Friday, June 13, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Even in Death, Muscovites Increasingly Divided Ethnically and Religiously

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 13 – In Soviet times, Muscovites were buried in cemeteries without regard of either their nationality or religious faith, but now, ever more cemeteries in the Russian capital feature ethnic sections where only members of Jews, Muslims, Armenians or Roma are laid to rest, a pattern in death that reinforces divisions in life.

            In the Vostrykakov cemetery, there is now a special place for Jewish graves, in the Mitinsk and Domodedova, one for Muslims, and in the Kuzminsk, there is one for Armenians and another for Roma, according to a report by Irina Arkhipova of the Guild of Inter-Ethnic Journalism (

            With relatively rare and often officially unacknowledged exceptions, Muscovites were buried in Soviet times without regard to their ethnic or religious identifications, and the Communist regime did what it could to ensure that cemeteries would cease to be objects of religious attention.

            That marked a dramatic break with the Russian Imperial past, one to which in this sector at least Muscovites appear to be returning.  In imperial times, the Vvedensk or “German” cemetery existed for Protestants and Catholics there were also separate cemeteries for Armenians, Tatars, and Jews. All were opened to all or closed down by the end of the 1920s.

            Until the end of Soviet times, Muscovites were buried in cemeteries depending not on their ethnicity or faith but according to their place of residence or political status. An exception, Arkhipova notes, involved the Jewish community which was allowed to bury its dead in a cemetery near Vostryakovo beginning in 1932.

            Since Gorbachev’s time, various ethnic and religious groups have insisted on separate places for their dead, and they have been willing to pay extra for funerals, Arkhipova says. The standard funeral is now the Russian Orthodox one, but others have their own traditions and want their own separate portions of existing cemeteries or even separate ones altogether.

            Not all groups have succeeded in getting the land they need.  There are a significant number of plots for Muslims in Moscow and Moscow oblast, the journalist reports, but “considering the growth of immigrants from Central Asia and arrivals from the North Caucasus, they will become ever larger” to meet the need.

            At present, Arkhipova continues, there are approximately 53,000 Jews in Moscow, but they face problems with burials.  Most of the reserves portions at the Saltykov, Malakhov, and Vostryakov cemeteries that they had used have been declared closed, although there are cases when “’informally’” Jewish families have been able to bury their dead in these places even now.

            Buddhists in the Russian capital, including the Kalmyks, Buryats and Tuvins, generally want to cremate their dead, something the Bolsheviks initially supported for sanitary reasons but then oppose because other faiths opposed this rite and because of concerns that attachment to this tradition would strengthen attachments to others.

            The Moscow authorities have been trying to reach a compromise with representatives of the various religions and ethnic groups in the Russian capital, agreeing to designate portions of existing cemeteries for the exclusive use of one or another or even to set up new cemeteries altogether. But representatives of some groups complain they have not been given enough land.

            In one sense, this trend simply restores pre-Soviet practices and corresponds to how burials are handled elsewhere, but Arkhipova notes that in the view of some, this division of cemeteries is yet another “sign of the coming apart of the citizens of the country.”

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