Russian Ways of Death

The grave of Mikhail Vasilyevich Sergeyev, the author’s grandfather

If you’re looking for something that binds the Russian people, it is, perhaps, the cult of the dead. I’m coming back now from the cemetery where my grandfather is buried. The number of bright plastic flowers, pots, baskets, and wreaths per square meter there is off the charts. As long as a person is alive, you can torment them, shout obscenities at them, and even get good and drunk and beat them up. But as soon as he or she is gone, a competition breaks out to make the most solemn graveside speeches and sumptuous graves. In a way, this is the underside of human life’s insecurity and lack of value. Death is a stable condition. As my grandfather’s widow told my father, “You can sit on the bench by a grave. The owners are unlikely to object.”

There is also a lot of ground for indulging in superstition. Should the cross on a gravestone be on the left or on the right? Can you visit a cemetery after two in the afternoon? Should a temporary cross be thrown in the trash or should it be burned? Can you drink vodka in remembrance of the dead and leave them sweets? These customs are mostly pagan, partly Soviet, and they are widespread. Nobody wants to die, and superstitions give us firm ground to stand on. They are like rules and magical charms.

And death is a serious business, of course. Less than ten minutes after I arrived, a cemetery employee drove up on a bicycle and offered his services.

Source: Alexei Sergeyev, Facebook, 21 May 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader


In March, the Krasnoyarsk photographer Maria Minina got a phone call from an unknown woman. She did not give her name — she only said that she had suffered two strokes. Minina’s caller asked her to do a “Vogue-style photo shoot,” only the woman needed the pictures for her own tombstone. So Maria began providing a new service — photographing people for their gravestones. Takie Dela talked to the photographer and her clients about how they feel during such shoots and why they do them.

“I’m afraid that every day might be my last”
This past winter, Minina dreamed that she died. In her dream, she found out about her death from a work chat in which money was raised for her funeral. The dream made a huge impression on Maria, and she began thinking about what she would leave behind when she was gone. Just then she got a call from her first client who asked to take a picture of her for a future tombstone. She asked her to take the pictures in the Vogue style in which Minina works.

A “Vogue-style” photo by Maria Minina. Courtesy of Takie Dela

“I came to Masha’s photo shoot after having two strokes,” says Minina’s client Anna R., whose name we have changed at her request. “I wanted to memorialize myself as beautiful in life, I wanted to have glossy-style photos. I’m afraid that every day may be my last, so I’m doing everything to live to the fullest.”

Anna asked Minina to do a photo shoot of her for her gravestone. Firstly, she wanted to have a photo of her ready in case she died. Secondly, she decided to “train [her] psyche.”

“I thought that I would be sad, that I would feel my imminent departure, but Masha did not let me think about death for a second. During the photo shoot, I felt like a model and a woman being photographed on the red carpet. The feelings were quite strange, but I liked them.”

“They will bury me, and everything will be fine”
After Anna’s photo shoot, Minina told her subscribers on social media that she could do a similar shoot for anyone else.

“In fact, many relatives of people who have passed away ask this question: where can I find decent photos?” Maria explains. “About four months ago, my uncle’s sister passed away, and relatives could not find good photos of her, although she had lived for over sixty years. That is, there were no high-quality photos of just her.”

Maria wants to use the photo shoots to ease some of the burden experienced by the relatives of deceased people. Relatives who are preparing for a funeral will, at least, not have to look for a suitable picture, she hopes.

One of Maria’s clients is the well-known Krasnoyarsk blogger Rustam Umarov, whose Instagram account has 370,000 subscribers. He has stage four cancer, and the doctors told him that he had six months to live. That was six months ago. The diagnosis and prognoses shocked Rustam. When he got over the shock, he decided to take care of his own funeral to relieve his beloved wife of the hardship of having to organize it.

