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The woman with the green accordion The story of a Russian music teacher who died alone and lay unnoticed in her apartment for 13 years

Source: Meduza
Olga Voronaya for Meduza

According to 2018 census data, at least 3 percent of elderly people in Russia are single and have never been married. The total number of people who grow old on their own is even higher. Every year, dozens of them die completely alone, and it is common for their deaths to remain unnoticed by relatives (if they have any), by neighbors, even by city services. There are no official statistics on these kinds of deaths, but Russia’s Investigative Committee acknowledges that their number has been on the rise every year. Meduza special correspondent Irina Kravtsova recounts a few of those cases.

Part 1

Pushkin’s unremarkable relative

For the past four years the barista Polina Petrochenkova has worked at a coffee shop on Reshetnikov St. in the Moskovsky District of St. Petersburg. While painstakingly pouring milk foam into the shape of a flower petal, she explains how the same elderly people — usually women — would come to the coffee shop now and then, symbolically order a cup of coffee and sit at a table alone. As the waitstaff says, elderly customers come not for the drinks but simply to “feel like they are around people.”

When you walk into the café, to your left is a cake display case and a cash register. Directly opposite the display case are two small tables where only one person can sit down to eat. To the right of the entrance is the main room with couches and tables for four, but elderly customers tend to choose the uncomfortable tables by the cash register in order to be able to casually strike up a conversation with a barista or waiter.

In Polina’s words, “one nana” comes to the coffee shop on a regular basis and tells Polina something about herself every time. Mostly about the past: about how she worked in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage art museum her whole life, about how she buried her husband, about how now she no longer has a job, and has nothing to do for that matter — “but life still hasn’t ended, and I would like to spend it with someone.” She always comes to the café dressed elegantly, yet when she pays, she takes cash out from an envelope.

Polina also remembers an elderly woman “with timid eyes” who sat at the same small table by the window and who also paid with cash from an envelope. The coffee shop staff thought she seemed lonely, but in contrast to “the Hermitage employee,” she was not talkative, and the staff did not know anything about her. She always ordered a cappuccino and a rum baba and said thanks every time on her way out: “Everything was delicious.”

Gathered by the cash register, the waitstaff recalls that she looked to be about 70 years old, and she had full lips and large blue eyes: “She was probably the life of the party when she was young!” The woman always came by around six in the evening. If they were already out of rum babas by then, she would stand for a long time by the display case gazing at the cakes. In the end, though, she would always opt for the same alternative: the éclair with custard cream.

In the winter and in the summer, she came to the coffee shop in “crocodile sneakers,” as the waitstaff nicknamed them because the soles of the shoes were nearly detached from the rest of them. Among the café staff, the woman sparked interest and sympathy.

“We didn’t understand: if she can afford to order beef stroganoff for 490 rubles and a cup of coffee for 160 and leave a tip, then why hasn’t she bought herself sneakers after all this time?” Polina Petrochenkova recalls.

The woman came to the bakery once a week over the course of a few years, but around mid-summer in 2018, according to Polina, she stopped showing up. At first, the waitstaff would reminisce about her from time to time, but they eventually stopped.

The coffee shop on Reshetnikov St. in St. Petersburg.
Liza Zhakova for Meduza

* * *

On the evening of October 26, 2018, St. Petersburg resident Tamara Matias (whose name has been changed at her request) and her grandson went to visit her second cousin, 65-year-old Yelena Andreyeva. The cousin had not picked up her phone for nearly three months. The relatives rang the doorbell to her apartment for half an hour. Receiving no answer, they called the police and the Ministry of Emergency Situations.

After emergency workers broke down the door, Matias entered the apartment and found her cousin dead: Yelena Andreyeva, wearing a white t-shirt, was lying on the dusty floor in the hallway by the entrance to the kitchen.

Police Major Sergei Rybak, who was present at the scene, wrote in his report that “the corpse of a woman in a mummified state, without signs of a violent death” was found in a three-room apartment in the Moskovsky District of St. Petersburg. Neighbors told the police that they had last seen Andreyeva about three months beforehand.

