Splendor and Sadness … the graves of Russia’s rejected … Nureyev … Prince Yusupov … Mathilda Kschessinskaya …

Destiny is a funny thing. For example, when Tsar Nicholas II of Russia wooed an Imperial Ballet dancer – Mathilda Kschessinskaya – in Saint Petersburg, did she think that one day she would lie buried in a simple grave in a cemetery outside Paris? And did the dashing Prince Félix Yusupov, the wealthiest man in […]

Nureyev’s grave

Destiny is a funny thing. For example, when Tsar Nicholas II of Russia wooed an Imperial Ballet dancer – Mathilda Kschessinskaya – in Saint Petersburg, did she think that one day she would lie buried in a simple grave in a cemetery outside Paris?

And did the dashing Prince Félix Yusupov, the wealthiest man in Russia – even wealthier than Tsar Nicholas II – ever think on the day that he assassinated Rasputin, the ‘Mad Monk’, that he would one day lie buried in a simple grave in a cemetery outside Paris?

And could Rudolf Nureyev ever have imagined that one day he would lie buried under a rug of mosaics in a cemetery outside Paris?

For the three – two ballet stars and a murderer – lie buried within touching distance in the Russian cemetery (le cimetière russe) in the town of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, 19 miles (31 kms) south of Paris.

If you live in Paris and you’ve never been to the cemetery, do go, and if you plan to visit Paris, you won’t make a mistake putting the cemetery on your list of ‘must do’.

I will start with the grave of Nureyev (Nou’ray’yev). It is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a few!)

Nureyev’s tomb is draped in a kilim rug.  The rug, in red, different shades of blue, and gold, is made of tiny mosaic tiles. Designed by Italian costume and set designer Ezio Frigerio, it looks so real that you can’t resist the urge to want to take hold of it at one tasselled edge to lift it off.  Several people to whom I’ve shown the photos I’ve taken of the grave and which you can see here, have asked me whether the rug does not get wet when it rains or snow. “And how come it does not blow off?” they wanted to know.

I can vouch that it is a most extraordinary experience to stand beside that grave, so do go and see it.

At the same time, of course, you can pay your respects to Nureyev.

You will know his story: Having performed in Paris with the Leningrad Kirov, he defected at Paris’s Le Bourget Airport on June 16, 1961 while the dancers were waiting to board a plane for London.

He was assisted by the French airport police and the Chilean heiress and Parisian socialite, Clara Saint. A rumor circulated that the 21-year-old was his lover, but, gay, he was in a relationship with East German ballet dancer, Teja Kremke whom he had met when Kremke was dancing in Leningrad with the Kirov.  Nureyev was 21 and Kremke 18. (Kremke, who had failed to defect from East Germany to join Nureyev in Paris, had become an alcohol. He drowned under mysterious circumstances in 1979 in East Germany: he was 37.) Clara Saint was at the time of the defection engaged to Vincent Malraux, son of André Malraux who would die in a car accident soon afterwards. Part of the Yves Saint-Laurent/Pierre Bergé set, through whom she had met Nureyev, she had later become press attaché for the YSL fashion house. She still lives in Paris.

Nureyev, based in Paris, had started to feel unwell at the end of the 1980s but it was not until 1990 that he was diagnosed with AIDS. The news was not made public, yet rumors were rife that he had AIDS. He died in the Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret in 1992, just a few months after he’d been allowed to return to the Soviet Union to give a performance there. (It was a second return because in 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev had allowed him to visit his dying mother. He had on that visit danced with the Kirov at the Maryinsky Theatre.)

He passed away on January 6, 1993: He was 54.

His parents were Muslims, but having been born and having grown up under Communism, he had no religion.  Therefore there are no religious artifacts on his grave; only his name, year of birth and year of death, in both Russian and French.

Mathilde

Tsar Nicholas II – last tsar of Russia

The story of the other Russian ballet dancer – Mathilda Kschessinskaya, or Mathilde Kschessinskaya as she would be known in the West – is very different.

Just 18 years old and a student dancer with the Imperial Ballet in Saint Petersburg she met the young Tsarevich Nicholas in 1890 when he and his family attended the student’s graduation performance. He was twenty-two. The two were lovers for three years, but in those days ‘royals’ married only ‘royals’ so the two getting married was out of the question; it would have had to be a morganatic marriage anyway, and Imperial ‘Holy’ Russia needed an heir. Nicholas, as Tsar Nicholas II would marry the German princess Alexandra of Hesse, while Mathilde shared her bed with two of his uncles, the Grand Dukes Sergei Mikhailovich and Andrei Vladimirovich.

Mathilde’s grave

She fled to the West at the beginning of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, first settling on the French Riviera like so many White Russian refugees and then in Paris. In 1921 she married Grand Duke Andrei; by then she’d already given birth to a son but it was not sure that he was Grand Duke Andrei’s child. In Paris she opened a ballet school – Margot Fonteyn was one of her students – and she died on December 6, 1971, just four months short of her one hundredth birthday. The Grand Duke lies buried with her here in the cemetery, in a most simple white grave which makes it quite unthinkable that once it had been a future tsar of Russia with whom she was doing the lying down. She died in poverty.

It would be interesting to know whether Nureyev and Mathilde ever met – it is probable that they did, both of them living in Paris – but Mathilde did meet Prince Félix Yusupov.

