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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow's Dead Cities

Galina Benislavskaya came to the Vagankovskoye Cemetery one December day. She had a smoke by the grave of the poet Sergei Yesenin and then pulled out a pistol and tried to kill herself, taking notes on a pack of cigarettes: "First try misfired. Second try misfired. Third try misfired. Must I use the knife?" On the fourth try, the 29-year-old woman wounded herself. She was found the next morning by the cemetery guard still barely alive but passed away en route to Botkinskaya Hospital.

This was in 1926, one year after Yesenin hanged himself in the Hotel Angleterre.

Moscow's cemeteries are sites where the fates of many different people converge, such as those of the poet and Benislavskaya, who worked for the secret police. Their graves sit side by side at Vagankovskoye Cemetery. Unlikely couples, eccentric lives and tragic deaths are documented in stone, surrounded by legends and landscapes that have not seen major changes for centuries. As Moscow is rapidly transforming with new development, its cemeteries keep a low profile. Last year, Ritual, the company that services Moscow's cemeteries, decided to open a tourism office and take people around the city's two most renowned burial sites, the Vagankovskoye and Novodevichy cemeteries.

"In Soviet times, you could be persecuted for doing this," said Vladimir Kudinov, one of the guides at Ritual, as he showed a tour group from St. Petersburg around Vagankovskoye, the biggest cemetery in central Moscow. "Some graves of people "inconvenient" for the Soviet regime were dug up in the night, erased," he added.

In the unofficial breakdown of cemeteries, Novodevichy is the necropolis for undisputed makers of Russian culture and history, from Anton Chekhov and Nikolai Gogol to Mstislav Rostropovich and Boris Yeltsin, who were both buried there last year. It is a popular destination for foreign tourists. Vagankovskoye, on the other hand, is a place of burial for adored singers, actors and other iconic Russians like Vladimir Vysotsky and Bulat Okudzhava. A few years ago, an urban legend began to circulate that Vagankovskoye was the resting place of Sonya Golden Hand, a legendary thief from the 1920s. After a monument was constructed, it became a mecca of sorts for the criminal world, who left messages at the grave pleading "Sonya, teach me how to live," along with other wishes. In reality, Sonya, or Sofia Blyuvshtein, died in a Siberian prison camp.

Maria Antonova / MT
The grave of poet Sergei Yesenin was the site of Galina Benislavskaya's suicide.
It is possible that some of the legends were created by tour guide wannabes. "Some people practically live at the cemetery gates. They come in the morning and offer to take tourists around," said Svetlana Ozkan of Ritual. "We would like to distance ourselves from amateurs and to offer quality tours," she added. In the summer months, tours will be offered almost every day and expand to Vvedenskoye Cemetery, east of central Moscow.

Vvedenskoye is considered the most unlikely Moscow cemetery as well as the most beautiful. Previously called the "German" cemetery, it was the final resting place of all non-Orthodox Christians in Moscow before the Revolution, including Peter the Great's associate Franz Lefort and Frenchmen from Napoleon's Grand Armee. Their tomb actually incorporates cannons that they used in battle.

The angel figures, symbolic gates of death and crypts with Latin inscriptions could easily have been at Pere Lachaise. Vvedenskoye is a favorite spot for Moscow's Goths, who come here for the appropriate atmosphere.

"Cemeteries are like crossword puzzles: What you find depends on your erudition," said Vladimir Kudinov as we walked to the metro after the morning tour. He has a day job as an engineer at a Moscow factory but says he wrote a book about Danilovskoye Cemetery by walking around and writing down interesting names on tombstones, later looking them up in the archives. "You have to look at cemeteries from the point of view of cross-generational ties, not from the point of view of burial services," Kudinov concluded. "People come to them to pay their respects to their heroes."


Novodevichye Cemetery 2 Luzhnetsky Proyezd, M. Sportivnaya

Vagankovskoye Cemetery 15 Ul. Sergeya Makeyeva, M. Ulitsa 1905 Goda

Vvedenskoye Cemetery 1 Ul. Nalichnaya, M. Semyonovskaya

For tour schedule and information, contact Ritual at (499) 157-34-62