Sergei Rybak later said that what he remembers from his inspection of the apartment are the large portrait of Peter the Great and the pictures of “various duchesses” on the wall; the piano, covered with a thick layer of dust; and the pamphlets on healthy eating that were on the round table in the living room.

“The only interesting thing about her was that she was a relative of [the groundbreaking Russian poet] Alexander Pushkin,” Tamara Matias said of her deceased cousin. Beyond that, according to Tamara, there was nothing remarkable about Yelena Andreyeva’s life.

Tamara and her sister Natalia (who also requested that her name be changed) live an hour’s drive from their second cousin’s apartment. So as not to be making unsubstantiated claims, having brought up Pushkin, Tamara brought over a book by the Pushkin scholar Anastasia Bessonova, A Genealogical Table of the Descendents of A. P. Gannibal — the Great-Grandfather of A. S. Pushkin. Near the bottom of the book’s title page is a handwritten inscription: “To my dear Zinaida Leontievna Andreyeva Yelena with warm wishes. From the author.” Zinaida Andreyeva was Yelena’s mother.

Page 103 of the book — where a bookmark is placed — indeed mentions their relative Yelena Andreyeva. It says that she is descended on her father’s side from the Neyelovs (Gannibal’s grandchildren), which makes her the great-great-granddaughter of the second cousins of Alexander Pushkin. All that is said about her in the book is that in 1976, she graduated from the Leningrad Conservatory, where she studied piano, and that she taught music in a music school. However, even less is written about some of Pushkin’s other relatives.

Natalia, turning down the volume of the television, added that Andreyeva inherited some aspects of her appearance from her distinguished ancestors: tightly curled dark hair, a prominent nose and lips, and large eyes.

The sisters and their relative had always had a distant relationship: They rarely saw one another, and they had little to talk about when they did. Yelena’s beloved father died in 1997, and she stayed nearby to care for her mother, with whom she had never been close. When her mother died in 2013, Yelena found herself completely alone. At the funeral of her aunt Zinaida Leontievna, Natalia Matias remembered that many years beforehand, when she, Tamara, and their families were visiting Zinaida’s husband’s grave, Zinaida had asked her nieces not to abandon Yelena after her death.

The sisters confessed that they didn’t know how to fulfill this request — after all, they didn’t have any sort of relationship with Yelena Andreyeva. However, Natalia Matias eventually began to call Yelena occasionally to find out how she was doing. Sometimes, she called once a month; sometimes, it was once every three months. At first, they had almost nothing to talk about, but over time, Yelena began to open up a little: She talked about what she heard on the radio, about how she liked taking walks in the park, about how she had discovered a cozy coffee shop five minutes from her house. Natalia thought that Andreyeva seemed “thoroughly optimistic” over the phone.

On July 25, 2018, Natalia Matias called Yelena Andreyeva to wish her a happy 65th birthday, and Yelena suddenly asked her, “And when’s your birthday? I also want to wish you a happy birthday.” Natalia replied that it’s in August, and Yelena promised to give her a call. However, she did not call on that day. Matias ended up calling her second cousin herself, but Yelena did not pick up the phone.

At first, Natalia and Tamara reassured themselves that “Lena is out.” After a few months, Tamara and her grandson showed up at Yelena’s apartment, but no one opened the door.

Yelena Andreyeva’s relatives did not organize a funeral for her. They hired an agent, who arranged for her body to be cremated and then put the urn with her ashes in a columbarium. The cousins are currently filling out paperwork to inherit Andreyeva’s apartment.

The view from the lobby in Yelena Andreyeva’s apartment building.
Liza Zhakova for Meduza
The courtyard of Yelena Andreyeva’s apartment building in St. Petersburg.
Liza Zhakova for Meduza
The view from the lobby in Yelena Andreyeva’s apartment building.
Liza Zhakova for Meduza

* * *

According to Anatoly Manaf, the investigations division deputy at the Moskovsky District Investigative Committee who was assigned to the Andreyeva case, mummified bodies in apartments are regularly found in his district — no fewer than one every two months. However, law enforcement authorities do not keep statistics on the total number of such deaths in Russia. There are cases where people who die alone are found not after three months, as Yelena Andreyeva was, but considerably later. And the elderly are far from the only ones who end up in this situation.

