The carved heart of the woods

In any good fairytale, help magically arrives at the very moment that it’s most needed.

Photo by Andrey Pavlichenko

There's a lot of remote and hidden places in Russia that are part of cultural and architectural heritage. And still, they are mostly ruined or abandoned. Strelka Magazine translated report made by Russian social project "Takie dela" on how to make the mansion in the middle of nowhere a successful travel brand.

The forest near Chukhloma in Kostroma Oblast is a place so remote that even Ivan Susanin would hesitate before going there. To call it backcountry would be an understatement. Some ten years ago, Andrey Pavlichenkov, financial expert and local history enthusiast, happened to visit the area. He stumbled upon a strikingly beautiful but half-ruined wooden mansion and had the idea of restoring it. Since then, this idea has developed into a full-blown experiment in culture and tourism.

The story of the forest mansion is a rather grim tale. Near the end of the 19th century, the rich carpenter Martyan Sazonov returned to his home village of Astashovo from St. Petersburg. In St. Petersburg, Sazonov ran a wood workshop and built a fortune constructing country houses for affluent citizens. Outliving his first wife, Sazonov married the daughter of a local priest, a woman who was 30 years his junior. He decided to build a new family house: a tsar-worthy mansion, in fact. Word has it that Sazonov had dared to copy the design that architect Ivan Ropet had created for the Emperor’s personal hunting lodge in the Białowieża Forest. In 1897 the former peasant completed construction of a unique “tsar” mansion, a two-story building with carved wood decorations, a mezzanine, and a grand front entrance. Meanwhile, the Emperor’s hunting lodge was never built.

Martyan Sazonov (in the middle), surrounded by his family and neighbors on the porch of the mansion / Archive photo
The mansion / Archive photo
Martyan Sazonov (in the middle), surrounded by his family and neighbors on the porch of the mansion / Archive photo

The house was intended to become the family mansion for the Sazonov dynasty for centuries to come, but the October Revolution ruined these plans. Martyan himself died three years prior and was spared seeing his family forced out and his house declared national property. The mansion was consecutively occupied by a collective farm, a country club, a cinema, a post office, a library, and even a rural health center. The mansion suffered heavy damage: its original wall paintings were painted over, its tile-lined hearths were torn apart, and general maintenance was non-existent. By the end of the 1970s, when the village started dying out, the mansion was left completely abandoned. Some Astashovo villagers moved their cabins with them to other places when they left. The mansion remained, slowly deteriorating and being consumed by the approaching forest. This should have been the end of its story.

But just like in a great fairytale, when the hero’s death appears inevitable, an unexpected assistant appears, ready to lend a helping hand. Cue Andrey Pavlichenkov, an amateur regional historian from Moscow. Andrey and his wife were scouring the local woods in search of something interesting. Their discovery of the Astashovo mansion was written in the stars.

Imagine and dare

“The mansion was in terrible condition,” said Pavlichenkov, going through photographs of the building. “Windowpanes were missing, the carved tower was tilting, and there was a hole in the roof. Even so, the mansion was quite impressive.” At that time, the couple had no idea what could be done there. They took several photographs and left. But the forest mansion did not let them go just yet.

Pavlichenkov started looking into the history of the place. The local history archives were destroyed in a fire, and many historic items had been stolen from the Chukhloma museum over the years. Luckily, local historians had some old photographs and dusty records of stories told by Astashovo’s old timers.

Ksenia Butorina (mansion hostess) in a window of the restored mansion wing, 2016
Andrey Pavlichenkov looks out a mansion window. The first open volunteer event, spring 2010
Ksenia Butorina (mansion hostess) in a window of the restored mansion wing, 2016

The couple spent two years trying to restore the house on their own. Over that period, the regional government sent several student volunteer teams to help them out. Together they managed to fix the roof, remove the trash, and push back the approaching tree line. Then there was the painful realization that their limited resources and speed were barely enough to postpone the ultimate demise of the mansion. It was then that Pavlichenkov decided to purchase the property. He used part of the savings he built as an investor to try and save the mansion. Back then, the house was neither a recognized heritage object nor was it officially registered in any lists. The local administration stepped forward: the house was officially registered and sold to Andrey.

Over 40% of the original wood material and more than 5,000 decorative elements had to be replaced.

The house had no power supply and was located two kilometers away from the nearest road. The only plausible restoration plan involved taking the building apart and replacing every single rotten part. Over 40% of the original wood material and more than 5,000 decorative elements had to be replaced.

In the middle of nowhere

When, in 2012, at the start of spring, the mansion was dismantled log by log and transported to Kirillov for restoration, Pavlichenkov was having second thoughts, doubting whether they would manage to put it back together. But there was no time for hesitation. The rapidly melting ice road called for urgency. The last few log-laden trucks had to be manually pushed out of sticky spring dirt. During autumn the log foundation of the house was rebuilt. Since then, the mansion has received a new road and has been connected to the electricity grid. Today, restoration work on the mansion is almost complete.

