Monday, July 13, 2015

Russian Graveyards

By Stephen Wilson

            In his charming short story, 'The Dead', James Joyce mentions how 'the dead' are always with us and are never completely banished from our minds. We can't forget them. And we should not forget them as snow falls on both the living and the dead.

            In Russia, frquently visiting graveyards is not always deemed morbid or eccentric but as maintaining a relationship with your dead friends and relatives. A week after Easter, on 'parents' day', many Russians continue the custom of visiting their dead relatives and laying flowers, tidying up around the grave saying a prayer, and even leaving drink and food for the dead.

            The living might even speak to the dead and wish them well.

            For example, Oksana Chebotareva, a teacher told me 'When I and my two daughters visited my father in law he took us all around those graveyards where all his relatives lay. He would take my daughters to his late wife's graveyard and say 'Oksana has brought her two granddaughters to visit you .. Andrei is doing quite well in his job..'  Anyone who is familiar with Russian customs won't be surprised to hear this. According to Yuri Ryabinin's new book, The History of Russian Graveyards 'Under the wings of eternal peace', Ripol, Moscow, 2015, only available in Russian at bookshops in Russia, the Russian word 'Kladbashchii,'( a place or stake in the earth given to the dead) is not synonymous with the Greek word Necropolis, which means 'city of the dead'. On the contrary, it is a resting place of the living in another world. Ryabinin claims 'Concerning the God of Russians, there are no dead'. On the contrary, the Christian dead are awaiting the future resurrection and a grave is an important stake or place where they can abide, dwell or be reached by other people. A graveyard represents a profound meeting place between the living and the dead. A gravestone is not just a slab of concrete of remembrance but a door to a dead person. Keeping knocking on it and the dead person will surely come out of it.

            A QUEST

            With this in mind, Oksana and I ventured into one of Moscow's famous graveyards; the Vvedenskoy or German cemetery. Our aim was to find the grave of a former professor of Moscow State University, Professor Irina Aleksandrova, who had died in 2006. According to Oksana, 'She did a lot to help students.

            'Not only was she always at hand to assist a student with studies, but with other problems. She kept on visiting one student in hospital who had fallen ill with schizophrenia,
helping to feed and comfort him. When she died, she was
so poor she could not afford funeral expenses so all her
colleagues had to donate money to finance this'.

            We searched and scanned but failed to find the gravestone.

            There were just so many bewildering graves that loomed up.

            However, during our search we came across some famous gravestones, such as the legendary 19th century Doctor Haas who is regarded as a saint who endlessly helped relieve prisoners, the poor and the sick. He is reputed to have talked a despairing Dostovesky out of committing suicide.

            On his grave is written his motto, 'Hurry up and  do good.'

            The graves of Peter the Great's assistants, Patrick Gordon and Francis Lefort, are thought to lie here but no historians have ever found them. They appear to have been destroyed, removed or simply vanished into obscurity. I never found the grave of the famous Scots soldier, Patrick Gordon but at least came across the graves of brave French airpilots
who had died fighting along with Russians during the Great
Patriotic war.

            We came across one graveyard that reminded us that the British have been teaching English in Russia for centuries. On one very small grave was written -

            Sacred to the Memory of

            Richard Bradshaw, captain

            of the Russian service and

            teacher of the English language

            who departed on this life on the

            24th of May, 1828 

            This modest stone what few vain marbles can may truly say here lies an honest man, erected to a loving husband by his disconsolate widow. They don't write such lines on graves like this anymore.

            In regard to 'disconsolate widows', there is a legend that one widow used to visit her husband's grave every day. She could not get over her husband's death. So she prayed strongly and wrote on the chapel wall, ' I can't live here without my husband'. Then, shortly afterwards, a man appeared who was just like her husband in appearance, manners and character and they both got married. Since then, a custom has arisen where people write their wishes on the chapel walls in the belief they will come true. Oksana even wrote a secret wish on the chapel. On this chapel was written many different requests such as - 'I want Oleg to stop drinking'  or ' God grant I and my parents good health and let them live for a long time'. 

           'God let me pass this exam' or  'Let me give birth to a son'.

           The most bemusing request we came across went - 
           'God help me meet a nice loving man that will be generous. Let me find well-paid work that is very interesting. Let my salary be a bit higher, help us build a home without neighbours and let me have a new BMW 573'. The moral seems to be if you are going to make a wish, make a big one!

           The graveyard is rumoured to be haunted by a ghost who plays a flute during the early hours of the morning within the vicinity of the chapel. Some people speculate that this is the ghost of Francis Lefort himself as people who have seen the ghost claimed he was dawning early 18th century clothes.

           On our second attaempt we never found the grave of the professor. We even began to wonder whether any such grave actually existed. Maybe the professor's colleagues had failed to arrange such a funeral. I doubt this. I think when we next visit the graveyard it will be a case of third time lucky!

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