Vladimir Ovchinnikov, The ‘Banksy of Borovsk’

Paul Goncharoff

Now that summer has arrived in Russia, and the 2018 World Cup extravaganza is attracting people from everywhere on this planet I keep getting asked: “Where can I go  that is close and see the real Russia for myself?”.

Most are aware of the well worn tour routes like the Golden Ring which include Yaroslavl and other major historic towns. There are many alternatives among those destinations, but there is one curious place which might meet out-of-the-way, salt of the earth criteria, and conveniently at that.

Borovsk is such an alternative. A small town of 11,000 souls located in the Kaluga Oblast just 67 miles south of Moscow. Big in history it was founded in 1358 on a well-defended hill in the midst of a pine forest with a river running by. The name of the place ‘Borovsk’ takes its root from the Russian word ‘bor’ which without any Putinesque hidden agendas means ‘pines’.

Getting there is part of the adventure if you are interested in experiencing everyday Russian life yourself and not in a tour group. Starting at the Kievskaya railway station in Moscow, buy a ticket to ‘Balabanovo’ which is a 3-stop, 90-minute trip. You can also buy tickets online at Russian Railways English site which is very user friendly, giving departure times and other useful information – just type in the towns you want to go to, pay and print out your eTicket.

Roundtrip from Moscow costs less than 1000 rubles, or roughly $16 roundtrip. Arriving to Balabanovo station catch either Bus 101 or 221 which costs less than 60 rubles for the 30 minute ride to Borovsk (16 short stops). You buy tickets from the driver and buses leave roughly every 15 – 20 minutes.

Credit cards are increasingly accepted outside major cities, but it would be wise to have at least 5,000 rubles or so just-in-case cash in your pocket (less than $100) exchanged in Moscow before travelling to cover any contingencies, hiccups or other desires.

As the Mongol domination of Russia waned, Moscow was growing into a major center of government power. Partly to establish and strengthen Moscow’s defensive ring a number of castles and fortresses were built. Borovsk’s role in this Moscow defensive ring was the Pafnuty Monastery founded in 1444 less than three kilometers outside todays town center, serving both spiritual and defensive roles. This dual-purpose role supported local growth of both the population and economy.

By the time the Poles got around to invading the town in 1610, the monastery was strongly fortified, surrounded by a deep moat and entrenchments. The Poles only just managed to capture it by bribing one of the guards to open the gates one night. All 12,000 defenders inside were then put to the sword and slaughtered with gusto.

History demonstrated that 1610 would not be the last time that Borovsk saw battle or other rebellion. In the latter half of the 17th century, the Russian Orthodox Church experienced a schism. A group that would come to be called the ‘Old Believers’ resisted reforms the Church leadership was attempting to implement, resulting in some tragic drama where Borovsk played a key role.

In 1812, Napoleon’s army occupied Borovsk as it tried to advance on the city of Kaluga, which was on the way to Moscow. Napoleon stayed in Borovsk for three days, waiting for news on the progress of his invasion. He no doubt was disappointed – his army was defeated. Napoleon was forced to retreat along the Old Smolensk Road, made more difficult because it was back through territory his army devastated, burned and generally trashed in their initial advance. The 2-story building where Napoleon resided still stands in town, a “Napoleon stayed here” curio of history.

A local mural artist Vladimir Ovchinnikov painted this epically tragic French retreat on the wall of a local building. This artist is the town’s treasure; in fact, many consider him (unofficially) one of Russia’s national treasures.

Borovsk was not only central to the ‘Old Believers’, but also Russian ‘cosmism’ (the philosophical doctrine of the unity of man and the cosmos). In addition, the town boasts as a resident, the renowned Vladimir Ovchinnikov, an artist who transformed this ancient but typical Russian settlement into a unique object d’art. This man painted the walls and windows of a great many buildings, and now Borovsk in many ways is an open-air gallery. Strolling the streets you can enjoy more than 100 of his frescoes painted on walls, boarded-up windows, fences and whatnot throughout town.Ovchinnikov, a retired engineer as well as artist, asked for and got permission from the city government to draw his murals voluntarily on the walls of the town. He felt strongly that the people were losing sight of their own colorful place in history and the former personages of the town.A panoply of scenes and people are depicted in his works. These include the imperial Admiral Senyavin (Russia’s Nelson, who destroyed the Turkish Navy in one fell swoop), who was born near Borovsk. Also the philosopher Fyodorov, who argued that someday humans can become more than human through mastering technology to overcome the restraints of the physical world. The scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, also born near Borovsk and is featured in the murals. Tsiolkovsky, in the 1800s, depicted and described a manned space rocket that looks surprisingly similar to the Soviet “Buran”, and NASA’s Space Shuttle.

Ovchinnikov who has also been popularly referred to as the ‘Banksy of Borovsk’ after the British graffiti artist. He has also been influenced by the poet (also his wife) Elvira Partykova and some of her poems appear on his frescoes. He prefers to call his works frescoes, not paintings, murals or graffiti.The artist depicts the actualities of history, both the good and the bad. This has led to differences of opinion and even protests, especially when the artist memorialized people who were repressed during the zealous excesses of Soviet times. After all the role of the artist is to reflect truth mirrored in people’s eyes and memory, and no matter how one may want to erase or whitewash reality, it persists. Still, some individuals have seen fit to deface his work memorializing that era, so restoration is also a work in progress.Most of his murals depict everyday people enjoying everyday life and living in Borovsk, from girls carrying buckets of water to people enjoying tea. In short, it is a visual celebration of local life and history. The town is a friendly welcoming place with a few shops and cafes, many historical buildings, including numerous merchants’ houses and a total of ten Russian Orthodox churches and four Old Believers’ churches, all set in the quaint, forested countryside of ‘real Russia.’

The town is slowly but surely being rediscovered by Russians, and to a lesser extent freshly discovered by visitors to Russia. The conveniences expected by some tourists are still in their infancy, although like most Russian towns there are several cafes, restaurants and of course shops which serve the local population who are more than just friendly and welcome all comers.Recently I met Vladimir Ovchinnikov through my friend, the redoubtable John Bonar, chairman of ‘Yes! 2 Business’ and we had a lengthy discussion about the town and its’ realities. The idea which he champions, to develop the tourist infrastructure of Borovsk is not new, yet only baby-steps have been made. This is largely due to it being so small, and therefore under the radar of tourist officialdom or development groups. Nonetheless, it may serve as an investment test case using an innovative real estate + cryptocurrency crowdfunding technology brought to the market recently by Relex, a pioneer in this field. Perhaps this is the way to breath renewal into the smaller regions of the world.

Visiting the town and its environs should be an eye-opener for those businesspersons, foreign or domestic, willing to get involved and participate in developing this unique place which is a microcosm of Russia’s tapestry of history, culture and art.Robert Frost, the noted American poet wrote his famous poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ the last stanza of which reads as if was written for and about Borovsk:

‘I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.’

If you are at a loose end and want to see a bit of non-Moscow Russia when here, a visit to Borovsk and the frescoes of Vladimir Ovchinnikov might make all the difference to gain a bit of simple perspective without going too far out of the way, and taking this road less travelled.