Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Dead Men Walking: Soviet Elite Cemeteries and Social Control

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Dead Men Walking: Soviet Elite Cemeteries and Social Control

Article excerpt

Two friends meet "How are you? " One of them asks. His friend answers: "I am upset. My dream was to be buried at the Novodevichiy cemetery but it seems impossible to get a burial plot there. " His friend promises to help and offered to meet in two weeks. After two weeks they meet again. The friend who offered help says: "I have fantastic news for you. I got you a burial plot at the Novodevichiy cemetery. There is however one small problem--you have to take it tomorrow. "

Soviet joke


Contrary to the Soviet ideology that proclaimed principles of equality, the Soviet state rigidly maintained social hierarchies. This social stratification remained the rule even beyond the grave. Soviet elite cemeteries, a replica of the society of the living, sanctified the political power of the Soviet leadership and preserved a social order in which the elite had a superior status vis-a-vis the mortal commoners for eternity. This structure did not respond to the wishes of the departed. In fact, the deceased were "powerless" in the scheme and had no need to justify their status. While Russian revolution meant to impose the proletarian equality as a rule, the living used the dead as means of social control within new society following traditional mores.

Part I. Soviet elite cemeteries

Throughout history living societies have constructed their societies of the dead according to particular arrangements. These constructions mirror the hierarchies of the living, and reflect their system of values and beliefs. The societies of the dead are structured according to deceased status, religious or ideological affiliations, and political and social allegiances. For example, the Roman aristocracy was laid to rest in pantheons, while slaves were ghettoized in puticuli (1) In the United States before the emancipation white plantation owners were segregated in life and in death from their black slaves. In most European medieval cities criminals, vagrants and people who committed suicide were dumped outside city walls while the high clergy was sheathed by the catacombs under the monasteries. (2)

The Russian societies of the dead did not escape the same predicament. Particular burial grounds corresponded to a specific group. In Moscow before 1917, for example, the undesirables were buried at the cemetery in Lazarevskoe. Foreigners were segregated from the natives in Mar'yina Roshcha and later at the German cemetery in Lefortovo. Akin to other human communities, the Russian dead of various religious confessions were buried away from each other. In Moscow, there were seven cemeteries for Christians and two cemeteries for religious dissenters, such as the Rogozhskoe for the Old Believers. There were also separate burial grounds for the Armenians, the Karaims, and for the "Tatars" or the Muslims. (3)

The societies based on hierarchies elevated their elites in life and in death. Generations of those endowed with power have been buried apart from commoners since the Iron Age. The elite cemeteries served multiple purposes: they claimed a clan's territory and its natural resources, signified social hierarchies and pointed to correct ideological directions. The recognition of elites' superior status served as an essential link between societies of the past and the future. (4) Similarly, the essential feature that permeated Russian imperial burial grounds was the segregation of the elites from the commoners. Before 1917 the deceased from aristocracy, clergy and nobility were buried at particularly selected locations according to their class distinctions. The burials took place either at the exclusive cemeteries or specially chosen parts of the cemeteries. In addition, there were seven ranks of funeral arrangements depending on cost of the ritual which further deepened the social gap between the existing classes of Russian society. Vilfredo Pareto, a sociologist and a philosopher of the early 20th century, argued that the nature of all societies have been essentially similar, dominated by the everlasting presence of the elites. …

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