Also in St. Petersburg, the mummified corpse of 50-year-old former lecturer Alexander Kaizer lay untouched in the Internal Affairs Ministry University’s dormitories for a year (from 2015 to 2016). Kaizer did not have a family. The Internal Affairs Ministry’s press service said that when Kaizer was a child, his mother had handed him over to be raised by her sister, and he had subsequently ended up in a boarding school. Nonetheless, he went on to attend law school, receive the equivalent of a Ph.D., and teach civil law at the Internal Affairs Ministry’s flagship university. After receiving accommodations in the dormitories, Kaizer quit his job and tried to go into business in Karelia. He opened a few firms there, but soon he returned to St. Petersburg, took to drinking, and died.

Investigative Committee employees noted that it has not been that rare for them in recent years to receive cases where the mummified bodies of young and middle-aged men and women have been found in apartments.

“We all have somebody in our lives who’s eccentric or closed off, a person everyone struggles to talk to and doesn’t really want to talk to,” said an Investigative Committee employee who asked to remain anonymous. “Naturally, these people don’t always have even one acquaintance who takes enough of an interest in them to check on their whereabouts and whether they are still alive.”

In some cases, those people are never found at all. That’s what happened to Valentina Abramova: she lay dead in her apartment for 13 years.

Part 2

Apartment no. 7

In early March 2008, Nikolai Chernykh’s shack burned down. The 80-year-old man from the town of Shchyokino in the Tula region had lived in the structure with his wife for almost his entire life. Their son, who eventually married and moved away, had been born there. None of their relatives could bring themselves to take in the elderly couple. Nikolai’s younger sister, Marina Ibatulina, was mulling over how to help him when she remembered that no one has lived in the apartment directly below her —apartment no. 7 of her building on Yubileynaya Street in Shchyokino — for more than 10 years.

She went to the town council and asked that they let her brother’s family live in the apartment.

Ibatulina vaguely recalled that in the middle of the 1980s. a woman had settled into the apartment after moving from another town. The woman was not sociable; Ibatulina knew absolutely nothing about her, unlike the rest of her neighbors. This was despite the fact that this group of residents was so friendly that back then, no one even lockedthe door to their apartment. 

Ibatulina’s neighbor from apartment no. 6, Vera Grinyova, recalled that she often heard the woman from the apartment across the hall playing “some type of waltz” on the accordion. Another woman who lives on the same floor often heard the woman from apartment no. 7 quietly singing popular Soviet-era lyrical songs in her kitchen through the wall. Almost none of the apartment building’s residents knew the woman’s name.

In 1995, when all the pipes in the building had to be replaced, locksmiths knocked at the door of apartment no. 7 for a long time, but no one opened it. In the end, they decided on a workaround for the plumbing system: the pipe above apartment no. 7 was cut and plugged. According to Vera Grinyova, the building residents reasoned at the time that their eccentric neighbor had been taken either to a nursing home (they had never seen any relatives visit the neighbor) or to a psychiatric hospital.

They had long suspected that their neighbor was “not right in the head.” She never went with them to go sit on the bench by the building, walked around the public square alone, and always came home with plastic bags in both hands. And in the winter, when all the neighbors pushed their children on sleds in the yard, the woman from apartment no. 7 would put her green accordion on a sled and drag it behind her “like you would pull your own child,” as the neighbors thought.

The neighbors don’t remember when exactly the woman from apartment no. 7 completely stopped appearing in public, but they generally agree that it was roughly in mid-to late 1994. Convinced that her apartment was empty, they piled sleds, mops, and other bulky items that they didn’t want to keep in their own apartments against the door of apartment no. 7.

