Soviet Era Echoes in Borovsk
Text and Photographs John Bonar
There is no easy way to Borovsk, 100 kms south east from Moscow just inside Kaluga Region. The sleepy town of 10,000 which swells to 15,000 in summer, has a history dating to the 13th Century but the only way here is by road. Rail passengers catch a bus or mini-bus from the nearest station at Balabanova for the 15 km ride that passes the Pafnutiev Monastry. It got passed by during the Soviet era, when it was deemed too remote to be included in the Golden Ring tourist route.
Surprisingly, the town is today enjoying something of a revival. Tourists come by car and busload from Moscow to view the scores of murals recalling 100 year old scenes of the town and honouring historical figures associated with the area that decorate the walls of the one hotel, the courthouse, the fire station, the cinema, the bread factory and many residential buildings. Even more surprising is that this is not an official regeneration programme, but the results of one man’s initiative and he an amateur, self-taught artist who has funded the work himself.
Vladimir Ovchinnikov’s father was a Soviet dissident, who was sentenced and exiled to the Far East in Stalin’s purge of 1938. He came to Borovsk upon his release and bought a house in 1956. Ovchinnikov, a construction engineer, settled in the family home with his poetess wife, Elvira, when he retired from Moscow in 1995.
His ‘parallel town’ happened almost by accident. He discovered he had a talent for drawing and painting, and began passing time creating canvasses to hang in his home. The idea to enlarge the scope, and scale of his work, using the town’s decaying buildings as his canvas evolved in late-night, wine-fueled discussions with Borovsk artists in 2002. He tried to get others involved, but when they proved reluctant, he started on his own.
His first public work was a mural ‘window to the world’ on the perimeter fence along the path from the footbridge over the river leading up a hill towards his home.
It is really a series of paintings with many varied subjects, including a crustacean, a portrait of his wife, a man looking out a broken window, butterflies, a house at night, falling autumn leaves and an owl on a snow covered tree.
The artist in front of an erradicated Avvakum
The proof that Borovsk has traditionally ‘punched above its weight’ ever since Vasily II took Maria of Borovsk as his wife in the 14th century came in a succinct introduction, the former Mayor, Alexander Egerev, wrote to a book, “Old Small Town”. The Mayor, who stepped down in 2005, extolled Borovsk’s contribution to history, its role in developing Russian religious and philosophical ideas, and mentioned the many famous Russians who were born or chose to live here, including poets and mathematicians, military heroes and exiles. The latter included the disgraced boyar, Morozov, and leader of the Old Believers Avvakum Petrovich who, in the 17th Century, led the opposition to the Russian Orthodox Church’s liturgical reforms aimed at bringing it closer to the Greek Orthodox Church.
During Soviet Times, by all accounts, the town was depressed. But its intellectual life was vibrant, fueled by the fact a 100 kms distance from Moscow meant that ‘enemies of the people’ banned from living near the capital, could move there after their release from prisons and gulags.
Perhaps because it is so picturesque, the town has always had an active artistic community, augmented by visits from Moscow celebrities. Pushkin visited and wrote letters to his friend Kaverin from here.
Believing that the town was remote enough to pass under the radar of the authorities, a group of Moscow underground artists staged an exhibition here of avant-garde art in 1974. The Soviet authorities’ reaction was swift. The exhibition site and the paintings were bulldozed out of existence. Leonid Brehzhnev preferred socialist realism to these decadent offerings.
Ovchinnikov started painting the town’s walls with murals and frescoes in 2002. By 2005 he had produced over 100 works of art on some 28 buildings. He had an easy relationship with the former mayor, Egerev. “He once gave me a thousand rubles for paint and brushes. More importantly he defended me from attacks from the city architect and others who complained that what I was doing was against the rules,” the artist recently told a television programme.
In fact when the murals first started appearing the town’s chief architect wrote to the mayor that this was contravening the rules “protecting the valuable historic environment.”
Ovchinnokov brought to his work a mix of raw artistic talent, an abiding knowledge of the area’s history, and a passion to instill knowledge and respect for the town’s history in its population.
“People have forgotten history. In the Soviet times, everything old was bad, religion, traditions and so on. I want to show people what used to be here,” he told an interviewer in 2004.
His subjects were not without controversy. On the wall of the courthouse, he painted an angry Avvakum exhorting passers by from behind the metal gates of a church with two fingers raised in the Old Believers tradition, instead of the three favoured by the new liturgy of the Patriarch. Avvakum was imprisoned in Pafnutiev Monastry and later executed. The Old Believers maintained a stronghold in Borovsk and even had their own cathedral before the Soviet Revolution.
