07 March 2008

Old Don Cemetery (Moscow).

Boris Akunin (Grigori Chkhartishvili)
Excerpt from the Cemetery Tales.
Translation: mine ©

I feel genuine revulsion toward functioning Moscow cemeteries. They resemble bleeding chunks of meat torn off the living. Black striped buses arrive; they speak too quietly there and cry too loudly, while the choir prelude wails four times a day in the crematorium assembly line, and a formal lady in a mourning dress instructs with a set voice, “Approach one by one, say your goodbyes”.

If by accident and out of sheer curiosity you had ended up at Nikolo-Arkhangelskoe, Vostryakovskoe, or Khovanskoe cemeteries, get out of there and do not look back – or else you will be frightened by the endless wasteyards reaching the horizon, embedded with grey and black rocks; you will suffocate from the distinct greasy air, go deaf from the ringing silence, and you will want to live eternally, to live at any cost, only to avoid turning into a pile of ashes among the maggots of the columbarium or disintegrating into proteins, fats, and carbons under the flowerbed zero seven measuring one point eight.

New cemeteries will explain nothing to you about life and death; they will only baffle, frighten, and confuse you. To hell with them, let them chomp with their granite-concrete jaws behind the perimeter highway, while we better head to Zemlyanoy town, to Old Don Cemetery, for, in my opinion, no other place in all of our beautiful and mysterious city is more beautiful and mysterious.

Old Don Cemetery is completely unlike the contemporary giants of the funeral industry: the latter are paved with asphalt, while here the paths are covered with leaves; the latter are filled with dust-covered grass, while here mountain ash and pussy willow grow; a concrete slab inscribed, “Natalie, dearest daughter, why did you abandon us?” lies in the latter, while here an angel stands holding an open book, where it reads, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”.

Only you must not wander to New Don Cemetery by mistake, which is located nearby, behind the red cogged wall. It will lure you with the onion domes of the church, but it is a wolf in sheep’s skin – renovated Crematorium #1. And in front of the gates you will be met by smiling Sergey Andreevich Muromtsev, the chairman of the First State Duma. Do not believe this happy prince, who, like a little bee, absorbed all the honey of the short-lived Russian Europeanism with his life (1850-1910) and quietly passed away prior to the arrival of troubles, perhaps fully convinced of the Russian parliament’s victory and of gradually accumulating pleasant neighbors – private-docents and defense attorneys. Alas – he is instead surrounded entirely by the Stalin prize laureates, communist brigadiers, aeronauts, and honored constructors of the RSFSR. Time will pass, and their tombstones with sputniks, compasses, and stars will also turn into historic exoticism. Only not for my generation.

You and I must to go further, into the other gates, crowned with a tall bell tower. Moscow that I love is buried there. Buried, but not dead.

The very first time I felt that she is alive was in the early days of my youth, when I worked in a quiet institution, located close to the Don monastery, and I visited the ancient graves with my colleagues for the purpose of drinking the poor-tasting, but strong wine “Agdam”. We made the habit of sitting on a wooden bench across from the dusty bas-relief with Saint Sergey Radonezhskiy, Peresvet and Oslyaba (he is still there, never returning to the wall of the restored Church of Christ the Savior), snacking on the sweet monastery apples to complement this Azeri hemlock, and the conversation inconceivably flowed from the last album by the band Sparks (or what else did we all listen to back in the day?) to Saltychikha and from super rifle jeans to Chaadaev.

Petr Yakovlich rested not too far away from the coveted bench. His grave informed his descendents of the one fact only about the man, who would have been Brutus in Rome and Pericles in Athens, “Ended his life on April 14, 1856” – and this caused us to speculate.

And as for Saltychikha, time saved neither a single word, nor a single letter on her tombstone. Moscow landowner Dariya Nikolaevna Saltykova, who tortured one hundred serfs to death – really existed – this is the only fact that the grave confirmed. But it is impossible to define monsters; the content of their soul is dark and mystifying, and the most appropriate testament to a monster — an unspoken truth, which looks like a bare grey obelisk, whose silhouette is reminiscent of an aspen spike, impaled into the ground.

