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Regular version of the site

Living and Dead

The Soviet experiment seen through the lens of funeral culture


Inscriptions, symbols and shapes of tombstones and cemetery layouts carry important messages about society, its values and hierarchies. Research by Svetlana Malysheva reveals some of the things Soviet cemeteries can tell us about the USSR and its people. Her findings are published in Ab Imperio.

Tombstones Can Talk

By looking at Soviet-era graves, one can get an idea of the social norms that families adhered to, their respective niches in society, and whether they chose to follow the official ideology or perceived death as a private matter. In other words, burial practices indicate how the deceased were categorised and how the funeral culture contributed to the phenomenon of 'Soviet subjectivity' shared by people who lived inside the global experiment called ‘the USSR' and had to deal with its values and conform to the image of a 'new Soviet person'.

To explore these questions, Malysheva examined more than 350 tombstones in four cemeteries, including two in Moscow (Novodevichy and Donskoy) and two in the provinces (Arsky and Novo-Tatarsky in Kazan), plus a few 'communist' graves in St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St. Petersburg.

In addition to this, the researcher used official documents which she described as reflecting 'the extent of Soviet bureaucrats' imagination’ which was not always sufficient for updating the funeral sphere.

Novodevichy Cemetery

Abandoning the Tradition

In December 1918, a Decree of the Council of People's Commissars (Sovnarkom) proclaimed 'equal burial procedures' for all citizens. Any person, regardless of ethnicity or religion, could now be buried for free at any cemetery.

This effectively ended the pre-revolutionary tradition of religion-based cemeteries, where the deceased person's faith was prominent in the tombstone shape, symbols and texts (e.g. a cross on Orthodox Christian graves), while any information unrelated to religion such as title or occupation was treated as secondary.

After the Communist Revolution, the church lost its monopoly over the identity of deceased people, while the Soviet authorities received an important ideological resource but were not quite successful in using it properly.

The 1918 decree placed the burial sphere under the jurisdiction of local councils that did not seem to have a clear idea of how exactly the new type of cemetery should present 'a new Soviet person'. While religion-free funerals were promoted, no universal funeral ritual or supporting infrastructure were provided to replace faith-based ceremonies, according to Malysheva.

'In the Bolshevik project, death had value only as a sacrifice for the sake of the would-be society of the future. The death of an ordinary man or woman was not considered an ideologically significant aspect of life; therefore, the authorities were reluctant to spend money on the funeral sphere. For many decades, it was funded from what was left over from other budgets, so that neglected cemeteries and substandard undertaker services became a common part of Soviet life'.

From Religious to Civil

During the New Economic Policy (NEP), the campaign to 'undermine the [old] culture of death' was temporarily halted: 1922 saw a return of the faith-based principle of cemetery layout, as control over graveyards was handed over to religious communities.

In 1929, however, Soviet authorities, including state utility companies, village councils and others, resumed control over cemeteries. They were allowed to repurpose tombstones and fences 'for the needs of socialist construction', move cemeteries around or replace them with parks and stadiums.

Due to urban replanning conducted as part of a wave of industrialisation in the 1930s, some old religious cemeteries became part of cities; no new burials were allowed there due to overcrowding, and new cemeteries built in suburbs to replace them were 'international', i.e. universal and not specific to any religion or ethnicity.

The study finds, however, that the authorities 'still lacked effective control and understanding of how internationalisation should be reflected in the ritual and symbolism of death'. Indeed, there was only one clear-cut funeral ritual available which was specifically designed for 'revolutionary heroes', expensive and reserved for the Communist Party elite.

Ideology for Chosen Few

Internationalisation did not mean there was no hierarchy. After 1917, burials were subject to 'social and class regulation'.

During the Soviet decades, the main elite burial sites accommodating the graves of Communist Party leaders and national heroes included the Field of Mars in Petrograd/St. Petersburg and the Mausoleum and the area around it, the Kremlin wall and Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.

