2011 Buildings Churches People Церкви и соборы

Negotiating the Meanings of Smolensky Cemetery: Between Orthodoxy and Goth Subculture

William Lahue (Russian Studies Program, College of William and Mary)

For abstract of the paper in Russian click here.
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     Smolensky cemetery is the oldest continuously operating cemetery in St. Petersburg. It is located on Vasilievsky island banking the Smolensk river to the North and Maly prospect to the South. It is divided into Lutheran, Orthodox, and Armenian sections. Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries the cemeteries’ identities were closely linked with religious identities of communities living around it. In the 20th century after the October revolution new atheistic authorities wanted to close the cemetery and viewed this effort as part of their war on the old regime. The story of the cemetery in the twentieth century is the story of the communities with religious identities resisting the official atheistic ideology enforced by the state authorities. The post-Soviet story of the cemetery, especially of its Orthodox section, is about the Orthodox Church restoring its symbolic control over the cemetery. In the face of this transition of power and values the Goth subculture has emerged and asserted itself in dialogue with the new dominant ideology.

    At the beginning of the 20thC the Cemetery itself covered over 50 hectares (123,5 acres) and was densely wooded. Before the Russian Revolution at least 800,000 have been laid to rest in Smolensky as a whole. St. Xenia’s chapel within the cemetery is a holy site of pilgrimage with visitors arriving from across the globe. In visiting the chapel in one day alone we met pilgrims from as far as Greece and Israel.


William Lahue and his crew films Father Viktor Moskovskii, the leader of the local Orthodox Community, greeting pilgrims from Israel and Greece.


   The name of the cemetery is often attributed to the settlement of the island, named after the region from which peasants were brought for the construction of St. Petersburg, but this has been found incorrect, according to Father Viktor Moskovskii, the head of the local Orthodox community. The name came about in after the construction of the temple in the name of the Icon ‘Smolensky Mother of God’ (Theotokos of Smolensk).[1]

     The Orthodox cemetery has existed since 1738 and was recognized in 1758. It is the traditional place of burial for professors of the Imperial Academy of the Arts and St. Petersburg University, each of them also on Vasilevsky island. The Lutheran cemetery has existed since 1747 but was partially destroyed during soviet times. The Armenian section was consecrated in 1797.  The cemetery is associated with many important figures of Russian imperial culture.  Next to the famous writers and naval officers one can find a commemorative stone dedicated to Arina Rodionovna, a nurse of Alexander Pushkin.  The founder of modern Ukrainian literature poet Taras Shevchenko was initially buried at the Smolensky.  The poet was also an artist.  While Petersburg had played an important role in his biography, he dedicated only one drawing to the city–a drawing depicting the Smolensky Cemetery.



Taras Shevchenko. Smolensky Cemetery (pencil drawing, 1840)


In late Soviet and post-Soviet times the cemetery became a preferred place of burial for the members of St. Petersburg intellectual elite.  For example, the former director of the Hermitage Museum Academician Boris Piotrovsky has been buried at the Smolensky in 1990.

    At the Orthodox cemetery the local church holiday is held on August 28th.  On this day celebrations are held with tea and coffee, shacks and tents are pitched on the grounds in celebration of the transfer of an icon of Smolensky Mother of God.  The legend claims that the icon was written by the apostle Luke and moved from Constantinople to Smolensk in 1046. The icon is believed to have been destroyed by fire during the German occupation of Smolensk in the 1940s. The church at the Smolensky Cemetery is one of several dedicated to the famous icon in Russia. On August 28th thousands flock to the cemetery in columns that can be seen for miles. The wide popularity of the cemetery attracts crowds on other church holidays as well such as Whitsunday and Radonitsa [2], St. Catherine, Varvara, and St. Nicholas days as well.

