Tag Archives: Russian cemetery

Death’s Garden: Lenin’s Mausoleum

Lenin mausoleum002

Modern postcard of Lenin’s Mausoleum

by Melodie Bolt

In January 1988, I stood in Red Square with thirty American college students watching Lenin’s Honor Guard change.

The replacement soldiers exited the Kremlin gate and moved parallel to the Kremlin wall. The duo marched in long wool military coats, black boots goose stepping. But what seemed inconceivable was the position of their rifles: gripped in the left palm, with a steady aim at heaven. With boots tocking across the stone, the pair relieved the guards on duty to keep the watch.

Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin’s mausoleum is a squat ziggurat constructed from black stone and red marble. He died in 1924 at the age of 53 and was embalmed shortly thereafter. Thousands have visited the Bolshevik leader to pay their respects. A few days after watching the guards, we returned to see Lenin ourselves.

One of our professors, a Hungarian, told us the rumor that the only “original” pieces on Lenin’s body were the head and hands, preserved, while the rest had been buried or burned. It sounded grisly. Since we were in our late teens and early twenties, such things only excited our curiosity. Giggling as we piled off the tour bus, we filled the air with American smiles, hard currency, Marlboros, and Levi’s. Our bright Gore-Tex jackets added confettied splashes to the solemn scene.

The line for the presentation of the dead wound down—a black ribbon—from the mausoleum. We joined the queue in the Alexander Garden.

The garden, commissioned by Tsar Alexander I, was built long before the Bolshevik Revolution to celebrate Russia’s defeat of Napoleon. The garden later became a pivotal scene in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Master and Margarita. The story, set in the 1930s, follows the havoc created by the Devil and his minions in Moscow. Interwoven with the Devil’s arc is the story of Pontius Pilate and the trial and execution of Jesus. It is in Alexander Garden that the Devil’s demonic assassin, Azazello, meets Margarita and pulls her from Communist reality to the supernatural (Christian) sphere. Bulgakov’s writings and plays were banned by Communist censorship. He died in 1940. Master and Margarita remained unpublished until 1966.

How ironic that our pilgrimage to the mausoleum started in the same garden created by a Tsar and the location where a demon from Christian mythology takes a Soviet woman to Satan’s Ball. Lenin, a devout atheist, despised religion and firmly believed in Karl Marx’s assertion that it was opium for the people. Standing there in January, the same month that Lenin died, I watched St. Basil’s draw nearer as the line moved toward the mausoleum’s entrance.

Our professor admonished us to enter two-by-two, to be respectful, and for God’s sake, to be silent. It was bitter cold. For all the people in line, it was exceptionally quiet.

The girl walking with me wore a beret reminiscent of the one that Prince sang about in 1985. Not quite raspberry, its lavender sequins glittered atop her golden curls. My partner and I settled into a respectful demeanor until the student behind us cracked some juvenile joke. We snickered, at got hissed at by the professors and the older, more mature students, and tried to compose ourselves again.

As I stood in front of the oppressive architecture, I began to panic. My thoughts raced. Lenin died at 53. When I entered the mausoleum, he had been embalmed for 64 years. How decayed would the body be? Would it be evident that the head and hands had been severed from the body? How far would the labyrinth would go until I could leave? I felt claustrophobic. I wondered if the room would be brimming with lilies. I hated that rich funereal smell.

The line kept moving. There was no time to prepare. I entered and Lenin was right there. The line moved continuously with no time for genuflection, no real time to study the body. There was only the red and black stone, the shuffle of boots on the floor, and the body.

Lenin corpse003They call it lying in state. Glass walls enclosed a dias. The coffin looked more like a canopied bed with the body angled so his head raised a little higher. Great ruffled black satin, looking almost Victorian, draped over his legs and spilled toward the floor. The canopy top was a replica of the mausoleum’s ziggurat design, but made of wood. He wore a black suit. His hands rested near his waist, one clenched in a fist, the other open, palm down.

His face looked as though he were sleeping, more waxen than the freshly dead. His hair and goatee were exactly the same as the black and white images in our history books, but the tinge of copper surprised me. Lashes rested against his skin; face calm, serene.

There was no time to look closer, to stand in awe. The line kept pushing me forward. As I serpentined around his feet and back up the other side of his body, I caught the faces of the Russians in front of me observing his supine form; their dark eyes unreadable in the dim light. I turned back for one last glance. So much power, so much fire in his rhetoric to spawn a world power to be reckoned with. Suddenly, I was back outside, breathing the refreshing January air that moments ago had seemed so bitterly cold. Spilling into Red Square, our voices were subdued, including the joker behind me.