Field of Mars

In the first few decades after the revolution, special sections called 'communist grounds' were reserved in cemeteries for ‘the best citizens’. These sites met the current ideological standards while their designers searched for a new language and artistic expression to project a revolutionary vision of life and death.

While religious symbolism reflected a belief in the eternity of the soul, Soviet symbols were designed to express 'a different, social type of immortality'. It was not accidental that 'communist' graves were adorned with industrial structures (e.g. an overhead power line model on the tombstone of workers killed in a construction site accident), symbols such as a five-pointed star, sickle and hammer or the USSR coat of arms, and references to heroic work for the benefit of Fatherland.

In the rest of the cemetery, the only new trend on the tombstones of 'ordinary people' was the briefness and uniformity of inscriptions consisting of the name and years of life.


One of the reasons for the prevalence of 'tombstones of the most basic form with extremely short inscriptions', in addition to avoidance of 'ideologically incorrect' memorial texts, was the high cost: with an average monthly salary of 300 rubles in 1940 in Kazan, the cheapest tombstone made of cement or limestone cost between 250 and 268 rubles, those of marble chips cost from 433 to 495 rubles, those of solid marble stood at 666 to 705 rubles, while those made of granite were the most expensive at 1266 to 1584 rubles. Unsurprisingly, the graves of only 3% of people buried at Arsky Cemetery and 11% of those buried at Novo-Tatarsky Cemetery in Kazan in 1940 had tombstones paid for by their own families.

Between Official and Unofficial

The strict separation of graveyard space into 'communist' and 'common' was short-lived. As early as the 1930s, Soviet cemeteries started to become 'a territory of ideological compromise', where red stars crowned chapel-shaped tombstones of 'ordinary' people and inscriptions such as 'soldier of the Revolution who died on duty fighting for socialism' were featured below an Orthodox Christian cross.

'Rigid boundaries between areas reserved for "communist" graves and those for ordinary people became increasingly blurred as the regime stabilised and brought more people into its ideological orbit', Malysheva comments.

Despite being aware of the official standards, people however continued to observe informal traditions. Consumer preferences for tombstone decorations remained rather conservative: in the 1930s – 1950s, Christian crosses and chapel-shaped tombstones sold well in the Soviet funeral market alongside communist stars and obelisks.

Yet, public demand for religious symbols was not a sign of opposition to the government. Instead, for many people, holding on to funeral traditions was partly a reaction to having their usual frame of reference destroyed by the Revolution and the Civil War. According to the researcher, disintegration of social fabric strengthened the appeal of basic groups such as the family, clan and religious community and encouraged the use of traditional religious symbols in the funeral sphere.

The funeral ritual was even more conservative than the symbols used: in Stalin's times, religious funeral rites continued to prevail, with as many as 93% of all funerals accompanied by a church service in some regions. In February 1940, an inspection of Vagankovskoye Cemetery in Moscow found 'queues created by church processions' blocking the cemetery gates, and in 1942, 95% of all funerals reportedly involved a religious service.

New Hierarchy

After World War II, religious rhetoric and reliance on tradition nearly found their way to the country's official policy.

In 1946, circumstances such as the Stalin regime's turn towards Russian nationalism and a change in the government-church relations during the war years apparently prompted the RSFSR Ministry of Public Utilities to propose a regulation entitled 'Basic provisions concerning the design and construction of cemeteries in cities and towns with a population of 10,000 to 100,000' which stated, in particular:

'believers of [different] Christian denominations (Orthodox, Old Believers, Catholics, Protestants, Evangelical Christians, etc.) can be buried in the same cemetery';

believers of non-Christian denominations (Judaic, Mohammedan, Buddhist) should preferably be buried separately in an area fenced off from the civil cemetery and the Christian burial ground;

'where most residents in the local community are Muslims or Jews, it is advisable to arrange a separate cemetery [for them]'.

These proposals effectively meant (a) a return to faith-segregated cemeteries, (b) an attempt to introduce a new hierarchy replacing the communist versus common burial grounds.

