Retired engineer Vladimir Ovchinnikov has spent decades painting murals in his small town south of Moscow, but finds some of his art unwelcome after the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine.
“They painted on it,” Ovchinnikov, 84, said during a recent stop at an abandoned shop in a village field near Borovsk, his town of around 10,000 people two hours’ drive from the Russian capital. .
Ovchinnikov had painted a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag on one side of the building, but it had been covered in white paint.
Moving briskly, he took out a black pencil and began to draw a dove on the lime, until another local man approached and threatened to call the police.
But Ovchinnikov insisted he had no fear in continuing his efforts.
“At my age, I’m not afraid of anything,” he said in an interview at his home. “If there are complaints against me, no one will suffer.”
Since Russia sent troops to Ukraine on February 24, authorities have resisted any sign of opposition to what Moscow calls a “special military operation” in the pro-Western country.
Thousands of protesters have been arrested, independent media have been shut down and several people have been convicted and fined under a law that criminalizes “discrediting” the Russian armed forces.
– ‘Friendship destroyed’ –
Ovchinnikov is one of them.
The silver-haired, bearded pensioner was fined 35,000 rubles (about $430, 400 euros) after drawing a little girl wearing the colors of the Ukrainian flag with three bombs hanging above her head on a building from Borovsk.
It was also whitewashed, and Ovchinnikov painted a dove in its place.
He received more than 150 donations to help pay the fine.
Ovchinnikov is well known for his art in and around Borovsk, and one of his drawings dedicated to the city’s liberation from Nazi troops in 1942 adorns the walls of the city’s conscription office.
One of his recent murals – of two women holding hands with matching ribbons of Russian and Ukrainian flag colors in their hair – has so far remained untouched.
“That friendship was destroyed, we can only be nostalgic,” Ovchinnikov said, adding that the drawing was a copy of a Soviet-era poster.
His art has long had a political side. In 2003, Ovchinnikov came across a book with the names of victims of Soviet repression in the Kaluga region – where Borovsk is located – listing who was shot or sent to the Gulag.
“It made my hair stand on end,” he said.
He has launched campaigns to have many victims rehabilitated – a legal process where they are posthumously acquitted of any crime – but has faced numerous rejections.
– Father sent to camps –
In 2015 and 2016, Ovchinnikov painted the portraits of victims of repression on the walls of Borovsk, each time seeing the drawings removed or vandalized.
Their stories hit hard – her father Alexander was sentenced in 1937 to 10 years in a labor camp for promoting “monarchist and Trotskyist” views.
He served time in the notorious Kolyma camps in the Russian Far East before resettling in Borovsk in 1956.
Ovchinnikov fears that Russian society is being torn apart by a new “schism” and worries that the country is heading “in a very bad direction”.
He said he would continue his work, believing in the power of art to promote peace.
“It tells you directly to your face. Bombs fall on a child. Everything is clear,” Ovchinnikov said.
“I draw to show how I understand things…and maybe to have an influence on others,” he said. “It’s for people who don’t care about politics…who know nothing about it and just sit in front of the television.”