Semyon Katz for Meduza

* * *

On March 25, 2008, a local housing office employee and a district police officer went to the building after lunch to open up apartment no. 7. Acting on orders from City Hall, they were to inspect the apartment before offering it to Marina Ibatulina’s relatives. The housing office employee tried to open the door with a spare key, but the door was found to be locked from the inside. The district police officer forced open the lock (the door turned out to be double-locked and secured with a door chain). Standing at the threshold of the opened door, they were nauseated by an overpowering odor and saw a human mummy on the couch inside the room. The housing office employee ran out of the apartment.

Boris Remizov, the investigator who arrived at the location after half an hour, said that for some reason what stuck with him more than anything else was the thick layer of dust in the apartment and the spider webs: “Absolutely everything was covered in them: the entire ceiling and the corners, and the walls, and the windows.”

Remizov believes that the woman died around winter 1995. An enameled mug stood on the chair by her bed, and next to it were a light blue pencil, lead sheets, and a pile of newspapers and magazines. The most recent of them was a daily newspaper, Tulskie Izvestiya, dated January 25, 1995.

The investigator discovered that the woman had made her last utilities payment in September 1994 and that the last receipt of her pension was recorded in July 1995 (her pension was 200,000 pre-reform rubles, or about $45 per month). Remizov could not ascertain the exact year when the apartment, which was considered municipal property at the time, began to be considered vacant. But, in his words, after the utilities bills racked up a considerable debt, the woman’s name was simply removed from the tenants list.

In the 31-square-meter (333.7-square-foot) one-room apartment where the mummified woman was found, there was a couch, a single chair, a table, and a small wardrobe. Thumbtacked to the yellow wallpaper by the bed were magazine clippings of poetry, pictures of animals — polar bears, a Baikal seal, fish, seagulls, kittens, swans, the open ocean, a teddy bear on a New Year’s tree — and floral postcards. On the back side, there were well wishes written in a child’s handwriting.

Nearby stood a green Weltmeister accordion from Germany and a tall pile of neatly folded newspapers. A suitcase lay on the floor, and inside was a stack of money (Remizov no longer remembers how much money there was). The investigator believes that the woman was saving the money for her own funeral, as she had no relatives.

Boris Remizov struggled to describe from memory the appearance of the woman who lay dead in her apartment for 13 years. “A mummy like any other. Just like how they show in the movies about Egyptian tombs,” he explained, and read out loud from his old report: “The woman died, lying on her back, with her legs extended and her right hand on her chest. She was wearing thermal pants, pantyhose, a white night shirt, and a pink robe. The clothing is decayed. The bones, teeth, and hair are intact, the skin is shriveled and of a yellowish-brown shade.”

Despite the decay, Remizov found the woman’s passport, issued by the USSR, in the apartment. This was how he found out that the deceased woman was named Valentina Abramova. She was born in 1927 in the village of Kozhukhovka in the Tula region. At the time of her death, Abramova was 68 years old.

Semyon Katz for Meduza

There are now two Kozhukhovkas located next to one another in the Tula region — Big Kozhukhovka and Little Kozhukhovka. It proved impossible to find out which one Valentina Abramova had lived in. They had formerly belonged to the same Soviet collective farm and were therefore indicated in documents as simply Kozhukhovka. There were no street names, and buildings were also not numbered.

In Little Kozhukhovka, Meduza’s correspondent found three families that have members with the surname Abramov (this surname, according to the families, had previously been very common in the countryside). All of them said that they simply share the same last name and that they don’t remember anything about a Valentina Abramova.

Part 3

The Tchaikovsky School

In the years following World War II, Vladimir Vasilyev’s parents saved up enough to buy their son a bayan, a large traditional Russian accordion. At first, Vasilyev found himself studying at a music school in his hometown of Bryansk under the tutelage of the experienced teacher Pyotr Chuzhikov. After a year, however, he switched to a younger, female teacher, Valentina Pavlovna. Vasilyev was nine at the time, and the teacher was 29. In five years, she taught him to play the bayan, the piano, and the guitar.

The 72-year-old man recently recalled that Valentina Pavlovna Abramova had been a very beautiful woman (“Going there, you get transfixed by her”). She dressed plainly, as everyone did back then, but Vasilyev thought she looked like an actress from a photo. “I remember her face well: attractive, clear. She was always smiling. With her I was always in a good mood,” Vasilyev said.

