The presence of this convent’s distinctive golden domes and towering crosses does not exactly come as a surprise in this city, but I still find that I cannot help but marvel at such a medieval wonder’s location just down the road from modern supermarkets and bustling metro stations. A mix of ostensibly local wanderers brushing shoulders with Chinese and Kazakh tourists stroll up around us to the gates through the already crisp late September chill, wandering through the elegantly trimmed, low-rising hedges. The site overall seems to invoke a general sense of historical awe and grandeur, with tall red towers and the centricity of the alabaster Smolensk Cathedral dominating the ambiance. I find myself thinking with particular fascination of the story Eudoxia Lopukhina, having read about it in my Lonely Planet Moscow pocket guide prior to visiting, one of the convent’s more famous residents who, after bearing Peter I a son and being banished to Siberia for trying to start an opposition movement within the church, was invited back by her grandson and lived out her final years in this very convent “in the highest style.” And given its beauty, it’s not hard to see why.
The cemetery, far from being eerie or haunting, provides, at least for me, an even calmer and more soothing introspection. I find strolling over the paths among gravestones a familiar feeling; due to the importance of familial cemetery visits in the Italian culture, my annual journeys to my mother’s hometown have always come with at least one trip to the local cemetery to visit loved ones and relatives who have passed on, in particular my great-grandparents, great aunt, grandfather, and others. Though certainly I may not be related to Khrushchev, Gogol, or Yeltsin, I find myself surprised by how familiar it all feels, and how much it reminds me of one of the places I call home. The layout seems to my eyes more categorical than familial, but also with a touch of randomness. Boris Yeltsin’s distinct Russian-flag grave, with a lovely mosaic-like light blue stripe, is a stone’s throw away from a grave marked with a Romanov surname that makes me wonder if it is home to a relative of the ill-fated final tsar. Further on, grandiose headstones of Soviet officers and war veterans, swaths of metals chiseled onto their uniforms, and even one with a full frontal view of a propellor-driven plane, herald back to an age of socialist heroism and drive.
Here too a good portion of the patrons seem to be tourists both local and foreign, stopping by to see a place that they perhaps see as iconic in this city and country’s monumental history, wanting to pay respects to an interesting political figure, or a writer whose work and accomplishments they’ve always enjoyed or admired. One particular visitor sticks out in my mind; an older woman, graying hair half-hidden behind a triangular blue scarf, with a faded fleece that matches a cluster of purple flowers on the path between us, bows before a grave on her knees, tending to it with a familiarity and dedication that can’t help but remind me of my own grandmother on our family cemetery visits back in Viadana. She brings a touch of direct connectedness and personal intimacy to this place of remembrance and honor. Everyone here is quiet, attentive, and respectful, but the loving nature of her composure and work belongs to a level beyond.
Generalizing from my experience visiting the Novodevichy Cemetery, I would describe a Russian cemetery as peaceful, commemorative, grandiose in some cases, and even familiar, due to the similarities I can perceive with my own cultural upbringing. Its general layout and landmarks, as well as its being open to and ostensibly often frequented by a general public, seem to indicate a desire to commemorate, remember, and actively uphold the life achievements and doings of well known and influential Russians, as a part of the country’s heritage and culture.