The Funeral of
Nikolai Vorontsov
The funeral hall, or trauernyi zal, of the Kremlin Hospital is located on the grounds of the hospital itself, at 25 Marshal Timoshenko Boulevard. Once inside the funeral hall of the Kremlin Hospital I found myself in a very strange and striking location. Soviet ideologists, leaders of an atheistic state, had always attempted to replace the religious symbols that traditionally surrounded such momentous events as birth, marriage, and death, not to speak of all the religious holidays of the Orthodox calendar. They created parallel, entirely secular ceremonies to supplant the older religious observances. But the date was March 7, 2000, and the Soviet Union was long gone. Furthermore, the man being buried had proudly refused to join the Communist Party and had bravely fought against the restitution of Soviet rule when such a possibility became all too real. Vorontsov was, in fact, the only member of the Council of Ministers (the equivalent of the President's Cabinet in the American government) in the entire history of the Soviet Union who was not a Party member.

The obvious answer was to "Christianize" the ceremony, to introduce clearly religious elements defying the Soviet surroundings. But there was a problem here too. I knew that Nikolai Nikolaievich had never been a conventionally religious man. He was an ardent evolutionary biologist who saw a conflict between science and religion and who came down on the side of science. So the family introduced just enough religious elements to show that they were anti-Soviet while retaining many secular features. In the main hall, near the open casket, were two tiny brass crosses, but no other religious symbols. However, outside the main hall, in the cloak-room, an Orthodox priest was present, and he had hung religious icons and other symbols of his faith on its walls. Religion was held at a distance, but it was there.

The ceremony was divided into two halves, a secular service and a religious one. At the secular service several people, including me, eulogized Vorontsov. The director of the secular service was Sergei Kapitsa, the well-known scientist and television personality. Among the other speakers were Yegor Gaidar and Boris Nemtsov, leading politicians at the time and democratic colleagues of Nikolai Nikolaievich.

Following the secular service came the religious one. The Orthodox priest moved out of the cloakroom and came into the main hall. The Orthodox funeral service is very long and moving, accompanied by chants and music. The priest moved around the casket, casting the brass censer with its smoking incense in looping arcs over the deceased. At certain moments in the service the mourners standing around the casket (there were several hundred of us) were supposed to make the sign of the cross. I noticed that only a small minority of the people present, maybe a fifth, actually followed the priest's cues and made the sign of the cross.

Standing there during the ceremony I had ample time to look over the people who came to honor this marvelous man, and I found that I knew quite a few of them. Many of them were biologists and activists in the environmental protection movement, as Nikolai Nikolaivich had been; others were participants in the democratic political movement that had transformed the Soviet Union in its last years; a few were government leaders, colleagues of Nikolai Nikolaievich when he was a minister in the government and a member of the first four dumas (national legislatures) of the incipient Russian democracy. Also present were many older biologists who in the forties and fifties had opposed Lysenkoism; they had stood against it and its creator at a time when such opposition was very dangerous. A number of them had served time in the labor camps. Elsewhere in the room was a younger generation, people who in the late Soviet period had vocally opposed Communism, many of them either participants in or sympathizers with the dissident movement.

Now the Soviet Union was gone, and I sensed that all these people, rooted in different generations but bound together by their mutual resistance to tyrannical authority, were having great difficulty deciding what authority they should now be opposed to. They were bereft of the oppositional ideology that had sustained them all their lives. Traditionally opposed to religion, they had to fall back on it to show that in this Soviet shrine they were not Soviet. Opposed to communism in the name of democracy and the Russian people, they were finding that in free elections the Russian people did not support democrats like them, but inclined toward authoritarian leaders like the Communist Gennady Zyuganov, the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovskii, or the "strong hand" Putin who, several weeks later, was elected president. The intellectuals in this room had thought that democracy would provide them with their hour, the moment when their opinions would count. Instead the nation, acting democratically, had gone in a different direction. These members of the intelligentsia had become superfluous people after decades of believing that they represented all that was good in Russia. I sensed an enormous ideological vacuum in that funeral hall.

After the funeral, the mourners went to the cemetery for the graveside ceremony. In the supposedly egalitarian society that Communism created, the place a person was buried was one of the significant indices of status, of class in the "classless society." The creme de la creme were interred in the Kremlin wall, or in graves immediately in front of it. That is where Lenin, Stalin, some of the members of the Politburo, and a few foreigners, including the American radical John Reed, ended up. But quite a few leaders lacked the political support required for interment in the Kremlin, and they, including the former head of the Party and government Nikita Khrushchev, ended up in Novodevichy Monastery, the second-ranking place of burial. But now Novodevichy was full, so members of the governing elite were increasingly sent to the third-ranking cemetery, Troerkurovskoe Cemetery, not far from the Kremlin Hospital. That is where Nikolai Nikolaievich was to be buried.

The graveside ceremony, also prolonged and attended by the priest, was held in the middle of a late winter blizzard, with swirling clouds of large snowflakes covering us as we stood surrounding the casket, still open. The snowflakes fell on Nikolai's face, covering his eyes and eyebrows so rapidly that every few minutes one of the mourners would wipe the dead man's face with a handkerchief.

As I stood before the grave and listened to the speeches I looked around me. The gravestones on each side of Nikolai's grave indicated not only who was buried there, but also stated the deceased's highest rank; there was an admiral in the navy here, over there a general, here a narodnyi artist (people's artist. an official rank given to performing artists), there a minister in the government, there a full (and therefore immortal) member of the Academy of Sciences.

As appropriate for a governmental cemetery, most of the tombstones were government-issue: standard rectangular blocks, some larger than others, but without much variety. But I noticed that a few of the most recent tombstones, those erected since about 1994, were shaped in the form of the double-barred Orthodox cross. I counted the new orthodox crosses visible from the gravesite and saw maybe ten or twelve. I noticed that there were no Stars of David in sight, nor did I see any as I walked along the snow-covered path leading out of the cemetery. I did, however, see one quite unusual tombstone: the man had been buried in 1972, almost twenty years before the fall of the Soviet Union, and his marker was a standard Soviet government product, an anonymous block of stone. But someone, no doubt a member of his family, had very recently brought a stone Orthodox cross and attached it, with metal bands, to the secular tombstone.

As I turned and left the grave, I said to myself that Nikolai probably would not have agreed with much that happened at his burial, including the implanting of a cross over his body. But just what kind of symbol would have appropriately marked this man's grave, a man who spent most his life combating orthodoxy?

--- From Moscow Stories
Loren Graham
©2006, Indiana University Press
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