It wasn’t until I began writing my essay that I looked online for more information regarding Lenin’s mausoleum. You can easily find images of his body online, both from inside the mausoleum and during the embalming process. I have to admit that seeing the graphic images him disrobed have cheapened my memory. The frail, naked body with the great gash doesn’t seem to honor that moment in time, Soviet power and Soviet history as perceived by an outsider. There was so much mystery to Moscow and the Communists.

Here are some interesting facts I discovered while writing this:

  • Turns out that the body is Lenin’s without his organs and brain. The brain is preserved elsewhere. The corpse is frequently re-embalmed to keep discoloration from the skin.
  • Lenin’s body was removed from Moscow to protect it during WWII and then returned later.
  • Stalin’s body was also on display next to Lenin’s until it was removed when the Soviet Union began the de-Stalinalization process.
  • In 1993, Yeltsin removed the Honor Guard from Lenin’s tomb, but it remains today at the eternal flame honoring the military dead near the mausoleum. You can find youtube videos featuring the guards.
  • The embalming process is top secret and other heads of state from other countries have been embalmed by the Moscow team.
  • Recently, a Russian movement has urged the government to have Lenin buried.

Perhaps Lenin, being an atheist, wouldn’t mind his body being handled by scientists honing their embalming skills with images available online for any curious eyes. Perhaps science is the truest end for the man who started the greatest revolution by promising power, not heavenly rewards, to the people.




Lenin’s Mausoleum was a Cemetery of the Week on CemeteryTravel.

CemeteryTravel’s review of Lenin’s Embalmer.


Melodie HeadShotMelodie Bolt writes poetry and contemporary fantasy & dark fiction. She earned an MFA in Writing from Pacific University in Portland, Oregon and an MA in Composition & Rhetoric from University of Michigan Flint. Her poetry has appeared in magazines like TOTUVerse Wisconsin, and Yellow Medicine Review. Her fiction has been recently published in the anthologies Incarceration (Wolfsinger Publications, 2017), Hoofbeats: Flying with Magical Horses (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016), and the magazine Witches&Pagans #31, 2015). She is currently working on a dark fiction novel set in Flint, Michigan. Melodie has been a member of the Flint Area Writers for over a decade and frequently contributes to the blog at www.flintareawriters.org . You can also find more of her work here.


Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

I am jump-starting the Death’s Garden project again. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch. I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Lovely Photos of a Bygone Era

Carved Memories: Heritage in Stone from the Russian Jewish PaleCarved Memories: Heritage in Stone from the Russian Jewish Pale by David Goberman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert Pinsky’s introduction to this collection of David Goberman’s gravestone photography is poetic and devastating. Pinsky speaks of these gravestones as not only recording the lives whose names they bear but also as markers that memorialize the death of a world that no longer exists, wiped out by World War II and Stalin.

Starting in the 1930s, David Goberman photographed the Jewish graveyards beyond the Pale of Russia. In this so-called Pale of Settlement, Jews made up almost twelve percent of the population. A million and a half Jews lived in some 700 towns and cities that had Jewish majorities. In some cases, they had lived there for centuries. Some of the grave markers are no better than folk art: lions carved by someone who has only ever seen a lion pictured in a book. Others are wonderful, complex works of art, combining typography and symbolism to reveal the lives of the people buried below.

This is a beautiful book and lovingly produced. The only reason I’ve taken one star off is because it paints such a dire picture unnecessarily. Yes, much is gone: the communities, their culture, the graveyards themselves. However, some does survive: the large, lovely graveyard at Chernivitsi in the Western Ukraine still exists and still welcomes heritage tourists.

This is not to say that what graveyards do survive are not endangered. These days, more than ever, it seems that we are called on to protect the relics of the past, to remember the lessons they teach us.

This book is really cheap on Amazon and you should have a copy for your cemetery book collection: http://amzn.to/2lxy48Z

View all my reviews on GoodReads.

Cemetery of the Week #121: Lenin’s Tomb

Lenin corpse003The Mausoleum of Vladimir Lenin
Red Square
Moscow, Russia
Founded: 1924
Number of interments: 1
Open: Information varies across the web. It looks like your best bet is to visit Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The tomb may also be open on weekends, but seems most definitely to be closed on Mondays and Fridays.
Admission: Free

IMPORTANT TO NOTE: Bags and cameras are not allowed inside the mausoleum. They can apparently be check at the Kutayfa tower cloakrooms across the square from the mausoleum for 50r. You might be better off simply to leave them behind. Make certain you bring along your passport, however. If the security guards ask to see it and you can’t comply, the fine is prohibitive.