The school was poor and did not have a second bayan. In order to explain to her students how to play a certain composition, Abramova would usually hum the notes from memory. The 75-year-old Irina Nikulina, a former student of Abramova’s, confessed that there were times when she would make mistakes even after the teacher hummed the notes. Abramova would then take the bayan herself and play the piece from beginning to end, so that her student could “sense [its] beauty, be taken by it and be inspired to learn it.”

Nikulina remembered that when she would ask the teacher to help her learn a waltz or something else one can dance to, Abramova never objected, though she personally preferred slow, serene pieces.

Vladimir Vasilyev said that his teacher “was by nature completely conflict-averse,” but at the same time, he didn’t see her become close friends with any of her colleagues. Vasilyev only saw his teacher with her colleagues at the school recitals. “The only thing she ever said in front of me about the other teachers is that they all have a good ear, so I need to try to play the right notes at the recital. She never spoke dismissively of anyone, nor have I ever heard anyone speak rudely of her,” said Vasilyev.

Valentina Abramova’s colleagues from the Bryansk music school were stumped by the request to speak about her. One after another, the teachers replied that they don’t remember her at all: “She was antisocial”; “She lived alone and then moved away.”

Olga Voronaya for Meduza

Meduza was able to learn from Abramova’s colleagues that in the late 1940s, the reclusive musician moved to Tula, where she graduated from a music school with training in accordion and bayan, and that she moved to Bryansk in the early 1950s. At that time in Bryansk, teachers were being recruited for the Tchaikovsky School of Music, which had been newly renovated after the war. Teachers from neighboring regions were also invited. The young Abramova was given a one-bedroom apartment in the Sovetsky District, not far from work. Soon, she brought her mother over to live with her. After a few years, Abramova became the head of the school’s department of folk musical instruments.

According to her colleagues, in nearly 30 years of working at the school, Abramova never once invited any of them over — and they also never invited her over. No one knew for sure how old she was or where she lived. She remained in their memory as someone who was “not a beauty, but a very physically attractive woman.” Regarding Abramova’s personal life, everyone only knew that she had never been married(“there were never any dashing young men waiting to pick her up from work”) , that she didn’t have children, and that she lived with her mother.

“With her it truly is hard to recall any sort of instance when she asserted herself in some way,” said piano teacher Tatiana Podlesnaya. “When she was in her 40s, she would still impulsively speak up at the faculty meetings now and then, try to advocate for something related to her students or recitals. However, she would cut herself off. And in her later years, she increasingly stayed quiet at the meetings.”

Podlesnaya began teaching piano at the music school in 1968, when she was 20 years old and Abramova was 40. Tatiana recalls that Abramova seemed like a very old woman to her and that she immediately gave off the impression of a person who “doesn’t like to open up to others.” She kept people at arm’s length; she answered others’ questions amiably and smilingly, but she didn’t ask any questions of her own. “You don’t approach someone like that a second time to chat about birds or the color of the new wallpaper at the school,” Tatiana Podlesnaya explained.

They worked in adjacent classrooms for 20 years, up until Abramova’s resignation. Podlesnaya recalled that she had always socialized frequently with her colleagues and could say something about each one’s personality: this one can be relied upon, but that person sometimes acts hypocritically, and this other person loves to talk about colleagues behind their backs. However, Abramova has remained “a mysterious person no one ever got to know” even in Podlesnaya’s memory.

Olga Voronaya for Meduza

Meanwhile, Abramova’s colleagues all said she was an honest and conscientious person, a talented musician, and a good teacher. She loved children and easily found common ground with them. According to Tatiana Podlesnaya, only the best students were chosen for the school’s recitals and performances, and Abramova’s students were among them every time.

Valentina Abramova’s colleagues said that she began to avoid others more and more as the years went by. In Tatiana Podlesnaya’s words, later “it was as though Valentina Pavlovna’s face gradually became covered by a curtain.” Podlesnaya recalled that there was “something about” Abramova that “made it uncomfortable to talk to her.”

