Rhapsody in Blue: Berlin’s Russian Orthodox Cemetery

Efimova Elizaveta on the Russian orthodox church and cemetery in Reinickendorf…

Despite being tucked into an industrial area and flanked by a discount drinks supplier and a Netto supermarket, it’s impossible not to spot the bright powder-blue onion domes of the Russian orthodox church poking through the birch and chestnut trees. Located along Reinickendorf’s Wittestrasse, the striking red-brick building also features a peaceful and picturesque cemetery dotted with crosses and headstones bearing Cyrllic inscriptions.

Image by Paul Sullivan

An official historical monument in the city, the brickwork entrance welcomes visitors with gates painted the same compelling blue of the copper domes and topped with a traditional carved wooden roof featuring church bells gifted by the Soviet Army in 1947; it looks for all the world like something from a Russian folk tale. On the other side of the gates is a small rectory and administrative cabin with wooden shutters that’s looks like it’s been plucked from the edges of Lake Baikal.

Image by Paul Sullivan

The atmosphere of the churchyard is reflective and intimate enough to make visitors instantly feel they should tread carefully and speak softly. The cemetery was created by funds donated by the Orthodox Brotherhood of St. Vladimir, represented by archpriest Alexander Malzew, who bought two acres of land for the graveyard in what was then Daldorf. Later, tsar Alexander III himself shipped four thousand tons of Russian soil to Germany, so that any Russians who died in foreign lands could rest in native ground.

At the heart of the cemetery sits the handsome church. Built in 1894 by Albert Bohm, a member of the Prussian court architectural board, it’s the oldest of the Russian Orthodox churches in Berlin—others can be found in the Wilmersdorf, Karlshorst, Lankwitz and Marzahn-Hellersdorf districts—and the only one with a graveyard in Germany.

Image by Paul Sullivan

Erected in the name of St. Constantine and Helena, it rises proudly above the cemetery, as if guarding over the deceased. Inside, the small interior is resplendently ornate: Persian carpets pad the floor, framed icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary are detailed in gold, and the arched ceiling features intricate paintings of twirling vines, simple crosses and looping scripture.

Image by Paul Sullivan

Until 1900, only about 45 people were buried in the cemetery. No one at that time could have predicted the First World War, which marked the end of the Russian Orthodox community in Berlin, all of whom were expelled in 1914, including Malzew. The community began again when Russian immigrants poured back into the city the 1920s, driven by the upheavals there.

During the Nazi era, the communities in Germany were tolerated, and afterwards the cemetery and chapel fell to the Moscow Patriarchate, who still runs it today. Today the cemetery hosts more than 3,000 souls. Counts, barons, princes, ministers, as well as generals from Wrangel’s White Army now lie next to Red Army soldiers who helped take Berlin in 1945. Alongside the older. crumbling tombstones are fresh granite and marble monuments to the more recently deceased.

Image by Eliẓaveta Efimova

Deep in the cemetery, a time-worn granite cross bears the inscription «Верным сынам Великой России» (“To the Great Sons of Russia”)—a memorial to the soldiers of the Russian Imperial and White Armies, carved in 1934. The cross is adorned with a bronze sword, blade pointing downwards, and crowned with the coat of arms of the Russian Empire, the two-headed eagle. More recently, thanks to donations raised by the charitable organisation “Obelisk International e.V”., larger stone crosses have also been erected in memory of the fallen soldiers buried in the cemetery.

Unlike the Dorotheenstadt cemetery, this one doesn’t host many major celebrities, but one exception can be found on the left side of the church—the gravestone of Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, the Russian politician, criminalist, publicist and father of the great Russian writer, who also wound up in Berlin many years later. Vladimir Dmitrievich died in Berlin in 1922 while trying to prevent an assassination attempt on Pavel Milyukov, leader of the Russian Constitutional Democratic Party and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Provisional Government, during a concert at the Berliner Philharmonie in 1922.

A monument to Mikhail Glinka, which stood at the Dorotheenstadt cemetery until his reburial in St. Petersburg in May 1857, is also here, testifying to the few months the composer spent in the city in 1834. Next to it, enclosed by a small metal fence, stands a pedestal with a statue of Jesus Christ, which seems to be guarding the pansy-laden tomb of Maria Andreevna Meshcherskaya, a Russian princess. Between the white wooden crosses rises a grey granite tombstone over the grave of Russian painter Nikolay Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky, who was born in Russia, but due to hostility from the Soviet Union was forced to move to Riga and later to Berlin, where he died as a result of the Allied bombing on February 19, 1945.

Image by Paul Sullivan

Curiously, several other graves here belong to relatives of famous Russians in Berlin. The father of film director Sergei Eisenstein is here, for example, as is the sister of Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, and the nephew of the composer Rimsky-Korsakov. Others belong to war heroes like Vladimir Sukhomilov, cavalry general of the Imperial Russian Army and Minister of War until 1915, and Vladimir Sidorin, the Commander of the White Don Army.

Image by Elizaveta Efimova

All around the cemetery are fresh flowers, lighted candles, and framed photos of the deceased. Many of the headstones seem well-kept, suggesting the cemetery is regularly visited and well maintained. You can also sometimes find visitors standing solemnly at the graves, although at others are disused wooden chairs, covered in moss.

The combination of the orthodox crosses, the round domes on the church, the Cyrillic writing on the gravestones—even the birdsong—are deeply reminiscent of Russia. For immigrants like myself, it provides a truly heartwarming and nostalgic feeling, but it’s also  a peaceful, even romantic place for anyone in Berlin to experience.

 

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