After a series of strokes that left him a prisoner in his own body, Vladimir Lenin died on January 21,1924. He had intended to be cremated, but Josef Stalin insisted he be embalmed and lay in state long enough that Soviet Russia could pay its respects.

Lenin’s widow was quoted in Pravda: “Do not let your sorrow be transformed into demonstrations of adoration for Vladimir Ilich’s personality. Do not put up buildings or monuments in his name. When he was alive he set little store by such things; indeed, he actively disliked them.”

She was overruled, of course. Red Army soldiers were ordered to blast a hole into the ground in Red Square. Unfortunately, the minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit weather had frozen the ground quite solid. Still, they managed a hole three meters deep, into which Lenin’s open coffin was placed.

At first, only a wooden mausoleum was constructed over him on Red Square. The intent was to bury him in a suitable tomb, but the embalming worked better than expected and it became clear that the Great Leader was going to stick around for a while. Stalin demanded that a permanent monument be built.

Modern postcard of Lenin's Mausoleum

Modern postcard of Lenin’s Mausoleum

Five years after Lenin’s death, architect Aleksei Shchusev received the commission to design the permanent resting place, where Lenin’s body could remain on display. A year later, the red, black, and gray Constructivist pyramid had been built on the site of the moat which once encircled the Kremlin.

Granite viewing platforms were added to the outside in the 1930s so that Soviet officials could inspect the massive parades of soldiers and weaponry.

In 1939, more changes were made to the mausoleum. A laboratory was constructed so that an embalming team could be on call for touch-ups to the corpse. Every 18 months, Lenin was taken off display and given full-body treatments.

During World War II, the body was sent into hiding. When he was returned to display in 1945, the glass sarcophagus that enclosed him had been redesigned. The old cone-shaped glass was replaced with an “inverted trapezium,”* which eliminated the glare and made it easier to see inside. The embalmers had been busy during the war and Lenin’s hands and face returned to Moscow much pinker than they had been, making him look more lifelike.

From 1953 to 1961, Stalin’s body joined Lenin’s inside the mausoleum. Krushchev had him removed and buried “under the ramparts of the Kremlin among the graves of other dignitaries of the regime.”* These include Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, and pro-Bolshevik victims of the October Revolution, who were buried in a mass grave in 1917.

A view of Red Square.  For scale, note the tourists clustered on the left.

Another modern postcard with a view of Red Square. For scale, note the tourists clustered on the left.

The tomb was closed in 2012 to repair water damage to the building’s foundation, caused by the former moat beneath it. The mausoleum reopened in May 2013. The BBC story, complete with video, is here. It’s worth watching to get a peek inside the tomb.

In days past, the line of visitors ran along the Kremlin wall and stretched for hours. 2014 visitors, posting on TripAdvisor marveled at their ability to stroll right in. Either way, visitors are cautioned that decorous behavior is firmly encouraged. Laughing, smiling, or merely stuffing your hands in your pockets can get you expelled from the line – or even harassed by the security guards.

The tomb is dark inside and guards make sure you don’t loiter, but you can walk around three sides of the body. Visitors are forbidden to speak inside the mausoleum. Lenin is apparently less than lifelike. Rumor has it that the body was replaced by a wax replica.

About.com says stopping in to visit is not worth the effort and calls Lenin’s body the least interesting attraction in Moscow. On the other hand, Time made seeing Lenin the bonus #11 on their 10 Things to Do in Moscow. The mausoleum visit is super-kitschy, they say, but worth the visit. According to the BBC, Lenin’s mausoleum is one of Russia’s top tourist attractions.

The BBC also reports that more than half of Russians believe that Lenin should be buried now. Although Vladimir Putin seems reluctant to do so, it appears that Lenin’s days on view may be numbered. You should take the opportunity to visit while you can.

Useful Links:

Moscow Info’s page about Lenin’s tomb

Whoever wrote the piece for About.com had a bad experience or knew someone who did.

Time‘s 10 Things to Do in Moscow

Bridge to Moscow tour guides’ site to Lenin’s tomb: http://bridgetomoscow.com/lenins-tomb_2

*Unattributed quotes came from Lenin’s Embalmers by Ilya Zbarsky. This is a great book, which you can get from Amazon. There’s a newer book by the same title, but I haven’t read that one yet.

