More background info:
Novodevichy cemetery has long been a burial site second in prestigiousness only to the necropolis by the Kremlin
Wall, where most of the leaders of the Soviet Union
were buried from Lenin
(who has his own separate mausoleum
) and Stalin
to Chernenko. The only exception is Stalin's successor Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), who was buried here in Novodevichy, after he had been ousted in a non-violent coup by Brezhnev and his associates who forced Khrushchev to “retire”. He had so fallen from the Politburo's grace at the time of his death that he was denied a state funeral and was banished to the second-best burial ground.
Khushchev's close ally, Anastas Mikoyan, later also ended up here, as did independent Russia
's first president Boris Yeltsin and the wife of the last leader of the USSR
, Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife Raisa.
's second wife, Nadezhda Sergeevna Alliluyeva Stalina, is buried here too. She infamously shot herself in her bedroom in 1932 after a public row with her husband at a dinner party (apparently the marriage had already been strained and rows a frequent occurrence). The case was covered up and it was claimed that she had died from an intestinal illness. She was only 31.
There's a sizeable military section at Novodevichy too, but names indirectly associated with the Soviet military are also found elsewhere in the cemetery, such as famous aircraft designers, rocket engineers and even a couple of cosmonauts, including Gherman Titov (1935-2000), the second man in space (after Yuri Gagarin).
Many of the cemetery's famous names of Russian
culture actually had their graves relocated here from abbeys etc. that faced demolition during the most destructive phase of Stalin
's rule. That's how the cemetery, originally founded at the end of the 19th century, acquired some of its “stars” during the 1930s.
In theory the cemetery is still in use, but not on such a regular basis and only for extra-special VIPs, as it were.
What there is to see: If you are interested in seeing specific graves and can read Cyrillic, then the large panel with a map of the cemetery and lists of names (matched with location numbers on the map) that you can study at the entrance is of great help. Graves of famous writers and composers include Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. But here I will concentrate on only a few names that are of particular significance either in terms of politics, history or the military or are remarkable for their sepulchral art styles.
Of course you can also just wander about aimlessly too and see what you stumble upon and otherwise enjoy the nice park-like atmosphere of the place. That said, though, during my last visit in August 2017 parts of the cemetery were teeming with large groups of Chinese
tourists, apparently several separate groups, each on a guided tour (which seemed very selective and did not include some of the graves I would have regarded the most significant – maybe their tours had a special kind of theme?). That had an impact on the overall atmosphere, of course, so I tried to keep a distance and visit graves not in the order I had originally intended but as and when they became less crowded. When I first visited the place back in August 1999, there were hardly any other visitors here.
My first port of call on my second visit was Nikita Khrushchev's grave, since I had failed to locate it the time before, but on this occasion I came better prepared. It's at the back of the southern one of the two halves of the cemetery, basically a straight line along the main path from the entrance, right at the end before the gate to the military part, on the right. It's not very in your face, but easy to find once you know where to look.
Yet even with consulting the map at the entrance, however, I failed to locate the grave of Andrei Gromyko (1909-1989), aka “Grim Grom”, the long-serving former Foreign Minister of the USSR
(1957-1985!). I even returned to the chart to check again twice – still, to no avail.
Almost impossible to overlook, in contrast, is the pompous tomb of Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007), featuring a giant marble “flag” painted in the Russian
tricolours. En route to Khrushchev he's to the left of the central path on the first wide side path (which in the other direction connects to the other half of cemetery). At the end of this side path by the southern wall is the much more modest grave of Raisa Gorbacheva (1932-1999).
Another especially dark spot is where Stalin
's second wife Nadezhda (Nadya) is buried (1901-1932). She has a slim white marble tombstone with a bust at the top, roughly in the north-easternmost corner of the northern half of the cemetery (note she's not in the list at the entrance under “Stalina” but under “Alliluyeva”, No. 5 on the chart). I had read in my guidebook that her monument is protected by a glass case – and I also saw it in the photos for the relevant entry on the Find-A-Grave website. But when I got there the protective case was no longer there. Nor was there any sign of damage/vandalism. So maybe the name Stalin or any associations with it no longer require such special protection.
Right opposite the grave of Stalin's wife I saw another Stalina, and another Stalin, both on a modest flat stone lying horizontally in the grass. This was for Svetlana Vasilievna Stalina (1947-1990) and for Vasily Vasilevich Stalin (1949-1972). I presume from the patronymics and the years that these must be the daughter and son of Stalin
's son Vasily – so the former is not the Svetlana Stalina who was Stalin's only daughter (born 1924) and who famously defected to the West in 1967 (and died in the USA
as recently as in 2011).
