Saturday, 31 October 2009

Dead poets and royal nuns

Just 10 minutes from the centre of town, the leafy Novodevichy Cemetery and Convent form an oasis of peace in modern Moscow. Hidden behind fortified walls are the picturesque tombs of many famous Muscovites, the gold domes of five churches and the royal chambers that became prisons for troublesome princesses in the 17th century.
If you head for the exit nearest the front of the train at Sportivnaya (assuming you are coming from the centre), you can visit the Museum of the Moscow Metro before you leave the station. Through a little door beside the main exit, the collection of metro memorabilia is free and usually open on weekdays between 10 am and 4 pm. Turn right out of the station and simply keep going as near as you can in this direction until you see the arched, brick gates of the Novodevichy Cemetery ahead of you across the road.
This fascinating graveyard is not only chock-a-block with poets, pianists and politicians; it also has a great variety of contrasting sculpture. Near the gate into the older section, the ballerina Galina Ulanova stretches her white marble arm next to the famous clown, Yury Nikulin, whose casual bronze figure sits and smokes near his dog. You can get a full list and map of the notable dead from the kiosk on the way in, but it is also an excellent place simply to wander and admire the evocative memorials.
Raisa Gorbacheva is commemorated by the elegant bronze statue to the left at the first crossroads. Nearby, the huge rippling Russian flag marks the final resting place of Boris Yeltsin. Go through the gate and turn right. Once you have located Nikolai Gogol's bust, about 10 rows along near the wall, you can find Chekhov's white arch two rows further. Stanislavsky's ornate cross, also marked by the Arts' Theatre's seagull logo, is two rows beyond Chekhov and Bulgakov's boulder faces him. At the far end of the plot, three rows along on the far side, the small block-tomb of composer, Dmitry Shostakovich, is decorated with his characteristic musical signature-motif, D-E flat-C-B.
The marble head in a glass box at this end of the cemetery is Stalin's wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva. Returning along the central path, you pass another clown. Vladimir Durov, one of the earliest members of the Durov family of famous animal trainers. His socialist realist-style sculpture with its noble gaze and air of stern purpose is somehow comically at odds with the ruffed clown suit and monkey on his shoulder. At the other end of the cemetery, there is a section behind a wall that tourists often miss. On the way, you pass the flamboyant 19th century opera singer, Fyodor Shaliapin, reclining in white on a marble couch, to the left.
Past the wall and almost at the end on the left, a hand-shaped memorial marks the tomb of puppet master, Sergei Obraztsov. Turning left along the back wall, you pass numerous actors and writers and reach the cosmonaut, Georgy Beregovoi in Section 11. Turn left again through the gate. The black and white blocks on the left are a chequered memorial to Nikita Khruschev, who was denied a place in the Kremlin Wall. Go out of the cemetery and left around the fortified walls to visit the glorious Novodevichy Convent.
From artists and statesmen of the last 200 years, you now travel back in time, through the Moscow baroque style Transfiguration Gate-Church with its typically late-17th century white on red decorations. It used to be possible to wander the grounds free, but these days the guards descend on anyone who looks like a tourist and insist you buy a ticket. This also entitles you to visit the museums, where relics of convent life, icons and other treasures are displayed. The oldest building in the ensemble is the central Smolensky Cathedral, built by Tsar Vasily III in 1524 when the convent was founded to celebrate his victory over the Poles.
Inspired by the tall lines of the Kremlin's Assumption Cathedral, it looks particularly fine framed by bronzed oak leaves in the autumn sun.
Among the many royal nuns who lived here, Peter the Great's half-sister, Regent Sophia, was the most influential. She was responsible for commissioning the distinctive baroque additions to the convent in the 1680s, including the 72-metre bell tower.
Her refuge became a prison when Peter crushed the third rebellion by the "streltsy" guardsmen who supported her in 1698. There are several paintings in the Tretyakov Gallery, depicting these events, including the execution of the streltsy outside the window of her chambers in Novodevichy. Sophia lived here as the nun, Susanna, until her death in 1704.
If you feel like more of a hike, there is a path round the pond below the convent walls. This also gives you the chance to see the convent from the classic picture postcard viewpoint, reflected in the water with its domes and towers ranged picturesquely above the wall. At No. 4 Novodevichy Proyezd, above the pond, with great views over the convent, the "U Pirosmani" Georgian restaurant was one of the first restaurants to open after perestroika. The food is good, but pricey.
Head back through the park opposite the convent gates and cross the road. The funky, tent-like Myata café has disco décor and a constantly changing menu. Go straight along Ulitsa Desyatiletiya Oktyabrya to reach the metro. On the corner with Ulitsa Usacheva, there is another cosy café, which may be an even better option for a quick coffee or sandwich.

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