On a cold, gray morning last weekend, a group of about 30 relatives and neighbors waited for the funeral of a 65-year-old woman outside a five-story building on Lenin Prospect in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod. Some of them discussed the latest news in low voices: “Our Rima Stesheva would be too old for that maniac! He dragged home only the corpses of young women,” one of the women at the funeral said, referring to the deceased. “They said he placed musical boxes inside the mummies, set them up around his living room and had tea, while they were singing for him,” another woman said, citing a recent article from a local newspaper. Soul-troubling details settled over the crowd, like wet snow, as more pedestrians joined the discussion in the courtyard: “He dug them out at night and turned the remains into pretty dolls”; “He collected clothes of dead women”; “His apartment was packed with the mummies he made out of dead bodies.” The moment the coffin showed up from the doorway, the gloomy-faced crowd quieted and boarded a bus to follow the deceased one to the cemetery.
Some Nizhny Novgorod papers nicknamed the villain of the story “The Lord of the Mummies”; others opted for “Perfumer,” after the Patrick Suskind novel Perfume. The thriller began on Nov. 3, a day before President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s official visit to Nizhny Novgorod, Russia's fourth-largest city and a center of military research and production that stayed closed to foreigners during most of the Soviet era. The reporters working on the Perfumer story were told not to make any noise on the story before the leaders left the city. But a news site named Criminal Chronicle could not contain itself: it ran a short brief saying that center “E," the Interior Ministry’s department for fighting extremist crime, had discovered 29 mummified corpses of women and girls between the ages of 15 and 26 in a three-room apartment that belonged to Anatoly Moskvin, a 45-year-old scientist.
Moskvin was described as multilingual (he spoke 13 languages) and a historian, a professional traveler, journalist, and magician. Moskvin, it turns out, was well known among local historians as a strange and lonely expert on cemeteries, a "necropolyst," as he proudly referred in his articles to his own specialty. For decades Moskvin’s byline appeared often in most of Nizhny Novgorod’s newspapers. Even today, when the historian is in custody, accused of the desecration of more than 150 graves in the region, his “Great Walks Around Cemeteries” and “What the Dead Said” documentary series of features about famous deceased citizens, written in an old-fashioned style, continue to be published in a weekly newspaper. “All his life he was obsessed with walking around hundreds of cemeteries, studying and documenting the graves. There is nobody like him in Russia. He had researched over 750 cemeteries all over Nizhny Novgorod region, being paid miserable kopeks for his priceless unique work,” said Alexei Yesin, the editor of Necrologies, a weekly paper that publishes obituaries and stories about cemeteries and famous dead people. Moskvin wrote regularly for Necrologies. Yesin hopes the investigation will “dig out the truth” and let his reporter go free.
Not many echoed Yesin’s praise of Moskvin’s research after the investigators working on the scene released a video of what they discovered inside the historian’s apartment. In the clip, the camera moves along the corridor, which is cluttered with wedding dresses and bright, colorful clothes, and enters a small room. At first sight, the little figures of girls mounted on top of the bundles of old books and papers, or half-lying on the couches, could be taken for big, soft stuffed dolls. The camera zooms in to their faces, which are wrapped in light beige fabric, and settles on the painted eyes. The girl figure on the couch wears a knitted hat with a pinned rose and a lilac sweater; her legs, covered by white tights, are elegantly crossed. The camera moves down to the feet; the girl is wearing white shoes. The next “doll” in the corner has long, curled, blonde hair and wears a silk wedding dress with a veil running down to the floor. She could be 10 or 12 years old. “These dolls are made of mummified human remains,” the voiceover on the video says.
The police report says that Moskvin compiled up-to-date information about the life of each of the women he brought home, and printed off from a computer detailed “instructions for producing” the “dolls” out of human remains. The police officers who shot the video said they each drank a few shots of Vodka when they got home.
Moskvin’s neighbors described themselves as “depressed” and “traumatized” about what they had learned from police reports about the person next door. “The scariest part to me of what he kept there was the hundreds of pieces of clothing he brought home from the cemeteries,” said a neighbor, who would not give her name. She lives one floor down from Moskvin’s apartment. She still referred to Moskvin as “the most respectful and intelligent person.” Even the sweet, stinky aura that their hallway and staircase filled up with every time Moskvin opened his door did not seem suspicious. “Our buildings all stink of something that rots in the basements,” a middle-aged neighbor named Galina Riabova said. Riabova liked to spend her afternoons in the courtyard, she said, and had often seen Moskvin, a skinny-looking man, carrying heavy backpacks or black plastic bags. “His respectable parents and friends surely knew about his psychiatric sickness, but nobody sent him to the hospital for treatment,” Riabova said, expressing deep sympathy for the victims’ relatives, who would have to identify their once buried beloved ones from the collection of Moskvin’s “dolls.”
In his last article, published in Necrologies on Oct. 26, Moskvin confessed what had inspired his obsession with the dead. He describes how back in 1979, when he was 13, he was stopped by people in black suits on his way from school, dragged to a coffin containing the body of an 11-year-old girl named Natasha Petrova, and forced to kiss the dead girl. “I kissed her once, then again, then again,” Moskvin said in the newspaper article. The mystical ritual ended with the girl’s mother putting wedding rings on Moskvin’s and the dead girl’s fingers. “My strange marriage with Natasha Petrova was useful,” Moskvin recalled, as the experience helped him to develop a deep interest in “serious magic ceremonies.”
Yesin, Moskvin’s editor, said he “felt reluctant” to continue publishing further installments describing Moskvin’s love affair with dead Natasha. “Many of his articles enlighten his sensual interest in deceased young women, which I took for romantic and somewhat childish fantasies the talented writer emphasized,” Yesin admitted.
To the head of the Korefei Center for Psychological Rehabilitation, psychiatrist Yan Goland, Moskvin’s case sounds clear. “From what I hear, the most probable diagnosis for Moskvin’s psychological problem is necrophilia and situational fetishism. We have helped a few patients obsessed with sexual attraction to the dead at this center,” Goland said.
Moskvin has apparently not received psychological treatment from the authorities. The official information released by the government is that the scientist will be tried as if he were entirely sane.
Several historians quit their collaboration with Moskvin on joint research projects this year after hearing his disturbing comments. In his last phone conversation with his colleague Yulia Zadorozhna, a historian from the Balakhna region, Moskvin criticized her for not researching inside the graves. “He told me I was not a real necropolyst, since I studied only the archives and not the skeletons. What would I need the skeletons for!” Zadorozhna sounded astonished. Her last research was devoted to collecting information about 18th- and 19th-century war veterans buried in her region. Moskvin doubted the accuracy of her research, since she based it on church archives, “instead of digging out the remains, as he would have done it.” But nobody knew more about Moskvin’s devotion to grave studies than the director of Books publishing house Oleg Riabov, who three years ago commissioned Moskvin to summarize the list of dead in more than 700 cemeteries in 40 regions of the Nizhny Novgorod administrative division. Today Riabov said he was happy that Moskvin’s giant project had never been published, but acknowledged he was feeling sorry for the scientist. “This is a tragedy, that the investigation accuses Moskvin as if he were a sane person. We fear that instead of being treated properly in the hospital, he is going to be killed in jail.” The only photograph of Moskvin released by police after his arrest suggests signs of beatings on his swollen face.