Just a bit to the west from that spot are the two Mikoyan brothers. Anastas Mikoyan (1895-1978) was a Bolshevik of the first hour and an early associate of Stalin
. He managed to stay in the highest ranks throughout the power struggles of the USSR
, from Lenin to Stalin, from Stalin to Khrushchev (who he was especially close to) and even from Khrushchev to Brezhnev.
His younger brother Artem Mikoyan (1905-1970) lies nearby. He was a pre-eminent aircraft designer, the “M” in MiG (short for Mikoyan & Gurevich), and this is marked by a carved little MiG-23/27 swooshing up the side of the headstone past Mikoyan's reliefed head in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the Space Obelisk atop the Cosmonautics Museum
at the VDNKh
Another famous aircraft name of the Soviet era (and still today) is Tupolev – and you can find both the grave of Andrei Tupolev (1888-1972), the founder of the design bureau of that name (his grave is near Raisa Gorbacheva's), as well as various representations of Tupolev planes – the latter especially in the military section at the far western end of the cemetery.
More military aviation is in evidence here, not just from the jet age (e.g. a soaring Sukhoi Su-27 atop a pilot's headstone) but also from WWII
, e.g. fighter pilot ace Vitaly Popkov (1922-2010), whose tomb is one of the most flamboyant at Novodevichy. His life-size statue stands proudly next to a recreation of a whole fighter plane engine with propeller in bronze.
Apart from planes, the military is also represented in the form of bronze model tanks etc. and even a rocket – namely at the grave of Vladimir Barmin (1909-1993), the designer of the Soviet rocket launch pads at Baikonur
In addition there are plenty of dead scientists, actors, sports stars, composers, writers and what not. As I said, if you are interested in seeing a particular celebrity's grave, use the chart by the entrance (or research ahead on Find-A-Grave).
Otherwise there is just plenty of exceptional and often pretty sepulchral art to enjoy here. Some of the sculptures of people are outstandingly realistic, others take a lot of artistic licence. Either way, there's lots to discover if you keep your eyes open (see the photo gallery below
for just a few examples).
In short: this is one of the world's foremost cemeteries that a dedicated dark tourist should have visited.
in the south west of Moscow
, right next to the Novodevichy Convent, some 4 miles (6 km) from the centre at Red Square
Access and costs: a bit out of the city centre, but not too difficult to reach; free.
To get to Novodevichy from Moscow
city centre you first have to take the metro, line 1 (red), to Sportivnaya. On exiting the station turn right and then either carry on straight and fiddle through the housing estate, or first turn right into Ulitsa Usacheva and immediately left into Uchebniy Pereulok taking you to Luzhnetskiy Proyezd. Turn left into this and cross the street to get to the entrance.
Opening times: daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Depends entirely on how long you want to explore, also on how much background knowledge about Russia
and the former USSR
you come equipped with – and of course on whether or not you can decipher Cyrillic. Some visitors come only to see a few pre-selected specific graves (as “pilgrims” as it were), but you can in theory spend several hours exploring the place in more depth.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Moscow
There's nothing of special interest in the immediate vicinity of this cemetery, though if you've made it this far to the south-west you could try and continue to the Moscow State University (aka Lomonosov University), which sports the tallest (230 m) and most impressive of the so-called “Seven Sisters” of Soviet neo-Gothic Stalin-era skyscrapers. It's “only” under 2 miles (2.8 km) as the crow flies, but a pain to try and walk it. Better take the metro again (line 1, red) and continue to “Universitet” from where it is only about one mile (1.3 km) – easy to navigate as you'll see the main building towering over the surrounding land. You can even go on guided tours, which are the only way to see the inside of the building, that go to the top of the central tower and include other highlights too (such as the Rotunda under the dome at floor 32 or the Earth Science Museum). In fact I had tried to go on one of these tours, but the tour operator I had requested a booking with informed me that the place was closed for refurbishment at the time I was in Moscow. But by now it should be possible again.
It's a similar distance to Park Pobedy and the Great Patriotic War Museum
from Novodevichy (1.9 miles/3 km), but again not really walkable and a pain by public transport too. You could get the ring metro (line 14) from Luzhniki (across the road from Sportivnaya) for one stop to Kutuzovskaya to at least get you across the river. But it's still a one-and-a-half mile (2.3 km) walk to the Park and Museum.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Right next door to the cemetery to the north is Novodevichy Convent, which dates back to the year 1524 and is one of Moscow's premier religious-architectural tourist sights.
It has several pretty Russian Orthodox churches, including as the centrepiece of the complex Smolensk Cathedral, and a 72m-tall bell tower. This as well as parts of the walls and other buildings were undergoing refurbishment when I was last there, so I guess by now it's all been spruced up and freshly painted.
For other tourist sights you have to go back to the centre of Moscow