Europe's Grand Cemeteries Are a Treasure Trove of Buried History

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Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader known for his steamrolling straight-talk, strutted into a modern art show at one of Moscow's famous exhibition halls in 1962 and explained, without mincing words, that the avant-garde art on display looked like dog droppings. "Why do you disfigure the faces of the Soviet people?" the excitable Khrushchev cried, rebuking the artists for their abstractions. He hurled a particularly offensive epithet at sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, who responded -- in a perilous display of public candor -- that Khrushchev, though he was Soviet premier, didn't know a single thing about art. A heated face-off ensued.

More than a decade later, long after the two men reached a truce, Neizvestny sculpted Khrushchev's tombstone. The monument, commissioned by Khrushchev's family and erected in Moscow's Novodevichy Cemetery, features black granite colliding with white marble in cubist formations that bracket Khrushchev's bronze head. The design represents the conflicted ying-and-yang of Khrushchev's character -- the bright, progressive reformer who denounced Josef Stalin and closed the Gulag, intertwined painfully with the dark, shoe-banging man who stuck to retrograde tactics and encouraged building the Berlin Wall. Visitors took to the candid monument, which became, so to speak, dog-doo de rigueur. The Soviet authorities closed Novodevichy Cemetery to the public in the 1970s soon after Khrushchev was interred there, only reopening it in 1987 during Perestroika.

Standing at Khrushchev's grave, one need only look around the graveyard, in the shadow of the dark salmon cupolas of the 16th-century Novodevichy Convent, to unearth an intriguing, tortured history. There's the grave of Nadezhda Alliluyeva, found dead in an apparent suicide after a spat with her husband, Stalin; there's the tomb of Nikolai Gogol, whose remains arrived at the cemetery from Danilov Monastery, which the secret police converted to a detention center in the 1930s; and there's the grave of Anton Chekhov, whose tubercular body was reportedly transported back to Moscow from Western Europe in 1904 in a railcar reserved for fresh oysters. The Russian cemetery, like its grand European counterparts, is a tapestry of cultural history that brings to bear the idiosyncrasies and paradoxes of individual personalities. But it also illustrates, in shades of stone grey, a vexed social topography of the past.

Across Europe, historically minded tourists are increasingly appreciating the allure of grand cemeteries like Novodevichy. Vienna's Zentralfriedhof, with over three million graves, including those of the twice-exhumed Ludwig van Beethoven and musical modernist Arnold Schönberg, has seen an increase in visitors recently. So has Venice's Isola di San Michele, the crowded, cypress-speckled funerary Isle of the Dead, a former prison island that was transformed into a cemetery at the behest of Napoleon and now houses the graves of Ezra Pound and Sergei Diaghilev. It is easy to understand the appeal. As Mark Twain noted after seeing the eerily expressive funerary sculptures of Genoa's Staglieno Cemetery, "To us these far-reaching ranks of bewitching forms are a hundredfold more lovely than the damaged and dingy statuary they have saved from the wreck of ancient art and set up in the galleries of Paris for the worship of the world." Compared to dingy museums, Europe's landscapes of the dead are infinitely more alive...

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