Soviet Paganism

While the above draft document proposed in 1946 was never officially adopted, it reflects the Soviet government's readiness to legally integrate the religious aspect of the funeral sphere. It was followed by other similar documents, culminating in the 'Instructions on burial procedures and cemetery maintenance in the RSFSR' of January 12, 1979.

These instructions allowed changes in burial procedures based on cultural traditions. While it recommended 'placing images of Soviet labour and combat exploits' on tombstones and memorials, religious symbols were explicitly permitted.

A step-by-step outline of the order of service was provided, including a 10 to 15-minute pause for relatives to stand at the side of the coffin to bid farewell to the deceased. Interestingly, other guidelines included the following:

'The funeral director invites those attending the funeral to throw a handful of earth into the grave';

'The coffin is usually placed on a table covered with a cloth. The narrow end of the coffin should face the exit';

'The funeral director should, if needed, ... provide advice as to ... what fabrics to use for covering mirrors...'

Thus, the instruction integrated some elements of religious and even pagan burial rites into the Soviet funeral ceremony. According to the researcher, this indicates that the Soviet authorities, despite all efforts, had failed to come up with anything new but instead borrowed and modified pre-existing religious rites presenting them as 'folk' and 'cultural' traditions.

Status Symbols

Since 'social immortality' was the Soviet idea of eternal life, a deceased person's occupation was an important part of the post-mortem symbolism. Since the 1930s when 'industrial constructions’ were used to adorn graves, the emphasis on professional and career success evolved even further, with tombstone inscriptions often mentioning the person's state awards, academic degrees, titles and patented inventions, while the elaborate design and expensive materials used indicated affiliation with the Soviet elites – usually government officials, top intellectuals and military commanders – and reflected social and economic inequalities.

In the 1950s and 1960s, tombstones in an antique style, with columns, flowerpots, etc., were particularly popular. Full titles were used to identify the high-ranking deceased, from 'Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Council' to 'Director of Heating Power Plant No. 2' or 'Chief Engineer of Fat Processing Plant'.

Some titles were particularly verbose, such as

‘Commissioner of State Committee for Defence Responsible for the Katyusha Rocket Launchers (1941-1945)

People's Commissar and Government Minister
of General Machine Building (1939–1941)
of Mortar Weapons (1941–1946)
of Mechanical and Instrument Engineering (1946–1957)
Colonel General of the Engineering and Technical Service (1944)
(inscription on the grave of Pyotr Parshin (1899–1970), Novodevichy Cemetery)

Some tombstones had fewer words on them but used symbols of professions and awards to describe the deceased person.

As victory in World War II was increasingly perceived as a factor contributing to Soviet identity, many tombstones emphasised that the person had fought in the war. In approximately 1960, rows of tombstones with sculptural portraits of military commanders appeared in Novodevichy Cemetery, as well as symbols such as laurel branches, military stars, anchors, tanks, airplanes, etc. on tombstones in less famous graveyards.

Between the 1960s and 1970s, symbols of civilian professions were added, such as a bowl with a snake for medical doctors, a theatre curtain for actors, a musical instruments for musicians, a microscope for scientists, and an open book for writers.

Changeable Subjectivity

Inscriptions on Soviet tombstones were not necessarily permanent and many were retrospectively 'edited' in the late Soviet years. After the 1979 instructions mentioned above, religious symbols were added to some 'communist' tombstones, e.g. a Muslim crescent was placed alongside the two golden stars on the memorial to the flying ace Amet-Khan Sultan.

Other, not necessarily religious, additions and modifications were also common indicating that Soviet subjectivity was changeable and tombstone inscriptions were often arbitrary rather than ideology-driven.

Minimally conformist, Soviet burial-related practices were rather remote from the official image of Soviet society. The main two reasons, according to the study, were that the funeral sphere was never a priority for the Soviet state and was therefore under-regulated, underfunded and loosely controlled, and that the Soviet regime was unable to offer a viable alternative ritual for people to adopt.


Study author:
Svetlana Malysheva, Chief Research Fellow, HSE Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities
Author: Svetlana Saltanova, February 18, 2019