Rustam Umarov. Photo: Maria Minina. Courtesy of Takie Dela

“I have already made arrangements with a funeral service. So that if something happens to me, my wife doesn’t panic and go into hysterics. So that they call her and say, ‘Anna Igorevna, we will take care of everything. We don’t need anything from you — no money, no worries.’ They will bury me, and everything will be fine,” says Rustam.

Having set about organizing his future funeral, Umarov thought about a photo for his tombstone. He says that when he buried his mother three years ago, he could not find a single good picture of her. Because of his diagnosis, Rustam decided to do a photo shoot.

“I don’t want people to cry at my funeral. I want people to dance and smile at my funeral. I’m not going to the worms in hell, I’m going somewhere that is maybe a million times better, so why worry?” says Rustam. “Everyone has their own time on this earth. I have talked to my children and my wife. They know that I have a terminal illness, that I can die at any moment, and for them, at least, it will not be a shock. Even at the photo shoot, they knew that it was partly being done for my funeral, and partly for my family, for memory’s sake.”

“Each of our days is unique
Maria herself is certain “there is a calm acceptance of death” in the tombstone photo shoots. But, in her opinion, a person begins to work out their attitude to life’s finiteness even before meeting with the photographer, not during the shoot.

“I always try to make the shoot itself a celebration — no matter what we are getting photographed for. It is a mood-lifting therapy, a means of working out that each of our days is unique. No one in this world is immortal — the wheel of fortune can break, and life can turn abruptly in the other direction,” Minina notes.

According to her, such shoots provide psychological relief to people with incurable diseases. But among Minina’s clients there are also people who are not getting ready to die, but working through psychological problems, for example. This was why Elena D. signed up for a photo shoot with Maria. (Elena’s name has been changed at her request.)

“I asked Maria to do a Vogue magazine-style photo shoot of me for a tombstone,” says the client. “Before that, I had had a nervous breakdown. I decided to let it all hang out. I wouldn’t go to a spa or a club, but to a photo shoot with Masha! By pure chance I came across her advertisement and called her. To be honest, I don’t regret it at all.”

Maria believes that such photo shoots can interest different people for different reasons. According to her, some people really are preparing for death in advance or want to overcome psychological difficulties in this way, while others are trying to shock the people in their lives.

“Perhaps Insta divas will want to look on their tombstones the way they do now. They will want everything to be clear and beautiful. Or some will want to update their content and shock people. A blogger gets their picture taken and tells [subscribers] that it’s going to be on their tombstone, and their account goes viral,” the photographer says.

Maria is also using her new service to work through her own fear of death.

“Gradually, I began to accept that sooner or later we all find ourselves on the other side of life, but we don’t know when and how it will happen. Perhaps I will help people with the service I provide.”

“It can be important and thrillingly reconciling”
Psychotherapist Lisa Zaslavskaya deals with subject of dealing with death. The specialist notes that techniques involving photographs can actually be used in psychotherapy. These can be photos from a family archive, self-portraits or just pictures of clients taken by another person. Psychologists use such photos during therapy to treat various conditions. Zaslavskaya notes that taking pictures for a tombstone can be a therapeutic process. It can help people to realize that “death is near, that perhaps it will come soon,” and to live through it.

“It is one of the ways of abiding in the real world. And it can be useful for loved ones. After all, if this issue is talked through, if it is discussed that I am doing a photo shoot for a tombstone, it may be important for relationships — within the family, with loved ones. It can be another occasion to tell each other about your feelings and desires. It can be important and thrillingly reconciling,” the specialist argues.

When a person is photographed for their tombstone, they touch on the various fears evoked by death. Because of this, it can be difficult for others to accept the process.

“It is also important to take into account the modern context. The topic of death is taboo, and if in the past, theoretically, people saw other people dying and died at home, nowadays there are specialized institutions for this and people often die in hospitals, ambulances, or hospices. Even if a person dies at home, they are taken away. They are not left in the home after they die, as used to be the case. So, death scares us, of course. It is tabooed and concealed in everyday life,” the psychotherapist argues.