Cemetery of the Week #120: Fort Ross Graveyard

Postcard sold by the Fort Ross Interpretive Association. Photo by Daniel F. Murley.

Postcard sold by the Fort Ross Interpretive Association. Photo by Daniel F. Murley. The cross in the foreground marks the cemetery.

Fort Ross State Historic Park
19005 Coast Highway 1
Jenner, California 95450
Telephone: 707-847-3286
Founded: circa 1812
Size: unknown
Number of interments: 131 or more
The fort is open: Saturdays, Sundays, and major holidays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Two hours’ drive (110 miles) north of San Francisco stands Fort Ross State Historic Park. The fort is a recreation of the settlement built by Russian colonists before California became an American territory.

In March 1812, a large ship sailed into a cove below a bluff settled by Native Americans called the Kashaya. 25 Russians and 80 Aleutians came ashore to build a wooden stockade and houses. They’d come to hunt sea otters and grow wheat and other crops to support the Russian settlements in Alaska. At the time the fort was under construction in Alta California, Napoleon’s army was headed toward Moscow.

The fort was quickly completed and formally dedicated on August 13, 1812. “Ross” is believed to be short for “Rossiya,” as the country was called.

While in California, the Russians traded with the Spanish, who would have preferred to colonize Alta California without challenge. However, they hadn’t explored as far north as this area yet and by the time they became aware of the Russian settlement, the well-armed fort had been completed.

At its peak, the Fort Ross settlement was home to 350 Russians, Aleuts, and Kashaya. There were very few Russian women, who tended to be wives of the officials. The other men took native wives. They lived peacefully in a village of some 60 to 70 buildings outside the stockade walls.

At first, the Russian colony primarily hunted sea otters, whose pelts were then sold to China. Kodiak Islanders, armed with throwing spears, ranged from Oregon to Baja California, even as far out to sea at the Farallon Islands, pursuing otters. By 1820, the otters had been hunted to the brink of extinction.

After that, the colony turned more fully to farming, with indifferent success. (One source I read said that gophers attacked the crops.) Eventually, in 1839, the parent company of the Russian colony reached an agreement with the Hudson Bay Company to supply the Russian settlements in Alaska. After that, Fort Ross was no longer necessary.

The Mexican government didn’t want it, so in December 1841, the fort was sold to John Sutter, of Sutter’s Fort in what would become Sacramento and owner of the mill in Coloma where gold would be discovered in 1848. Sutter’s men stripped the fort of everything the Russians left behind.

In 1873, George W. Call bought the land and started dairy ranching and logging the redwood forest. Call’s family owned the land until 1903, when the California Historical Landmarks Committee bought three acres from him. They turned the land over to the state in March of 1906.

Unfortunately, the San Andreas Fault runs nearby. Some of the buildings, including the chapel, stood until April 18, 1906, when the earthquake threw them over. Almost everything that stands now, including the markers in the graveyard, has been reconstructed. Trust me, that doesn’t make it any less fascinating.

My photo of the reconstructed grave markers under a gray Sonoma Coast sky.

My photo of the reconstructed grave markers under a gray Sonoma Coast sky.

So who is buried in the graveyard at Fort Ross? Several archaeological digs have tried to find out. In 1991, anthropologists from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee discovered 35 graves, at least nine of which contained remains of children under 12.

People were buried in redwood coffins with traditional Russian cross medallions on their chests. The acidic soil of the area has destroyed all of the soft tissue and some of the bones, but teeth were founded amongst the coffin nails, trade beads, and uniform buttons.

By 1997, the number of people buried in the graveyard had expanded to 131. Without complete sets of bones, it is difficult to identify people, even to guess their genders. Children were recognized by the smaller patterns of coffin nails.

Several historic photos of the graveyard survive. A photo from 1895 shows redwood boxes over some of the graves. In 1912, several of the graves were still fenced with solid curbs of redwood. Over time, most of the original wooden Russian Orthodox cross  markers were lost, either to decay, vandalism, or wildfires that periodically swept the area. Some of the graves themselves were destroyed in 1972 when construction crews built Highway 1 through the graveyard.

The Russian Orthodox Church has taken an active part in the reburials, after the archaeologists were through. In fact, Fort Ross is a source of pride for Russians, who make the trek up into Sonoma County to visit. In 2009, when the Fort was in danger of being closed because of the California state financial crisis, the Russian government sent an ambassador to see what could be done.

The Fort weathered that storm and continues to be open on weekends and major holidays.