There was a point when Abramova became even more withdrawn. Then, everyone at the school decided that “Valya has gone crazy.” Her colleagues recounted how, when a student would fall sick and not come to class, Abramova would spend the entire 50 minutes of their lesson in solitude, playing the piano. Dmitry Kozlov, the former director of the music school, said that when colleagues went over to Abramova and asked why she was playing scales on the piano if she was not about to go on stage, she couldn’t respond with anything meaningful. According to Kozlov, they had chalked this up to “the onset of her illness.” At the same time, Abramova’s colleagues later confessed that they didn’t know whether the elderly teacher really did have some type of illness.

Tatiana Podlesnaya believes that solitude wasn’t a conscious choice for Abramova. “When Valya was young, there were practically no men her age or a couple years older — the war took them away. Many of the women her age couldn’t get married then. There were more of these cases, beyond Valya, at our school.” Abramova had male colleagues at the school, but all of them were either already married or significantly younger than her.

Podlesnaya is convinced that, most likely, Abramova simply wasn’t able to find even one person in her life who could “tie a little thread” between her and the outside world. “Perhaps there are people who need someone who can build a bridge between them and another person,” Tatiana Podlesnaya speculates. “Afterwards, they’ll both be glad, but you really need this person who will bring them together.” Abramova’s other colleagues said that because Valentina Pavlovna wasn’t like everyone else, they were afraid they would accidentally offend her somehow, and therefore they decided “to just leave her alone.”

In the 1970s — the music teachers don’t remember the exact year — Valentina Abramova’s mother died, and soon afterwards, Abramova quit her job at the school and left Bryansk. As the story goes, Abramova didn’t want to be left alone in the apartment that she had shared with her mother for many years. Her mother’s death, according to the colleagues, hit her hard. After seeing a classified ad in the newspaper from a woman from the Tula region — the woman wanted to trade her apartment for something in Bryansk in order to be closer to her children — Valentina Pavlovna contacted her, and in February 1985, she moved to Shchyokino, to 16 Yubileynaya Street, apartment no. 7.

Olga Voronaya for Meduza

Vladimir Vasilyev — Valentina Abramova’s former student — enrolled in a construction engineering institute after graduating from the music school. During the day, he worked as an engineer at a design studio, and at night he moonlighted at a restaurant, where he sang and played the guitar. He later worked as the head engineer in a construction and installation division, but, in his words, music has always remained a part of him throughout his whole life. At the suggestion of their grandfather, his two grandchildren now go to that very same music school. He is certain that his love for music exists because of Abramova.

After his interview with Meduza, Vasilyev asked about Abramova at length: at what age, from what cause and in what circumstances did his teacher die? Later, he emailed over a recording of himself singing the Russian song “A White Swan on the Pond” and accompanying himself on the piano. “This is all that I can do for my beloved teacher,” the 72-year-old student wrote. “I have only her to thank for my lifelong love of music.”

Part 4

The “monster” on Yubileynaya Street

 The apartment building where Valentina Abramova lived has changed little since when she was still able to see it. Rugs are hung out to dry in the grassy yard, and children swing on the creaky swings whose paint has long faded.

In the mid-2000s, Nastya, a grade school student from Abramova’s building, used to play in the yard with the neighbors’ children every day after classes ended. Now, Nastya, a 20-year-old student in her third year at the Tula Medical College, recalls that she and the other children at the time were very curious about apartment no. 7, where, according to the grown-ups, no one lived. The apartment “seemed mysterious, and it kind of drew you to it for some reason.”

The window and the balcony of apartment no. 7 look out from the side of the building onto a light blue electrical transformer box and the surrounding thicket. Nastya recounted how, a few times, she and the other children climbed onto that transformer box, put boxes on top and from there tried to see what was happening in the enigmatic apartment. From that distance, they were only able to see the keys of the accordion that stood in the room (the children mistook it for a piano) and the flies that circled around the balcony.

In 2007, when Nastya and her friends were around 8 years old, they often played cops and robbers and ran around the apartment building. One time, running to the second floor, where apartment no. 7 is located, the children thought they smelled “a certain odor.” They pushed the objects leaning against the door over to the wall, looked through the keyhole, and “saw that a monster was living in there.”