Zaslavskaya notes that there are different ways of coming to terms with death, and not all of them suit a particular person. In her opinion, the most important thing about the process is a sensitive attitude towards oneself and others.

“We need to somehow measure [how much a person is able to] withstand this confrontation with death,” she argues. “A photo shoot like this is suitable for some people, but not for others — everyone decides for themselves. There is no universal [way of making peace] with death. If it is matters for someone to be remembered in this way, in this style, it is their right.”

Source: Sabina Babayeva, “‘I don’t want people to cry at my funeral’: How Russians order glossy photo shoots for their tombstones,” Takie Dela, 17 May 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader


The three Last Address plaques in the gateway to our house in Petersburg’s Central District

On Sunday, May 22, four new Last Address plaques will be installed in downtown Petersburg.

At 11 a.m., residents of Zagorodny Prospekt, 24, will install three plaques memorializing people who lived in their house and were shot during the Great Terror.

35-year-old Elizaveta Ivanovna Mullo, an ethnic Finn and at teacher at School No. 16 in Leningrad’s Volodarsky District of Leningrad, was arrested on September 5, 1937. She was shot on November 15, 1937, after being sentenced to death by a “twosome” [an NKVD officer and a prosecutor]. Her three-year-old Albert was left motherless.

Iosif Abramovich Dorner, a 45-year-old Jew, was head of the sales office at the Printing House. He was arrested on November 2, 1937, and shot on May 5, 1938. He was survived by his wife Sarra and four-year-old daughter Larisa.

Yakov Venediktovich Adamchik, a 55-year-old Pole and train conductor, was arrested on January 18, 1938, and shot on April 2, 1938. He was survived by his wife Feodosia and their four children — Olga, Mikhail, Lydia, and Nina.

All three victims were later officially exonerated for lack of evidence of a crime — Yakov Adamchik and Iosif Dorner, in 1957 and 1958, respectively; and Elizaveta Mullo, in 1989.

At 12 noon at Kuznechny Lane, 8, next to the plaque installed in 2016 for Nikolai Ivanovich Konyaev, a memorial plaque for his relative Boris Petrovich Matskevich will be installed. They lived in the same apartment and were arrested on the same day (March 11, 1935) as “socially dangerous elements.” A technician at an enterprise and a former Tsarist army colonel, Boris Petrovich was exiled to Kazakhstan for five years. In 1938, he was arrested in Atbasar and sentenced to death by firing squad. He was exonerated in both cases in 1959 and 1960, respectively. His granddaughter will be installing the plaque in his memory.

We invite you to join the installation ceremonies.

Source: Last Address in Petersburg email newsletter, 17 May 2022. Photo and translation by the Russian Reader

The People You Meet

Prison camp acquaintances, of course, slightly tweak the picture that can take shape when you read only anti-war media.

I talked to a friend from Krasnoyarsk today. He is currently doing time in a camp in Mari El (he was transferred there from Krasnoyarsk). He says, “A lot of people have left Mari El [for the war].” “Voluntarily?” I ask. “Voluntarily. And why not, the money is good, so they go. Plus there’s looting: they drag things back from there too.” In response to my remark that they might come back home in a coffin, he tries to explain, although he himself does not approve of their actions. “Well, a one-way ticket… People have been pushed to the limit. There’s nothing to live on. But there you can make decent money.”

Basically, you can’t argue with the material attractiveness of going to fight in the war. Here, in the countryside, some earn 20 thousand rubles a month [approx. 300 euros], but there they are promised 200 thousand [approx. 3,000 euros]. Plus looting. And there is seemingly nothing you can do about it. If they are paid, they will go. Especially because it has become harder to survive.

Source: privately posted social media entry whose author is afraid that it could be grounds for charging them with violating Russian Criminal Code Article 207.3. (‘”Public dissemination of knowingly false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.” The new law provides for a prison sentence of up to 15 years for knowingly disseminating false information about the Russian Armed Forces.’) Photo and translation by the Russian Reader