Admiral D. N. Senyavin (1763 -1831) is depicted on another wall. Unfortunately, it is on the wall of a sewerage station, which some critics thought was a deliberate insult. Most ignore the purpose of the building however. A local woman told Russian television “Normally, it would be just a wall. But here you walk and watch the sea. It is so beautiful, and I like the sea so much. It is really a miracle!”
On another site, Ovchinnikov depicted the disgraced boyar, Boris Morozov, at one-time the key figure in 17th Century Tsar Alexei’s rule, starving to death in the bottom of a pit in the town.
Yet another wall carried a diptych, with one picture showing Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov beside a reconstructed Christ the Saviour Cathedral and the other, Kaluga Governor Anatoly Artamonov, standing in front of the Old Believers’ Pokrovski Cathedral which the Soviets converted to Bus Garage 1364, and continues to decay in that role today.
The symbolism was powerful, and when the fire chief, Sergei Zelenov, was elected mayor in 2005 he was unable to resist the pressures on him from the regional administration to do something about the troublesome artist.
In a move that draws comparison with the airbrushing out of Trotsky from the revolutionary photographs of Stalin, Avvakum’s presence on the courtroom wall was whitewashed over. All that is left of the diptych is the tower of Pokrovski cathedral. Ovchinnikov has cheekily added a hand holding a paint roller in a protest at this censorship.
This year, the Russian newspaper Izvestia carried a lengthy report on the situation. Mayor Zelenov, who had welcomed Ovchinnikov’s painting on the wall of his fire-station, said, “I am tired of this story. Understand, what is the difference between me and him (Ovchinnikov)? He produces his creative works, without having a responsibility. I have to think of 15,000 citizens. Unfortunately, our budget is dependent on grants from the region. The governor disposes of this money. I do not know how Ovchinnikov would act in my place, but I do not consider myself to have the right to bite the hand which feeds me and all the inhabitants of Borovsk.”
Admiral D.N. Senyavin
Ovchinnikov agrees. “It is not the new mayor who is a problem,” he told me. “It is the bureaucrats of the Regional Governor. In reality it is professional jealousy. There is this one very ambitious official artist who is a specialist in portraits. He paints all the Kaluga elite, the governor, and is a cultural adviser to the governor. He is jealous that I am getting so much publicity while he, with all his formal art training, is ignored by the national mass media.”
Ovchinnikov alleges that the mayor is forced to listen to this “ill-wisher” because he knows “the governor is not indifferent to this artist.”
The town is not indifferent to Ovchnnikov. As he walked me up and down the hilly streets to see his work, this sprightly 67-year old with striking blue eyes under a shock of white hair was constantly greeted by passers by. Petr Bezdolni, depicted on his garage doors sitting on the fender of his Mercedes with his granddaughter on his knee is enthusiastic. “She was one year old then, now she’s two. Just wait until she’s four or five and can understand the story behind her painting!”
The mayor suggests a compromise. Ovchinnikov can continue painting, but before he begins each work he should present a sketch, it should be reviewed by the advisory council on culture which shall invite experts from the regional branches of the Ministries of Education, Culture and Sports. Only after this committee has given its approval will the mayor authorize the artist to splash paint on the town’s walls. And even then, only under the supervision of the chief architect, to protect the historic tradition of the city.
“Listen,” says Ovchinnikov. “On the walls of the cinema Rodina, you can find a mosaic. Ask any Borovsk resident what’s in the picture – no one will remember. This mosaic is approved by the Art Committee and the result is professional mediocrity.
“Everyone knows and remembers all my pictures, because I draw them from the heart instead of for an Art Committee.”
Ovchinnikov is convinced that covering all the walls of the town with his type of art would increase the tourist flow, creating opportunities for souvenir makers and sellers, creating demand for good cafes and hotels. “We could even organize horse riding,” he says, imagining tourist revenues exceeding all the grants from the governor.
Portrait of Petr Bezdoni with his grandaughter
The director of the only hotel, Vyacheslav Ivanuschko, would agree. When tourists clamoured for a guide to show them round the outdoor gallery, he summoned Ovchinnikov and later asked for a mural to be painted in the hotel hallway, “Here stopped Kozma Prutkov”.
Here also stopped an excursion bus full of Russian Presidential Administration employees, and many others. Business in the Hotel Borovsk has increased so much in a year that Ivanuschko has been able to renovate his hotel and buy himself a new Toyota SUV.
For the Kaluga bureaucrats, the hammer and sickle emblem greeting visitors at the town’s border, seems to symbolise their wish to turn the clock back. It may be too late.
Ovchinnikov and his supporters are hoping these Presidential Administration employees remember their excursion to Borovsk.