   The cemetery includes three churches. The oldest church is dedicated to Theotokos of Smolensk.  Originally it was a wooden church. In 1786 the stone building was erected.  The current building and bell tower took its final shape in the 19th century.  It is in neoclassical style.  Next to the Smolensky Church there used to be a small wooden church dedicated to Archangel Michael. People used to bury child victims of small pox around this church.  A famous flood of 1824 immortalized by Alexander Pushkin in Bronze Horseman destroyed this wooden structure.

   Just outside the gates of the cemetery is the newest church dedicated to the resurrection of Christ. It was erected in 1904 and is currently in disrepair. It was once known for its iconostasis (icon screen) and icons painted by Viktor Vasnyetsov, the key member of the revivalist movement in Russian art during the late 19th century (Prominent Russians). He painted for many famous churches. His oil paintings inspired by Russian folk and epic tales are featured in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

    In the 19th century on the premises of the cemetery there used to be an almhouse for widows and orphans.  During the Soviet times one of the almhouses was used for the local police station (Vorota).  Now the archpriest of Smolensky Orthodox community Father Viktor Moskovskii plans to revive the almhouse at the cemetery.  It is not clear whether he will use the 19th century buidlings of will construct the new building on the cemetery’s premises (Moskovskii).

   The third house of prayer at the Orthodox Cemetery is the Chapel dedicated to St. Xenia.  The Chapel is also her burial place. St. Xenia is the most revered saint in St. Petersburg and is important for the entire Russian Orthodox community. Pilgrims from as far as Greece and Israel come to visit her chapel.  During certain times of the year the line to venerate Xenia at the chapel extends for a milе up to the 17th Line Street way outside the cemetery gate. Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg is considered the heavenly patroness of the city on the Neva (Smolenskoe). She was canonized in 1988, on the 1000th anniversary of the baptism of Rus. The day in her memory identified as the 24th of January. It is believed that she is a miracle maker, the helper to the city’s university students and construction workers. Blessed Xenia would help the workers in the night by picking up brick and wood.  Students believe that if they leave a note with a request for help at the chapel, Xenia will assist them during the tests and exams (Smolenskoe).  Blessed Xenia also protects and helps women of St. Petersburg (Smolenskaia tserkov’).

    The canonical biography of St. Xenia states that she lost her husband at the age of 26 and became a fool in Christ. She would wear the uniform of her deceased husband as she wandered the streets. It is believed that she performed miraculous feats, healing the sick and mentally ill. She devoted herself to prayer exposed to all elements and suffered no small degree of ridicule for her behavior. In the years following her death in 1803, the church began to receive pilgrims, in 1830 a pilgrim built mound was razed and a stone chapel with an oak iconostasis was built, it has been expanded two times since then.

   In 1922 the cemetery was closed mostly based on a lack of space for burial. Later in 1936 Leningrad Soviet decreed to demolish part of the cemetery in order to  build a plant nursery.  The remaining part of the cemetery was supposed to be converted into a city park (Smolesnskoe). Graves and monuments would be demolished or moved to a museum-necropolis created in Alexander Nevsky Laura.

    The campaign to convert the cemetery into the public garden coincided with the controversy around the local cult of St. Xenia.  The chapel was still popularly regarded as sacred and the authorities did not rush with its destruction. In 1940 persistent visits to the chapel and the writing of prayers left at the chapel frustrated the authorities who submitted statements for its immediate closure. Metals and wood were scrapped or burned, though inscriptions for Xenia would continue to appear.

    Nazi invasion interrupted the process of cemetery’s destruction.  During the war Stalin revived the Orthodox Church in order to increase the popular support for the war effort and appease Western allies who encouraged their communist ally to give Soviets freedom of religion.  In 1946 the liturgy was renewed as was mass. After the Great Patriotic War the church would open again but was given to a sculpture studio in the 1960’s after 1959 Khrushchev anti-religious campaign. The process of revival of the cemetery and religious life began in full in the 1980s, it would re-open again only in 1987. Since 1988 renovations have taken place restoring many grave-sites, a marble sarcophagus was installed for Xenia where daily prayers take place.