Five feet away from the final resting place of the Russian contemporary of Marquis de Sade, a peculiar stone tree, which looks like a snag-covered cross, grows out of the ground – a masonic symbol to the memory of lieutenant Baskakov, who died in the year 1794. No additional information is provided – a pity.

The inscriptions and the awkward poems on the gravestones – a fascinating, completely non-monotonous reading. This is nothing less than an attempt to materialize and eternalize emotion, and, in fact, not an unsuccessful attempt – those who mourn are long gone, but their mourning remains:

“Here rests a young man and a servant of God Nikolai.
God summoned him from this world and its troubles to paradise.”

(From his inconsolable parents to the honorable citizen Nikolai Grachev.)

Or an entirely clumsy verse, but all the more piercing:

“Let these beloved remains rest in the bowels of the earth,
Let the soul soar in skies so blue,
But I remain here in tears for you”.

(It is already impossible to discern who dedicated this and to whom.)

Yet my favorite epitaph, gracing the tombstone of princess Shakhovskaya, is not touching, but vengeful: “Passed away as a result of doctor Snegirev’s surgery”.

Where are you, doctor Snegirev? Is your grave still around? Doubtful, I say. Yet here, at the Old Don Cemetery, you are still remembered, even if not in a good way.

Twenty years ago, when I came here almost every day, very few people visited this overgrown, half-forgotten cemetery. Only the connoisseurs of Moscow history would bring guests of the capital here in order to give them a taste of the most important cemetery sight – a black bronze Christ, extended full-height in the niche of the monastery wall. Even back then the flowers never ran out at the feet of the Savior, while I was never partial to this testament to the Russian moderne – it is too delicate and bon-ton.

I am guilty – I do not like sightseeing. Evidently, due to the fact that these sights are too polished by the gaze, and because everything is already known about them, no mystery remains. One can locate a certain number of the acclaimed names on the Don graveyard signs: historian Klyuchevskiy, poet Maykov, architect Beauvais, Cossack Ilovayskiy XII, but the absolute majority of the local deceased did not make themselves well-known in any shape or form. The famed and celebrated were buried in St. Petersburg in that day and age, while this was Moscow, a province. The flamboyance of the individual tombstones must not mislead you – this is a testament to the wealth, not the success in life. God knows how many failed careers and insatiable ambitions are buried at the Old Don’s. You glance at all this peeling heraldry and
half-erased titles and recall the Danish king Erik the Memorable, whose resonant nickname remains, yet history somehow did not remember the reasons why his contemporaries considered him so memorable.

No one needs my elect few except for me. Their names did not resonate, while they lived, and when they died, nothing of theirs except for a stone on a grave remains in this world. Miss Ekaterina Beznosova, 72 years of age, who died in 1823 in the eighth hour after midnight and state advisor Gavriil Stepanovich Karnovich, who always led an exemplary, truly Christian life, mystifies me with the riddle of his vanished existence. This sentiment is most succinctly expressed in Igor Burdonov’s haiku “A Little-Known Fact”:

They all died –
People, who lived in the Russian state
In August of the year 1864.

They truly did die – those who fasted, made visits, read “Provincial Moscow News”, and disparaged the cunning Disraeli. Yet I feel consumed by an acute and therefore an unmistakable feeling that they are somewhere near, that it is possible to reach them; only I do not know how to catch the time that slipped away, how to grasp the edge of a mystery.

And this very edge is so near – one more try, and you can seize it, it seems. An elbow is close…

I compose novels about the XIX century, attempting to put into them the most important concept – the sensation of time slipping away. I inhabit my invented Russia with characters, whose names and last names are somewhat frequently borrowed from the Old Don tombstones. I do not know myself what I am trying to achieve by doing so – either pull those, who are no longer here, out of their graves, or to sneak into their lives myself.


Niats said...

Like Mold. Something about it.

Red Eyes said...

I came by your blog today for the very first time. I've never been able to understand the passion that some have for blogging but I love reading stuff that awakens the mind and inflames the imagination. I think yours is an admirable blog and reading this post and through your archives was interesting. I couldn't resist the temptation to do just that. The more scope it gave to my mind although I was hoping to read and leave quietly without surprising you with any comment. Perhaps you will be inviting me back sometime if you think a counter visit is worth one infringement of your normal routine? I'll look out for your arrival. Until then, take care.

btw: have you seen or read the master and margarita?