Not All Death Is Created Equal - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Not All Death Is Created Equal

Not All Death Is Created Equal

By Lorena O'Neil



Because the ethnic and religious divides in Moscow’s cemeteries may clue us in to national identity shifts in Russia’s capital city.

By Lorena O'Neil

Until death do us part takes on a new meaning in Moscow, where cemeteries are increasingly divided along ethnic and religious lines. Death really is parting people — only now it’s an extension of the growing tensions among living Muscovites, whose city is experiencing a boom in immigration.

In secular Russian state funerals, there are civil rites, a tradition dating back to the Soviet era when segregating the dead by their ethnicity and/or religion in cemeteries was typically not permitted. But according to a report by Irina Arkhipova in the Guild of Inter-Ethnic Journalism, the Russian capital’s cemeteries are beginning to fracture, offering divided plots to different nationalities and religions — for a price. Specialized funeral services may be a sign of surging market forces in Russia, but they also point to growing debate over who is truly part of Moscow, even as they are laid to rest in its soil.

Who is part of “a real Moscow”? 

“I would say what we have is a universal trend: When people live in more ethnically homogeneous areas, it’s cradle to grave,” explains Paul Goble, a specialist on ethnic and religious issues in the post-Soviet world. Ethnically segregated neighborhoods are on the rise across Moscow, and death practices are reflecting this change. Ethnic neighborhoods like this were “almost impossible” in Soviet times, Goble says, when housing was usually assigned. “Now, people tend to cluster with people they feel comfortable with in this life. What’s going on in the cemeteries is a reflection of what’s going on in neighborhoods.”


Of the 11 million people living in Moscow, 2–3 million are immigrants, many of them arriving in a recent influx of workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus. Migrant workers tend to seek out support networks by settling in areas where they’re surrounded by people who are similar to them but — as Jeff Sahadeo, an associate professor at Carleton University specializing in migration and interethnic contact between Central Asians and Russians in Moscow and St. Petersburg, notes — this ethnic clustering “leads to more separation between the groups [that] are now geographically isolated.” 

Further back in Moscow’s history, segregation by religion was the norm, when Imperial Russia maintained separate cemeteries for Protestants and Catholics, Armenians, Tatars and Jews.

Muslim migrants are the largest segment of the new arrivals, and communities have sprung up around the very limited number of mosques in Moscow. During Ramadan, it is common to see thousands of worshippers spilling out of the mosques onto the street, because there is not enough space for them inside. 

Russian cemetery

Source Getty

Arkhipova’s report suggests that divided cemeteries are springing up organically, as migrants seek to bury their dead according to their own traditions. Kathleen Smith, a visiting professor at the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University, tends to agree. She says the divided cemeteries are “another way that the market has brought choice back to people who live in Russia. Now, the state doesn’t tell you where you have to bury your loved ones — you have to choose.”

Goble argues that division within cemeteries isn’t a conscious decision. “If you live in an Armenian community, if on your block 80 percent of people are Armenian, [then] you’re more likely to go to Armenian clubs and Armenian restaurants. You’re more likely to have your body put in an Armenian cemetery.”


Even so, this desire to divide the dead speaks to a new kind of cultural sensibility that Russia will have to reckon with. Sahadeo points out that what is beginning to occur in cemeteries is a recognition of a central question: Who is part of “a real Moscow”? The rise of ethnic neighborhoods has been echoed by an increase in interethnic tensions in the city, as nationalist groups in Moscow target people based on physical appearance, aiming for those who look non-Slavic. Sahadeo says this reflects how, in Soviet times, Russians were taught to think of nationalities outside of Russia as very distinct from themselves. “Those sorts of beliefs — that nations are so different — have continued, and become mixed with a broader racial tension that has been really exploding in Moscow since a significant migration from Central Asia and North and Southern Caucasus.”

Ethnic violence declined from 2009 to 2012, but it surged in 2013, reports the Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis. SOVA suggests that a “gradual reorientation of law enforcement agencies’ focus from racist violence to racist propaganda” is the main reason for the rise in racist street violence.

Death is, unfortunately, a particularly large feature of migrant life in Russia. In addition to street violence, migrants are often killed in workplace accidents, since they labor in dangerous conditions for extremely long hours and without safety equipment, Sahadeo says. 

“Moscow as a home is the capital of the Russian Slavic peoples,” says Sahadeo, describing the mindset that engenders the capital’s interethnic tensions. “Other people have a utility of being a part of Moscow when they live, and when they die they really aren’t a part of Moscow community.”

Rest in peace, but in a peace separate from the one I am resting in. 

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