                Russian Orthodox community shares Smolensky Cemetery with the representatives of Goth subculture. Its location in a densely populated metropolitan area gives way to not only heavy usage by local religious denominations for its official services but unofficially by the youth who occupy it recreationally after hours under cover of dusk. In his examination of youth subcultures of London Dick Hebdige notes that members of subcultures take the most “humble objects” like safety pins and make them carry “’secret’ meanings: meanings which express, in code, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees continued subordination” (18).  If the Orthodox community “normalizes” the cemetery that is creates a dominant discourse of cultural continuity in which “meanings are rendered universal and ‘given’ to the whole society” (Barthes, paraphrased by Hebdige 9), Goths interrupt the process of this normalization.  Goths have their own vision of the cemetery’s significance.  Thus, two communities inscribe two different stories of Smolensky Cemetery’s significance in the life of the city, A day time story is more official and it is a story of remembrance and reverence and a night story is less coherent—a story of mystical afterlife experiences. To Goths the graveyard is a dark and romantic world in which to wander.

Lilya Brik and Anton Ar’ialov-Maevskii–Members of Petersburg Goth Community


     The setting of a cemetery is conducive to Gothic subculture, whose members use it in ways seemingly similar to the regular patrons of the graveyard. They gather around graves in remembrance towards those passed or to give regards to the famed buried there. However, while regular patrons visit the cemetery to commemorate their relatives or famous citizens of Petersburg, local Goths visit grave sites to celebrate and romanticize the state of death and the darker aspects of life, rather than commemorate any specific person.


  Goth originated as a sub-cultural movement revolving around fashion, music, film, and other media. In its history is spun a web of genres in music and film. Goth communities appeared in Russia in mid 1990s but domestic music that inspired the subculture originates in the 1980s.  The Russian web site dedicated to Goth culture history notes: “Most likely, we can consider the first goths the musicians of post-punk wave of the 1980s—Kino, Nautilus Pompilius, Alisa, Agatha Christie. Part of their musical compositions belongs to the style of Gothic Rock. [3]

     Goth culture contrasts sharply with The Russian Orthodox Church as there is no cohesive structure to it, no clergy, no single philosophy, nothing but a magnetic attraction to a romanticism in darkness that diffuses throughout society attracting individuals to others who share the same personalities and interests. When juxtaposed directly with Orthodoxy, which is rigid, organized, official and structural, Goth subculture can be seen as something quite the opposite.  Most importantly, if the Church plays increasingly more important role as the ideology legitimating state power, Goths are overtly apolitical.

Cenotaph on the site where used to be Alexander Blok’s grave

Russian Goth Culture is heavily drawn to a ‘Dark Romanticism’ for literature, poetry and philosophy quite likely alternate to that which the services of Orthodoxy can provide them. They enjoy reading and discussing their latest pursuits in philosophy or poetry. Russian culture holds poetry in high regard, most if not all Russians can recite their favorite poetry and it is part of basic scholastic curriculum. Some Russian Goths favor poetry from the so called “decadent period” of Russian literature: poetry of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, symbolist poetry in particular.  One of the most important Russian symbolist writers, Alexander Blok, was buried at this cemetery in 1921.  In 1944 his remains were moved to Volkovskoe Cemetery to the Literary Necropolis.  The kenotaph dedicated to Blok was created at the Smolensky Cemetery in the post-Soviet period and became one of the places visited by poetically-inclined Goths.  Blok’s cenotaph serves as the place for ‘Goths’ to socialize and perform their subculture.