Prince Yusupov, with the assistance of a cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, killed Grigori Rasputin ‘for Russia’ on the night of 16/17 December 1916.  They had lured Rasputin to the Yusupov Palace, the Moika (today a museum in Saint Petersburg) with the promise of free booze and loose women with the aim to kill him. First they dropped poison into sweet wine they gave him to drink but when it appeared not to have affected him, they shot him once, then again and again and again and again (four times) and when he was still staggering about roaring like a wounded lion, they beat him with an iron bar but which still had not killed him because when his body was fished from the frozen Neva River later one of his arms was raised to his face when both arms had been firmly tied behind his back on going into the water. This meant that when they had thrown him into the river he was still alive and had been able to wiggle his hands free and make the sign of the cross.

Yusupov

Yusopov’s grave

Yusupov having fled from the Reds at the start of the Revolution had settled in Paris with his beautiful wife Princess Irina – she was apparently the most beautiful woman in all of Russia – and here he died in 1967. Irina lies buried with him in a grave as simple as that of Mathilde Kschessinskaya, but it is covered in plants. He was not a poor man when he died because he had managed to smuggle some of his wealth out of the Soviet Union, and he made a good living out of suing anyone who wrote or made movies about him.

More Russian famous lie buried in the cemetery: Peter Struve, Peshkov, Bunin, Tardovsky, lots of Tolstoys too and so on.

This is how you get to the cemetery:

You take the RER C fast train that starts at Saint Michel station in central Paris and which heads for Dourdan station.  It’s easiest to board the train at Bibliothèque François Mitterrand station. Make an early start so that you can get a train towards 10/10.30 a.m. Each train has a name – it’s probably DEBA that you will take, and it leaves from Platform E. Look on the info board on the platform to make sure that the train stops at Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois. The DEBA stops just at two stations before it gets to Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois.

The ride will take about 20 minutes.

When you exit at Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois you will find yourself on a square where several buses will pull up. You need to take Bus Number 104. Tell the driver you want to go to the Russian cemetery. If you can speak French, it is ‘le cimetière russe’ that you say. If you can’t speak French, that is still what you say and smile and be certain to have said ‘bonjour madame’ or ‘bonjour monsieur’ first and you would not afterwards have to complain that the French are rude. Go half way with them and they will be nice to you, OK?

The stop where you will have to descend is Piscine (swimming pool). The town is quite big so you will probably be on the bus for about 15/20 minutes before you get to Piscine.  First the bus will drive through the commercial part of the town, then through a residential area, with a park on the right. If you’ve done as I’ve now recommended you do, then the driver (male or female) will call out to you when the bus approaches the Piscine stop. If this does not happen, know that the bus will be driving  along Rue Léo Lagrange and ahead you will see a large swimming pool on the left and a sport center on the right just after a crossroad. Know that you now have to press the red button to descend.

Cemetery entrance

Once you are off the bus, walk back to the lights, then cross to the right and walk through the sport center’s parking bay. The cemetery is on that road – it is a quiet  but not particularly wide road – and you will see it. It won’t even be a five-minute walk.

There is a map of the cemetery at the gate.

The road – cemetery on the right

Buy a day ticket in Paris. You ask for a Mobilis ticket. It will cost you €14 ($20 / £12).

Station

No name on this grave – just one Russian egg in the niche

If you want to visit the cemetery, see Nureyev’s grave and those of the others – the cemetery in itself is beautiful – and you think you night not find your way, contact me on this site because I know someone who will be your guide at a small fee.

 

 

 

 

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

19 Responses to “Splendor and Sadness … the graves of Russia’s rejected … Nureyev … Prince Yusupov … Mathilda Kschessinskaya …”

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  1. 10
    Marilyn Z. Tomlins Says:

    @Alla

    Yes, the cemetery will be open today, 31 December. I am not sure about tomorrow, January 1. But having said that cemeteries are always open so that people can visit the graves of their loved ones.

  2. 9
    Alla Says:

    What a wonderful article! would you be able to go there tomorrow on the 31 December in the morning,Im surprised ther;s no charge,thanks for very clear explanations on how to get there,

  3. 8
    niet no russian cathedral in central paris - The Daily Journalist | The Daily Journalist Says:

    […] Furthermore, there is the charming little Russian church in the Russian cemetery at Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois outside Paris of which I had written here. […]

  4. 7
    Marilyn Z. Tomlins Says:

    Thanks Annie!

  5. 6
    Annie Says:

    Have only just stumbled across this blog but so far I must say I’m really impressed! These are the type of things I’d love to know about Paris. As someone has already said, you really do tell the story well.

  6. 5
    Famous Dead Expats: Nureyev Says:

    […] >more Posted in Paris France […]

  7. 4
    The Paris Blog: Paris, France Expat Tips & Resources »Blog Archive » Famous Dead Expats: Nureyev Says:

    […] >more […]

  8. 3
    John Clark Says:

    Everyone should go to a cemetery at least once in a lifetime 🙂

  9. 2
    Jo Wake Says:

    I do so agree, that rug is incredible, I have never seen anything like it. What a fascinating cemetery, well worth a visit.

  10. 1
    Charmane Olinsky Howard Says:

    Your Comments
    Thanks Marilyn…..I enjoyed reading about this cemetary and the history attached to it. You made it come ‘alive’.
    That mosaic rug is magnificent….unbelievable the work that went into makng it. You almost feel that it belongs in a museum.

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