Nastya doesn’t remember what exactly they were able to see through the keyhole at the time. When the children told their parents about “the monster,” the adults simply told them not to run around apartment no. 7 anymore.

The window of apartment no. 7 at 16 Yubileynaya Street, Shchyokino.
Semyon Katz for Meduza
Semyon Katz for Meduza
Semyon Katz for Meduza

Nastya’s mother, Svetlana Akhromushkina, remembers this episode (the family still lives in apartment no. 3), but to this day, she does not believe that the children were able to detect some sort of odor by Abramova’s apartment: “None of the neighbors smelled any odor in the building.”

“We all saw how stuffed the mailbox for apartment no. 7 was with papers, how everything was constantly falling out. But we thought, ‘Well, so what?’” Svetlana said.

The neighbors only detected the odor when Valentina Abramova’s apartment was opened. Svetlana Akhromushkina remembered that the smell started to come through the vents of her apartment, which is located a floor below Abramova’s. She tried to call in the public health department so that they would “get this thing out of here,” but they refused to come.

Abramova’s neighbors say that the young district police officer who had been there when the apartment was opened, refused to take the mummified body out himself. He was also unable to persuade anybody else — including subordinates who were summoned by phone and doctors who were already on the scene — to do it.

The task of removing the body was delegated to two men who were serving a 15-day sentence for disorderly conduct at the time and who had been promised an early release in return. They moved the body rags “with fear” onto stretched-out rags, and when they started to lift the mummy of of the couch, they found that over the years, the mummy had “grown into it”: some bits of the body stuck to the bed. “That really frightened them. They got nervous, said that they couldn’t and wouldn’t [lift the body], but they understood that they had no choice,” one of the neighbors in the building recounted after the fact.

Yelena Nizamutdinova, who observed what was happening that day from her window along with other neighbors, remembers how “they carried the mummy out of the building in a blanket and put it in a car.

Due to the body’s complete mummification, morgue workers were unable to determine the cause of death, but judging by conditions inside the apartment, investigators came to the conclusion that Abramova’s death was not violent. A week later, her legal case was officially closed.

Abramova was buried a month later — after the Shchyokino journalist Lyudmila Evstafeva wrote an article in April 2008 calling attention to the fact that the municipal organization Ekozhilservis, which handles the burials of unclaimed bodies, refused to bury Abramova, claiming a lack of resources.

80-year-old Nikolai Chernykh, the man who had lost his home in the fire, moved into the vacated apartment in the spring of 2008. His grandson Oleg Chernykh said that when he entered the apartment for the first time, he was able to look through the sheets of paper that were scattered on the table and see the handwritten notes Abramova had left on them: “Various thoughts, impressions, reminders to herself not to forget to do something.” Oleg said that he purposely did not read the notes too closely; he felt “uneasy” in the apartment. But based on what he did manage to notice, it seemed that Valentina Abramova had been mentally lucid before her death. 

Before the new tenants moved in, apartment no. 7 was treated by employees from the public health department. Then, Oleg Chernykh and his father stripped the floors, replaced the windows, and generally “threw away everything from the apartment that you could possibly throw away.”

Svetlana Akhromushkina, the neighbor from the first floor, recalled that the new tenants threw wooden planks, furniture, and Valentina Abramova’s belongings straight off the balcony. The green accordion was sent to the landfill along with the rest.

Semyon Katz for Meduza
Semyon Katz for Meduza
Semyon Katz for Meduza

* * *

Marina Ibatulina’s elderly relatives died a few years after moving to apartment no. 7. Ibatulina then sold the apartment to “a guy who soon drank himself to death.” Now Anna, a teacher at a general education school, lives in apartment no. 7 with her husband and young daughter. She said that she bought the apartment in 2013 and that a few years ago she happened to learn that “a mummy had lived in the apartment” before her. Anna admitted that this fact initially frightened her a lot: “I had trouble sleeping, and it was unpleasant in general.”


