Russian Barbizon: the land of poets and painters on the Oka

When you approach Tarusa, a small town 130 kilometers from Moscow, you understand why artists dubbed this land “Russian Barbizon,” referring to the French town that gave its name to a famous painting school.

Endless fields, picturesque hills and cascades of forests stretching from the high banks of the Oka River to the horizon have inspired many Russian painters and poets, making Tarusa one of their favorite summer destinations.

“Places around Tarusa are indeed charming, they are enwrapped in the clearest light air,” prominent Russian writer Konstantin Paustovsky, who lived in Tarusa, wrote. “In the fall, this land was covered in see-through gold, in purple and silence.”

One can find many features in Tarusa that made one of its residents describe the town as a “small model of a greater Russia”: a traditional Vladimir Lenin sculpture at the central square, next to a cathedral restored in the 1990s after being partially destroyed by the Bolsheviks; two-storey 19-century buildings and rowan trees in the town center; a wide and straight central Lenin Street climbing from the square onto a hill, and plenty of traditional peasant and merchant wooden houses, many of them built back in the late 19th and the early 20th century.

In one of his poems dedicated to Tarusa, Soviet poet Nikolai Zabolotsky, who also used to spend summers there, described a typical provincial Russian town with its typical residents. One of them, a girl called Marusya (a village variant of the name Maria) regrets having no wings like the local roosters and geese (once the most common residents in the town) to be able to escape from its provincial monotony and cloying laid-back lifestyle.

But those who enjoyed this lifestyle included painters Vasily Polenov and Viktor Borisov-Musatov, poet Marina Tsvetaeva, sculptor Vasily Vatagin and pianist Svyatoslav Richter. Noble prize winning dissident writer Iosif Brodsky was among those who contributed to Tarusa’s image of an intellectual hub near Moscow as he escaped here from Soviet persecution in the 1960s.

Half a century on, artists and writers still constitute a large part of Tarusa’s population. Souvenir shops around the town sell pictures by local painters, and there is even a picture gallery at the central square which hosts various exhibitions every month – a rare occasion for a provincial Russian town.

The gallery is located right next to Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, which was built in the place of the burned St. Nicolas Church in the late 18th century with money granted by Russian Empress Catherine the Great. In the 1930s, the Bolsheviks closed the cathedral, destroyed its bell tower and turned the building into a cultural center for communist youth. Repeating the fate of hundreds of thousands of other churches across the country, the cathedral was only reopened after restoration in the early 2000s. Local artists took part in decorating the cathedral.

Ironically, the Lenin statue, still a necessary attribute at the central square of many Russian towns and cities, is found just within meters from the cathedral, installed on a high stone pedestal.

According to a local legend told by Alexei Tosltoi, the War and Peace author’s namesake, in one of his stories, a U.S. tourist once drowned in a huge puddle in the middle of the square, after which the square was paved over.

Along the riverbank

Just behind the cathedral, in a small tiny park near the riverside, there is another sculpture which is probably worthier of seeing. The barefoot woman wearing a long dress, sauntering thoughtfully along the river bank is Marina Tsvetaeva, one of the most outstanding representatives of the Silver Age in Russian poetry, a period covering the 1890s through the 1920s.

Tsvetaeva used to spend summers in Tarusa since her childhood. Take a walk with the poetess along the bank of the river, enjoying its “lazy” flow through “sleepy fields,” as she wrote in one of her poems dedicated to her childhood memories from Tarusa. You will soon find yourself near the ancient Church of the Resurrection, the oldest building in the town constructed back in the 17th century in the place of a ramshackle wooden church, part of a now destroyed monastery.

The church was reconstructed in the late 19th – early 20th century in the Russian-Byzantine style; in the Soviet times, however, it was closed and its chief priest arrested. The building hosted a ballet school, a grain store and a bakery before being partially destroyed and then restored in the early 1990s.

From the church, continue your way along the bank until you see a big stone to the right of the path. The inscription on the stone reads: “Marina Tsvetaeva would like to have been buried here.” The stone was installed according to the poet’s will expressed in one of her stories. Tsvetaeva, who committed suicide in 1941, is buried in the city of Yelabuga in Russia’s republic of Tatarstan.

Another path climbs onto the hill, where you will find the grave of painter Viktor Borisov-Musatov, whose best-known chef d’oeuvre, The Reservoir, is displayed at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. The painter died in Tarusa in 1905 at the age of 35, and sculptor Alexander Matveyev, his friend, decorated his grave with a monument featuring a sleeping boy.

