The prologue covers the Russian revolution and the introduction of cremation in the Soviet Union, beginning with the first Soviet cremation: that of Fanny Kaplan, who was convicted of attempting to assassinate Chairman Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in August 1918.

Fanny Kaplan, accused of attempting to assassinate Lenin in 1918. Photo: historyinanhour.com

After the assassination attempt, she was arrested and brought to the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the secret police, before being moved into the Kremlin. On September 3rd, 1918, Kaplan was executed by firing squad inside the Kremlin, in a courtyard belonging to the government’s transportation-security organization. To hide the evidence of this secret execution, Kaplan’s body was then incinerated in a barrel. Thus, the first cremation sanctioned by the still-new Bolshevik government was a foreshadowing of its later use: making political prisoners disappear.

The narrative jumps back in time to 1917, when revolution was raging throughout Russia. That summer, the Russian Orthodox Church was convening in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior to choose a Patriarch (the Orthodox equivalent of the Catholic Pope). The office of Patriarch had been abolished by Emperor Peter the Great in 1721, so this was a major change in church policy as a response to the instability brought on by the revolution—and specifically the sacrilegious bombing of the Kremlin, one of Moscow’s holiest sites. Finally, a Patriarch was chosen: Tikhon Bellavin. He was enthroned in the Kremlin‘s own Dormition Cathedral in November of that year.

Patriarch Tikhon. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

During the revolution, the Bolsheviks began their campaign for atheism, which was tightly linked to the movement for cremation: the Orthodox Church opposed cremation on the grounds that the body must be buried in order to be resurrected at the Last Judgement; naturally, anything the church opposed, the Bolsheviks supported. Of course, cremation was not the first action through which the Bolsheviks opposed church law. Starting in 1918, churches and monasteries were destroyed or converted into prisons by official order. Government agencies such as the Anti-Religious Commission were created to dismantle the church, arrest its leaders, and convert a devout populace to the atheism endorsed by the State.

In January of 1918, cremation was made legal (although there were still no crematoria in Russia), and the next year Leon Trotsky (People’s Commissar of Military and Naval Affairs) published a plea to fellow revolutionaries to have their own remains cremated as an example for the common man. Despite these efforts, traditional burial practices remained popular, so in January 1919 the State decided to set an example of its power over the church by building the first crematorium on the grounds of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St Petersburg.

Boris Kaplun, head of the Petrograd Crematorium

Boris Kaplun, head of the Petrograd Crematorium. Photo: Lidia Golovkova

The project was headed by Boris Kaplun, an art-loving man who was passionate about his work. A design was chosen in 1920, and the foundations were dug, but after heartfelt pleading from Metropolitan Beniamin of Petrograd (the highest church official in the city), the project was moved (“temporarily”) to Vasilievsky Island. Despite seven later attempts to return to the monastery site, the crematorium there was never completed and the project was eventually abandoned, though the monastery’s cemetery was partially converted into a special communist graveyard for party officials, complete with red star-shaped grave markers.

While the monastery-as-crematorium plan never worked out in Petrograd, the authorities were much more successful in Moscow. In 1924, a cremation exhibition was held at the State Institute of Social Hygiene to improve public opinion, and in 1925 architect Dmitri Petrovich Osipov’s design for a Moscow crematorium was approved. Per Osipov’s plan, the crematorium was to be constructed inside the working church in the Donskoi Monastery‘s New Cemetery.