When it came to choosing a new district of Moscow to explore, I settled on one I knew next to nothing about: Lefortovo. It was the architecture that captured my interest first. I read that several old palaces stood there, including one used by Peter the Great; that it had previously been a district populated mostly by foreigners, especially Germans; and it remains an interesting place to see some of the last old buildings in the area.
To my disappointment, when I read more into the districts history I learned, one by one, the old palaces were either destroyed, repurposed, or razed and replaced. Once the eighteenth century passed, the “Era of Palaces” in Lefortovo was effectively over. The last to be built, the Catherine Palace (not to be confused with the famous one in Pushkin) was transformed into military barracks by Paul I. However, there was one place that remained that I knew I had to visit – the Vvedenskoye cemetery.
Admittedly mostly due to my poor navigation skills, getting to where we planned to go was a bit of a mess. It took us a few tries to circle around a construction site, and when we did find a wall of the cemetery it was one of the walls with no entrances in it as far as the eye could see. After skirting around the wall through a path of mud and trash and finally finding the entrance, I was mortified at how dirty my boots were.
It was without a doubt the largest cemetery I’ve ever stood in. The trees obscured my view of the cemetery’s walls, giving it the appearance of going on forever. The pathways are cramped, and lead through multitudes of small, fenced off areas crammed against one another, each dedicated to one family. The space is filled – all fifty acres of it – with headstones, crosses, and memorial statues.
I was told by one of the people selling fake flowers at the entrance that the cemetery was several hundred years old, and the oldest graves in it belonged to German families, buried when the district was mostly occupied by foreigners. She was also handing out large garbage bags, which people used to clear off the piles of dead leaves from around the headstones.
The cemetery has its origins in the late eighteenth century, during a plague epidemic. At this time Catherine the Great began to enforce the use of cemeteries outside city limits as opposed to church yards to prevent the spread of diseases. Because Lefortovo is known as the old German district, the cemetery was at first only used by foreigners and non-Orthodox families. Anglican, Protestant, and Catholic graves are among the oldest there. It wasn’t until after 1918 that the cemetery was made secular and people of all religions began to be buried in the “German cemetery”.
A good number of well-known people are buried in this cemetery, including general Franz Lefort, the namesake of the district. Victor Vasnetsov is buried there as well. It was a little surreal to stand in front of that headstone, decorated with a depiction of the horse and rider from one of his most famous paintings, knowing I had just seen some of his work at the Tretyakov gallery the day before.
Most of all, I was struck by how well taken-care of the graves were – there were people I walked past who were hauling away bags of leaves, sweeping the areas clean, placing bouquets of fake flowers. Most graves had the remains of Easter eggs strewn across them, half picked apart by pigeons. Although the crowded closeness of the graves makes the cemetery seem overgrown or overflowing, most of the areas were carefully tended, last year’s leaves cleared away for the coming of spring.