Around the town

On your way back to the town center, take a rest at the Oka Cafeteria near the boat station. The locals say is the best place to eat in town. Here you can enjoy the atmosphere of a traditional Soviet cafeteria, which can now be found only in provincial towns like Tarusa, and taste traditional Russian dishes at very low prices while sitting on a terrace with a wonderful view of the river, its sandy beaches and fields on the opposite bank.

Back in town, you can visit the Regional History Museum, where you can see traditional Russian peasant and merchant household items and a collection of hand-made dolls crafted by local artists, many of them for sale.

While wandering around the town, you will see many traditional log houses with lacy carved window frames and roof decorations. Many of the houses are pretty much in shambles but still inhabited. Don’t be surprised if you meet a rooster with a flock of chickens in the street just a block away from the town center.

Not far from the central square, in a blue wooden house at the very end of Proletarskaya Street writer Konstantin Paustovsky, who in the 1960s was considered a possible nominee for the Noble Prize, lived since 1955 until his death in 1968. The house with its wonderful garden is now maintained by the writer’s adopted daughter.

Paustovsky was among the initiators and authors of the famous Tarusskiye Stranitsy (Pages from Tarusa) book of stories, which was published in 1961, during the Khrushchev Thaw, without an official approval and therefore prohibited by the Soviet authorities.

A moving case involving Paustovsky happened in the early 1960s when actress and singer Marlene Dietrich was visiting Moscow. When the star was asked what she would like to see in the capital, she said she had long been dreaming to see Soviet writer Paustovsky. When Paustovsky was brought to the concert hall where Dietrich was performing, she dropped to her knees before the crowd and kissed his hand to show her admiration.

There is an amusing museum in the town set up by local carpenter Sergei Zharov in his house. Here you can find a dozen sculptures crafted by Zharov from scrap iron, a collection comprising 100 old irons, an armchair made from Zinger sewing machines, several old samovars and a couple of antique gramophones. If you kindly ask Zharov, he will play one of the old-time records from his collection for you.

The Polenov Estate

Take a boat from Tarusa to get to the opposite bank of the Oka River, where a house of painter Vasily Polenov is located on the hillside, surrounded by picturesque forests and fields – an example of a Russian nobleman’s countryside estate, which was constructed in the 1890s when such estates were not built very often.

Polenov, who is best known for his landscape paintings, designed the three-floor wooden house not just as a place to live, but also as a studio for himself and his painter friends, among whom were Ilya Repin, Ivan Shishkin and Viktor Vasnetsov, and numerous students, including Konstantin Korovin and Isaak Levitan.

The house, which became the first museum in the province open to the general public, is now part of the Polevov Memorial History, Art and Natural Museum Reserve, one of the largest in Russia. In 1939, the painter’s inheritors had to donate the entire collection of the museum to the state in order to prevent the house from being turned into an inn.

Polenov’s talent had a great impact on Russian and Soviet landscape painting. A graduate of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, Polenov managed to express in his paintings the silent poetry of Russian nature related to daily human life. Some of his paintings are displayed in his estate, although most of them are hosted by Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery and St. Petersburg’s Russian Museum.

Polenov is also known for his series of pictures featuring scenes from the New Testament. The most famous of them is his masterpiece called Christ and the Sinner (1886-1887), which is displayed in the Russian Museum. A full-size charcoal sketch of the original is located in the museum on the Oka River.

Besides his artistic talent, Polenov was also known for his efforts to improve the life of the local community, particularly by tackling the problems of child education. He built two schools in the area and a Diorama pavilion in his estate, where children could enjoy a “magic” light performance imitating a trip around the world based on pictures painted by Polenov. The performance is still shown to visitors of the museum.


To get to Tarusa from Moscow by car, take the Simferopolskoye Highway to reach the town of Serpukhov (some 80 km from Moscow), then drive about halfway to Protvino, turn left near the tank monument and drive 20 km more to reach Tarusa.

You can also take a bus to Tarusa from the Tyoply Stan station in southern Moscow or from Serpukhov. To reach Serpukhov, take a bus from the Yuzhnaya station in Moscow’s south or an electric train from the Kursky Train Terminal or the Tsaritsyno train station. The trip will take about 2.5 hours.

To get from Tarusa to the Polenov estate and back, you can take a motorboat that seats two passengers for about $40, or a 7-seater for about $50. In summer, there are cruise boats traveling between Tarusa and the Polenov estate. A round ticket costs $10 per person.

You can also get to the Polenov estate by electric train from Moscow’s Kursky Train Terminal. Get out at the Tarusskaya station and take a bus to reach the museum.

MOSCOW, September 7 (RIA Novosti, Maria Kuchma)

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