Useful links:
Fort Ross State Park website

Fort Ross Conservancy website

Cemetery Explorers’ excursion to Fort Ross

Forensic examination of a skeleton found outside the graveyard

Information about camping nearby

Cemetery of the Week #119: San Francisco’s Russian Hill

View from the crest of Russian Hill

View from the crest of Russian Hill

Russian Hill
Vallejo between Taylor and Jones Streets
San Francisco, California
Founded: early 1800s?
Size: 1 acre remaining
Number of interments: unknown
Open: always

In the earliest days of the town of San Francisco, non-Catholic people were often buried where they fell, with sand simply scooped over them. One of the exceptions to that was the Russian graves atop what would come to be called Russian Hill in their honor.

Looking up at the crest of Russian Hill from Ina Coolbrith Park

Looking up at the crest of Russian Hill from Ina Coolbrith Park

“The Russian sailors buried their dead at the crest of [what would later be called] Vallejo Street, because the hard clay remained firm, unlike the sand on the summits of other hills,” reports Hills of San Francisco, published by the San Francisco Chronicle in 1959. It goes on to say that the dead men were seal hunters who had died aboard a ship commanded by Count Rezanov.

That would put their deaths early in California’s written history, as Nikolai Rezanov reached San Francisco’s Presidio on April 8, 1806. The modern biography on the National Park Service’s Presidio site says that he wasn’t a fur trader as much as a bureaucrat, trying to establish trade with the Spanish in California in order to resupply the Russian outpost in Sitka, Alaska. The Spanish refused to trade, but as negotiations dragged on, Rezanov fell in love with the Spanish Commander’s 15-year-old daughter, Concepcion Arguello. Her parents agreed to let them marry and Rezanov returned to Russia to secure permission of the Russian Orthodox Church. He died of pneumonia before he could return. Concepcion became a Dominican nun in Benicia, California, where  she remained until her death in 1857.

There are old pioneer reports of Russian crosses on the hill. Because it is so steep, the hill remained a goat pasture, covered in wild mustard, for many years as the city filled in around it.  This is San Francisco by Robert O’Brien describes the site during the Gold Rush era: “The top of this hill then was grass, bleached in the summertime, and rock and mustard.”

Local historian Michael Svanevik said in a lecture at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park that he believes the bodies are still beneath the surface of Russian Hill. Where, exactly, is a matter of conjecture. Some historians vote for the end of Vallejo Street, where it deadends into a bulkhead above Jones Street. Doris Muscatine, in her book Old San Francisco: The Biography of a City, reports that: “the exact site is now a ramp and staircase on the corner of Jones and Vallejo; during its construction, the work crews unearthed several skeletons.” John W. Blackett second that on his San Francisco Cemeteries website, mapping the Russian graveyard “at Vallejo and Jones Streets, overlooking Ina Coolbrith Park,” but he means Taylor Street, which lies alongside Coolbrith Park. I suspect the graveyard spanned the whole crest, from Jones to Taylor.

Rhoads_RussianHill_0969A bilingual plaque placed by the Russian government at the peak of the park says that “Russian Hill was named for the graves of several sailors of the ‘Russian-American Company,’ who died here in the early 1840s. During the Gold Rush, the 49ers found their graves, marked by wooden crosses, at the top of this hill and added graves of their own. The graves were removed or built over during the 1850s.”

Closeup on the English side of the plaque

Closeup on the English side of the plaque

It is possible that both stories are true: that the graveyard was used as early as 1806 and was still being used by the Russians during the early years of the Gold Rush. The whole truth probably will never be known, unless archaeologists get a chance to exhume any remaining skeletons and examine them. If they find a skeleton with a handful of dated coins, the whole story can be laid to rest.

Blackett believes there were never more than 30-40 graves here and that they — most of them, anyway — were moved to Yerba Buena Cemetery, where the Asian Art Museum and the Main Public Library now stand. Most (though not all) of those graves were exhumed in 1871 and moved out to the new Golden Gate Cemetery where the Palace of the Legion of Honor now stands.  Most (though not all) of those graves were exhumed in 1907 and moved to the new graveyards in Colma, California. However, more than 300 — and perhaps as many as 800 — skeletons were found when the Legion of Honor was retrofitted after the 1989 earthquake.  It’s generally accepted that many of the 16,000 pioneers buried here remain in place, with only the headstones being moved.

Perhaps some of our mysterious Russians lie among them.

Useful links:

National Park Service retelling of Conception & Rezanov’s love story

The San Francisco Chronicle has updated the Hills of San Francisco Russian Hill essay

There are plenty of used copies of Hills of San Francisco on Amazon.