A deep-frozen but sunny January day, so what else is there to do but to head to the nearby Vagankovskoe Cemetery? After all, there’s often a slice of a country’s or a city’s histories to be found amongst their dead.
Vagankovskoe is best known for being the final resting place of iconic Russian balladeer-songwriter-actor-icon Vladimir Vysotsky. He died in 1980, and it’s an irony enough that he’s here, surrounded by stolid generals and their equally stolid wives. However, for me the tragic irony, the “Wild 90s” cast in marble, was to see the gravestone of Vlad Listev, the liberal journalist and TV chief gunned down in 1995 in what was probably a political/mob hit (then it was even harder to tell the two apart) and Otari Kvantrishvili, ‘Otarik,’ the Georgian gangster, wrestler and rapist, assassinated in 1994 when he over-reached and tried in effect to make himself godfather of Moscow. Guess which one of them has the larger and more opulent gravestone?
Generally, poking round a cemetery is a fascinating way to spend a frigid hour. All the Communist Party apparatchiki with their Christian gravestones (I suppose living through Stalinism was a great teaching moment in hedging bets and never risking angering a guy at the top). The central avenue seemingly dominated by sporting heroes, many clearly still remembered by fans coming to leave football scarves and other tokens. The march of fashion, as Soviet-era memorials — either simple headstones or chunky iconographic menhirs, depending on the eminence of the departed, give way to the era of full personalisation.
Then we get the gaudy and the grand. The distinctively Russian pictures of the dead on the headstones (I don’t presume for a moment the men were all gangsters, but frankly the pictures, often showing them casually dressed, manage to make them all look like thugs and chancers.) The tawdry, the tender, and the genuinely touching. The strange sight of graves wholly encased in metalwork (I have to ask — to keep something out…or to keep something in?).
All of them jumbled together, as the sheer acreage of mortality threatens to overwhelm even the extensive space here. And yet the space is well tended. The paths are cleared of snow; flowers flash their bright signals of memory across the marble and granite; the gravestones are all well-tended and clean. Compare that with a British cemetery, typically a mix of the new and the crumbled, the upright and the unsteady. It’s not that the British don’t care about their dead, but more than Britain is happier with the idea of their slowly fading into the landscape and history.
Russia, though, still wears its history much more (self)consciously, whether burnished like armour (the Great Patriotic War being the obvious example) or borne like stigmata (Stalin, ironically, fits into both categories). It may be a terribly stereotype, and a cliche at that, but ask an average Russian about Peter the Great, and I dare say you’ll get a rather more extensive answer than if you ask a Brit about his contemporary (and almost equally important in a different way), Charles II.