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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Where Tradition Meets Futurism

Napoleon stayed here, a fervent Old Believer was starved to death here, and a monastery nearby holds a one-of-a-kind mural. Welcome to Borovsk, a quaint, hilly town two hours' drive from Moscow. At first sight, the town doesn't look like much, but with some patience and a good guide it certainly won't leave you disappointed.

Borovsk used to be a town with a strong presence of the Old Believers, a movement that opposed changes in the Russian Orthodox Church in the mid-17th century. To quash dissent, the church incarcerated the leader of the movement, Archpriest Avvakum, in the Pafnutyev Monastery nearby, while another famous rebel, Boyarynya Feodosya Morozova (whose name you may remember from a Vasily Surikov painting) was sent out of Moscow to be starved to death in a pit in Borovsk.

In spite of the purges, the Old Believers stood firm and accounted for 44 percent of the town's population by the early 20th century, said Olga Zakharova, a researcher with the town's historical museum. By 1917, Borovsk featured three houses of prayer and 14 churches, including three Old Believers', the largest number in the region. But what the Russian Orthodox Church couldn't accomplish, the Soviets did.

If you enter the town by car, you'll see a bizarre picture to your right as you pass Kommunisticheskaya Ulitsa: an abandoned, crumbling, but still beautiful, church surrounded by buses and trucks. An Old Believers' church called Pokrovsky Cathedral, it was dedicated in 1912. The communists made it part of the garage territory in 1928. The church's windows are broken, the doors locked and the inside littered with garbage. Half-obliterated letters on the front side of the church say: "Don't smoke on the territory of the garage." Its dedication was timed to the 100th anniversary of the victory over Napoleon, and locals proudly say there are only two churches like this in the world: one in France, and one in Borovsk.

During Napoleon's invasion, the town suffered so much destruction and death that "Moscow gave [Borovsk] 1,000 rubles to burn the corpses," said Zakharova. A house where Napoleon spent a night or two stands near the town's central square, featuring an obligatory statue of Lenin and an eternal flame at a World War II memorial. Zakharova, who sometimes doubles as a guide, may show you the house located on Ulitsa Lenina as well as Borovsk's other landmarks. The town raised money and in 2005 built a chapel in memory of Morozova (pictured page 9). Twelve Old Believer nuns who have recently made Borovsk their home guard the chapel and live in a wooden shack nearby. Zakharova said the nuns entrusted her with a copy of the keys to the chapel so that she could show visitors the basement where Morozova died.

The town of 12,000 is compact and as you walk through it, you'll see pictures from Russian history painted on facades of the downtown buildings -- the work of a local amateur artist.

Another place of interest is a house where cosmonautics pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky lived while working as a teacher here and designing his model of a metallic dirigible aerostat. Tsiolkovsky spent 12 years in Borovsk, from 1880 to 1892; in 1887-88 he lived in this two-story wooden house that is now a museum. It features a copy of the aerostat as well as Tsiolkovsky's instruments and books, among other things.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Pokrovsky Cathedral, which was turned into a garage's territory in Soviet times.
The town is also known for its pryaniki, a kind of national gingerbread, which are made at a local factory. If you visit the factory's hole-in-the-wall store, you'll learn that pryaniki can be filled with chocolate, dried apricots, cranberries and more. Prices vary; one kilogram of chocolate pryaniki goes for 36 rubles ($1.35).

Your trip to Borovsk will not be complete without a visit to the Pafnutyev men's monastery, located a short ride from the town. Entrance is free but the rules are strict. Men wearing shorts are not allowed and women have to put on a wrap-around skirt and a head scarf, which they can obtain at the gates if they are not already suitably attired. Established in 1444, the monastery boasts an immensely rich history. Troops of the second False Dmitry, one of the pretenders to the Russian throne, stormed it; Napoleon burned it and the Soviets built an agricultural mechanization school on its cemetery. Monks came back to the monastery in 1991. They can be hired as tour guides; tours should be scheduled one or two days in advance. The minimum tour-group size is 10 people, and the price is 30 rubles per person. If you won't be able to gather 10 people and are still keen to have a guided tour, you'll have to pick up the entire cost. For another 65 rubles, you can have dinner at the monastery's canteen.

The Pafnutyev monastery is home to a mural featuring the Ptolemaic system of the universe. Zakharova, of the history museum, said no mural like this exists anywhere else in the world. But sadly for the general public, the monastery stopped exhibiting it in 2005, she said.

How to Get There:

Some 80 kilometers southwest of Moscow, the town is less than two hours' drive from the capital. Go along Kievskoye Shosse and follow the signs for Borovsk and the monastery, the full name of which is Svyato-Pafnutyevsky Borovsky Monastyr in Russian.

Alternatively, take a train from Kievsky Station and get off at Balabanovo station, then take a bus heading for Borovsk. If you want to get to the monastery, get off at the Roshcha stop and then walk for another 10 minutes.

Pafnutyev Monastery: (48438) 437 39, 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.

The Borovsk Historical Museum: 7 Ul. Ploshchad Lenina, (48438) 432 36.

Borovsky Pryanik Kolos factory: 8 Ul. Stepana Razina, (48438) 429 60.