For more than a generation, this cemetery—a fascinating collection of graves, tombstones, and other memorials—was closed to the general public in large part because Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) is buried here, rather than on Red Square, like other Soviet leaders. Thanks to glasnost, the cemetery was reopened in 1987, and now anyone is welcome to visit its grounds.
Khrushchev's grave is near the rear of the cemetery, at the end of a long tree-lined walkway. If you can't find it, any of the babushki (caretakers) will point out the way. Krushchev was deposed in 1964 and lived his next and last seven years in disgrace, under virtual house arrest. The memorial consists of a stark black-and-white slab, with a curvilinear border marking the separation of the two colors. The contrast of black and white symbolizes the contradictions of his reign. The memorial caused a great furor among the Soviet hierarchy when it was unveiled. It was designed by the artist Ernst Neizvestny,
himself a controversial figure. In the 1960s Khrushchev visited an exhibit of contemporary art that included some of Neizvestny's works. Khrushchev dismissed Neizvestny's contributions as "filth," and asked the name of their artist. When Neizvestny (which means "Unknown") answered, Khrushchev scornfully said that the USSR had no need for artists with such names. To this the artist replied, "In front of my work, I am the premier." Considering the times, it was a brave thing to say to the leader of the Soviet Union. Neizvestny eventually joined the ranks of the émigré artists; he now lives in the United States.
Many of those buried in the cemetery were war casualties in 1941 and 1942. Among the memorials you might want to look for are those to the composers Prokofiev and Scriabin and the writers Chekhov, Gogol, Bulgakov, and Mayakovsky. Chekhov's grave is decorated with the trademark seagull of the Moscow Art Theater, the first to successfully produce his plays (including, naturally, The Seagull). Recent burials include Russia's first president Boris Yeltsin and cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. You can request a tour in English from the cemetery's excursion bureau; call and reserve ahead as they usually need advance warning. In light of the bountiful history and scant English translations, these tours can be very rewarding.