“At first, I thought I would quickly sell the apartment and move out,” the new tenant recounted. Then, she lowered her voice: “At night, I would listen closely, thinking that maybe there would be noises of some sort or something supernatural. But when I remembered that I still have 15 years of mortgage payments to make for this apartment, I stopped and calmed down. Now I think, ‘Well, so what if there was a mummy?’”


“I just don’t want to die like that”

The Shchyokino cemetery Kresty (Crosses) is slightly elevated above the road, and as a result, from far away, it looks like a small town. The security guard, Sergey, said that Valentina Abramova’s grave must be located in section 10: That is where unclaimed bodies were buried in 2008.

Sergey believes that a grave can say a lot about the person buried in it, although if you look at the graves in Kresty’s section 10, it’s not even clear that there are people buried there at all. The lot, measuring approximately 20 meters by 20 meters (4,300 square feet), is overgrown with burdock and wild grass. The graves are barely visible and indistinguishable from one another. Many are unmarked. There are a number of barely noticeable mounds with small metal plaques (“Unknown man,” “Unknown woman”) jutting out of them.

Shchyokino’s cemetery.
Semyon Katz for Meduza

Sergey the security guard has taken note of all this, too. “[The lot] looks more like a place for pet burials, but rest assured, those graves are for people,” he said, before adding in parting: “Well, okay. Look for your Abramova. I don’t know how you’re going to do this.”

Finding the correct grave was indeed impossible — but in a small pit by the cemetery section marker, a cross with a plaque (“Abramova Valentina Pavlovna. April 3, 1927 – January 1995”) lay among the daisies and bottles of mineral water. Two heaps of withered grass and wilted wreaths — cleared from the graves that have someone to care for them — rise up on both sides of the pit.

The cross in remembrance of Abramova was placed there in 2013 by the Tula-based film director Valery Otstavnykh. On September 15, 2019, he released a film in a genre he calls “social horror,” about the deceased Shchyokino woman. After placing the cross in the cemetery, he invited Valentina Pavlovna’s neighbors to come pray in her memory. Some of them, according to the director, initially agreed, but in the end, no one showed up.

Otstavnykh said that Abramova’s story greatly affected him and “brought [his] own fears to light.” The 56-year-old director has never been married and does not have children. He has spent his whole life in Shchyokino with his parents — in an apartment a few blocks away from Abramova’s building. Not long ago, he buried his last living family members and was left in the apartment alone.

In a reflection on solitude — his own and Valentina Abramova’s — the director said, “She, of course, was an introvert. And second of all, sometimes you get so accustomed to your parents, you find living with them so comfortable and nice, that it seems to you that there’s no point to starting your own family. After all, it’s hard work, and you don’t know for sure that you’ll find something better.”

Valery Otstavnykh worked on the film about Abramova “out of a sense of guilt”: he was haunted by how, while he was living his own life, a woman lay dead in an apartment and no one thought about her. The director tried to find a culprit for the fact that no one noticed her death. To his disappointment, the neighbors did not admit any responsibility, the Pension Fund shifted the blame onto the housing office, the housing office said that the district police were responsible, and the district police blamed social services for everything.

Finally, he said, “I just don’t want to die that way. I mean, I don’t care, of course, what will happen [when I die], but I don’t want to lie alone for 13 years like that.”

Yevgeny Solomatin

Otstavnykh said that ever since he learned about the mummy that lay for so many years in an apartment a couple bus stops from his home, he has stopped leaving his keys inside the lock when he is home, and he gave spare keys to his neighbor and to his friend Yury, who lives in a town nearby. “I say to him, ‘Yury, call me at least every week or two and find out whether I’m alive or not,” explained the director.

Valery isn’t happy with his solitary life and sometimes ponders what could have been had his life turned out otherwise. “What if I could rewind my life 30 years, leave my parents, move to Moscow, and make a career as a director or an actor?” he wondered aloud, and then answered his own question. “In order to live my life that way, I would have had to be born a different person.”

Report by Irina Kravtsova, St. Petersburg – Shchyokino – Bryansk

Editing by Konstantin Benyumov

Translation by Sydney Lazarus