lines of identical markers make an individual grave melt into the mass, reinforcing their role of of one among thousands. And even these graves, set aside for those who served, are often marked with religious symbols, pointing to a hope for something beyond this life. This cemetery was dedicated to the individual, the heroes who set themselves apart in service to the collective. Grave markers depicted people doing their jobs: generals, doctors, dancers, clowns.. all in action, all at work. Compared to a typical grave where information is often limited to the name, birth and death dates, and perhaps a word or two about their lives and relationships, these sculptures (at least to me, not knowing the dead) to reduce the dead to their roles depicted, without room to imagine or remember them as whole people with families and homes and spiritual lives.
The place was amazing. The sculptures were sometimes beautiful and often eye-catching and creative. And it all felt wrong and… clumsy. A museum of the dead for the edification of the living citizens rather than a final resting place for exceptional women and men.