    Despite the important differences in their use of the space, members of Goth counterculture and regular patrons of the graveyard share some cultural rituals and beliefs. They leave food and drink at graves, read at the gravestones as though visiting a departed friend. Some members of goth subculture even take part in services and/or pray at graves. One interviewee, Lilya Brik [4], spoke of receiving guidance from those whose graves she visited in the cemetery, claiming to commune with the dead not unlike pilgrims and residents wish to (and claim to) communicate with Xenia at her chapel. This mysticism is not unlike Orthodox notions that St. Xenia can help the requests of worshippers or communicate with people. Each comes to the graveyard for respite from the traffic and hubbub of the city to find themselves amongst the birds, forest, and undergrowth that occupy this space. Each comes to visit to fulfill spiritual needs. The interviewees mentioned that the cemetery serves a spiritual purpose, not only for fulfillment of the desire for beauty but in that they experienced a spiritual energy and found it to be a place where she could commune with the dead. Not all share this view however, another interviewee, Anton Ar’ialov-Maevskii, espoused little use for orthodoxy, spirituality, or the dead. For him the graveyard is merely an interesting place in a cosmetic sense to occupy and carry out social activities in a conducive environment.


Father Viktor Moskovskii, the leader of the local Orthodox Community

    According to Archpriest Father Viktor Moskovskii, the leader of the local Orthodox community, currently the Church is experiencing a major revival.  He notes that the church is increasingly popular amongst the youth.  Father Viktor also contends that the youth plays the major role in converting adults such as their parents who were raised in atheistic Soviet environment. He continues: “Under Patriarch Kirill, the current head of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Church seeks to become a renewed beacon of morality in Russia in the good fight against poverty, drug use, debauchery, abortion, etc.” (Moskovskii).  Father Viktor initiated several major construction projects on the cemetery’s premises. The Smolensky Church has hopes to expand with a nursery and orphanage and a Sunday school for children and especially adults in the future. Times are good and expansion is on Father Viktor’s mind. Times now are very unlike Soviet times when the church depended on elderly women, also known through the term of endearment as ‘babushkas’, to keep the church alive and maintained.

     The relationship between the Orthodox and the Goth communities at the Smolensky Cemetery cannot be described along the lines of binary oppositions.  It is rather a complex dialogue in which each individual exercises her or his own agency  The leaders of the Orthodox community have reservations about Goths’ unusual clothing style and late hours when they congregate at the cemetery but at the same time welcome those Goths who are willing to embrace Orthodox Christianity.  Many Goths, though they do not share any single philosophy, find attractive spirituality and customs derived from Orthodoxy itself. To others, a graveyard is merely a place to play out their dark romantic desires. It is clear though that the Smolensky serves as a site of memory for both of these communities. It is both a place of Orthodox ceremonies and traditions and a space for the subculture to occupy and socialize in.

Special thanks to Tamara Dedikova (St. Petersburg University) for her help with research, translation and video production components of this project.  Отдельное спасибо Тамаре Дедиковой (СПБГУ) за её помощь в исследовательской части проекта, переводе и производстве видео.


[1] Theotokos, as in “The Theotokos of Smolensk”, is a Greek title of Mary, literally means “the one who gives birth to God,” mother of Christ, specifically that which is featured in a hodegetria. Hodegetria is a Greek name for a type of icon in which she is gesturing towards an infant Christ she carries, indicating the child as the savior of mankind.

[2] Radonitsa is a day of memorial for the dead approximately a week after Easter.  This is the Eastern Orthodox Church holiday.

[3] Скорее всего, первыми готами следует считать музыкантов пост-панк волны 80-х – Кино, Наутилус Помпилиус, Алиса, Агата Кристи, часть их композиций вообще является характерным gothic rock (FAQ

[4] Goths whom I’ve interviewed told me that they are in the process of changing their names to the new poetic ones.  As our fixer Tamara Dedikova informed me they just received the new passports with new names. The female goth has just received a new passport for Lilya Brik.  The new name obviously evokes the name of the famous 1920s avant-garde scene figure, a muse of Russian futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky,  The male goth received the passport for Anton Ar’ialov-Maevskii.  I am not sure what his new name’s intertextual links are.

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