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Even a cemetery in France is affected by Putin's war

A wooded alley in the Russian Orthodox cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, France.
Eleanor Beardsley/NPR
A wooded alley in the Russian Orthodox cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, France.

SAINTE-GENEVIÈVE-DES-BOIS, France — The largest Russian Orthodox cemetery outside of Russia is quiet on a winter morning, save for birdsong in the birch and pine trees planted between the graves.

Just 30 minutes' drive south of the hubbub of Paris, the cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois feels like a piece of history suspended in time.

The distinctive Orthodox cross and tiny church cupolas crown the tombstones, most inscribed with the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. Many bear black-and-white images of the interred — some 12,000 people who fled their country to make new lives in France. Among them are the ballet prodigy Rudolf Nureyev, filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, Nobel literature laureate Ivan Bunin and Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik.

Most of those buried here came in the first great wave of Russian émigrés fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution. The cemetery was established in 1927 as those "White Russians," as they were known, began to age and die.

"France was a worldwide capital of White Russian immigration," says Nicolas Lopoukhine, who is head of the Russian Orthodox Graves Maintenance Committee, as he shows a visitor around the grounds.

There are aristocrats such as Prince Felix Yusupov, who in 1916 helped murder Grigori Rasputin in an effort to break the self-described holy man's hold over the family of Czar Nicholas II; and Prince Georgy Lvov who led the first provisional government in 1917 after accepting the czar's abdication. There are members of the imperial Romanov family, and the children and grandchildren of writer Leo Tolstoy and composer Igor Stravinsky. Members of Lopoukhine's own family are buried here as well

A newspaper article in France has led to Russian accusations the cemetery is in danger

But these days, even this tranquil cemetery has become enmeshed in the Ukraine war.

It all began with an article published in the French newspaper Le Monde last month titled, "With the war in Ukraine, an uncertain future for the Russian cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois." The article spoke of the absence of Russian-speaking visitors and untended graves. It even hinted at the possible repossession of tombs by the French state.

The grave of ballet great Rudolf Nureyev. The mosaic of an Oriental carpet recalls Nureyev's Tatar heritage.
/ Eleanor Beardsley/NPR
Eleanor Beardsley/NPR
The grave of ballet great Rudolf Nureyev. The mosaic of an Oriental carpet recalls Nureyev's Tatar heritage.

Lopoukhine decries what he says are the article's inaccuracies. "The war has had no impact on the cemetery whatsoever," he says.

But in fact, the conflict has had an indirect impact.

In France, land for a gravesite is rented from the commune, or local government, in what is known as a concession. Families have the right of use, but the town still owns the land.

The length of time of a concession can vary — from five, 50, 100 years to perpetuity. All carry different costs. But legally, when a concession expires and the grave is abandoned, the government can take back the plot, remove the remains and bury someone else.

Lopoukhine says every year there are dozens of concessions in this cemetery that expire. Since 2008, the Russian government has been paying to renew them. But with the Ukraine war and Western financial sanctions against the Kremlin, that arrangement has been suspended.

The Russian media saw Le Monde's article and have blown it all out of proportion complains Lopoukhine, who says he's been on the phone with many Russian journalists.

"They wrote about it hysterically, because this notion of concession doesn't exist in Russia, so they don't understand what's going on," he says. "They said there's Russophobia sweeping France and the French want to get rid of everything Russian. They even talked about bulldozers razing the tombs of Nureyev and Bunin. There's been too much emotion."

Despite the war, the cemetery functions as before

Lopoukhine says there is no chance of the graves being disturbed. First off, even in a French cemetery the process of taking back a grave after a concession expires takes years. And this is no regular cemetery. Since 2001 it has been classified as a national historic monument.

"So it cannot be touched," says Lopoukhine. "It would be a revolution. Everyone is watching."

The town's administration has clearly been taken aback by the firestorm in the media. It recently posted a communique on its website.

"Since the start of the century we have always safeguarded this extraordinary historic and cultural patrimony, as much as for Russia as for the city of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois," it reads. "The war will never be a pretext to snuff out the flame of our obligation to respect and remember these now-departed people, whatever their nationality."

Lopoukhine says in the 1990s at least six buses a day full of Russian tourists came here. "Russians coming to Paris visited two things," he says, "the Eiffel Tower and the cemetery of Saint-Geneviève-des-Bois."

Putin himself has paid his respects at the historic site

In November 2000 the cemetery had a special visitor, newly elected President Vladimir Putin. Jean-Pierre Lamotte was there that day visiting a family grave in the cemetery's French section. Today, Lamotte is president of the association, "Friends of the History of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois."

He remembers when he tried to leave the cemetery that day the gates were locked: Someone important was coming, he was told. It wasn't long before Putin and his wife stepped out of a giant, green Mercedes. Lamotte says he followed the small delegation around the cemetery and watched as Putin laid flowers at several graves.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and his then-wife Lyudmila Putina (now surnamed Ocheretnaya)<em> </em>stop by the grave of famed Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev as they tour the Russian Orthodox cemetery at Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, south of Paris, Nov. 1, 2000.
/ Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and his then-wife Lyudmila Putina (now surnamed Ocheretnaya) stop by the grave of famed Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev as they tour the Russian Orthodox cemetery at Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, south of Paris, Nov. 1, 2000.

"What really struck me is that he looked very timid and said nothing," says Lamotte. "It was Putin's wife who asked all the questions."

One of the graves Putin decorated was that of the 1933 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Ivan Bunin, who fled to France in 1920. Standing in front of Bunin's grave, Lopoukhine muses about Russian history.

"[Soviet leader Vladimir] Lenin was a guy who didn't want to have anybody thinking a little bit so he pushed intellectuals out," he says. "He put all the philosophers and academics in boats — called 'philosopher boats' — and sent them to Germany. They never came back."

When Lamotte looks at the French side of the cemetery, he calls it "very sad." Perhaps it's because it looks so barren. He says it's illegal to plant trees in a French cemetery, but the Russian side follows the Russian tradition of planting a sapling on a grave. The cemetery's numerous birch and pine trees recall a lost homeland for these émigrés. Lopoukhine says the cemetery is lovely in the spring and summer and attracts families on the weekends.

But the trees also crack and uproot tombstones. Ivy has taken over others. Lamotte says he is worried that time is taking a toll on this special place. Upkeep of the graves is another problem apart from the expiring concessions, he says, and has nothing to do with the war.

The ghosts of Russian history call out from this cemetery in France

Seventy-five-year-old Christian Paillotin remembers strolling here with his Russian émigré mother. Today, map in hand, he worriedly searches for her grave after seeing the article in Le Monde. He says he hasn't visited in a decade and has forgotten where she lies.

Paillotin finds his mother. Irina Sokolova was born in 1914 in Czarist Russia and died in 1979. "She came from Petrograd, that's before it was named Leningrad and then St. Petersburg," Paillotin says. "She was an aristocrat and had to leave Russia."

Paillotin says he's never been to Russia and it remains a mythic place for him. His mother taught his siblings some Russian, but not him. He says he was raised during a time when she turned away from her country. He believes her detachment began in the 1960s when there was a diplomatic thaw and family members were finally able to visit her from the Soviet Union. But by then there was a gulf between them.

"Before that visit she considered Russia a grand country," he says. "But when she was confronted with her family and the way they viewed the world it didn't go well. She embraced freedom and had a different way of seeing things. She could not relate to them."

Sokolova's grave is overgrown with weeds. But Paillotin says he is relieved to discover that her concession is for perpetuity. He says he is going to make sure her grave is now carefully tended.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.