The mansion before restoration, spring 2010 / photo by Andrey Pavlichenkov

Locals came up with dozens of explanations for why people from Moscow were invading the area to save a mansion in the middle of nowhere. The most popular versions included a drug den and an illegal casino. When it became apparent that the mansion wasn’t being stolen and that the surrounding woods stayed untouched, the locals joined in to help.

Mission impossible: there is a lack of manpower, available technology, state aid, and basic public demand.

Back when the restoration was still only a project, Andrey was confident that he would prove that saving unique wooden architecture in Russia was a feasible task. Five years later, he recognizes the futility of this endeavor. There is a lack of manpower, available technology, state aid, and basic public demand. Even woodworking shops have almost gone extinct, killed off by the transition to plastic window frames. But despite all these obstacles, the mansion in Astashovo has been restored – thanks to the stubbornness and determination of a few enthusiasts.

Heart of the woods

From the very start it was clear that should the restoration be a success, the mansion was bound to become a tourist attraction, even if the idea seemed a bit crazy. There was no tourist infrastructure in the area. Pavlichenkov has been showering the regional administration with demands to install a road sign acknowledging the existence of the mansion. Nonetheless, compared to the 30-40 people per year that came to take a look at the mansion five years ago, in 2016, 4,000 tourists visited Astashovo, mostly from Kostroma Oblast. Aside from taking 100 ruble mansion tours, tourists come here in groups to enjoy outdoor BBQs, and some even travel here to hold weddings.

Mansion in the woods, 2015 / photo by Andrey Pavlichenkov
Mansion staircase during restoration, 2014 / photo by Andrey Pavlichenkov
Mansion in the woods, 2015 / photo by Andrey Pavlichenkov

Finding a way to attract tourists from Moscow and other regions is a complex task that currently remains unsolved. How should the mansion be marketed and promoted? Which categories of tourists would find it visit-worthy? A museum, hotel rooms, a dining room with a traditional hearth, unique untouched nature, snowmobiles, quad bikes, fishing: Astashovo does not suffer from a lack of options. What it does lack is tourist infrastructure, and building it here is a next to impossible task. “I hope someone eventually comes up with an idea for how to position Astashovo, how to reach our perfect audience,” says Pavlichenkov. “So far we have had little success. We are open to cooperation.”

In 2016 4,000 tourists visited Astashovo.

Without the support of travel agencies, building a stable stream of tourists is next to impossible. According to Pavlichenkov, social networks and word-of-mouth provide great publicity and recognition, but fail to secure a good conversion rate. He does not expect the mansion to be making any profit in the future, but hopes that Astashovo will at some point start breaking even.

The rough terrain of Chukhloma attracts off-road enthusiasts, who hold the Polnaya Chukhloma annual off-road driving festival here. From time to time the drivers come to Astashovo to take a break and relax. The off-roaders are well-paying customers who know exactly what they are in for. They are coming for natural beauty, traditional Russian bathhouses, welcoming hosts, and an opportunity to get closer to Russian history. “The off-roaders are great clients for the mansion,” admits Pavlichenkov. “Unfortunately, they barely generate 5% of the tourist flow we need.”

And the seeker will find…

One of the largest tourist attractions Astashovo can offer is exploration of the area. The village is surrounded by abandoned villages: 85% of Chukhloma villages and towns are currently uninhabited. A quad bike or a snowmobile is the best way to get around the area for those willing to check up on the remaining locals, who are a worthy sight on their own. Some two kilometers away from the mansion there is a former school, also built by Sazonov. The school is currently occupied by Dormidont, a local eccentric who moved into the empty unelectrified building from Ivanovo.

Another village has only one inhabitant, known as Sashka. His relatives moved to other, more fortunate places a long time ago. Sashka, who survived a suicide attempt after having his heart broken, decided to stay. He has been living here alone ever since, drinking and taking care of his garden and chickens. Another abandoned village has recently been revived by a small downshifter community. Other notable residents of the area include a recluse writer and a famous artist who lives in another mansion in the village of Pogorelovo. Local babushkas will offer you a meal and share a story or two about daily life in Chukhloma.

Many are drawn to Astashovo thanks to its unique history and the efforts made to preserve it. Holding local history tours might be an option for bringing in visitors. “On average, history fans are not big spenders. They also tend to hate the off-roaders,” says Andrey. “Quad bike and snowmobile enthusiasts are another lucrative, yet complex client group. That market is highly saturated and has its own well-known and popular routes and locations that we would have to compete with.”

Pavlichenkov personally made a few such trips to Karelia and concluded that there were options for setting up a similar operation in Astashovo. However, getting a slice of that pie will not be easy.

Astashovo tourists near the mansion in Pogorelovo. Winter 2016 / photo by Andrey Pavlichenkov

Cheap one-day bus tours are a largely unexplored market segment. The team started working on this idea last winter. In 2016, the mansion became a winter residence for Snegurochka (a popular Russian folklore character, the assistant to Ded Moroz / Father Christmas – Strelka). In previous years, Snegurochka stayed in Kostroma, in a mansion between a hotel and a mall, which was convenient, but not too fairytale-like. In Astashovo Snegurochka will live in a real forest mansion, just like in the tales.

Several times a year, Astashovo welcomes socially conscious tourists who, in addition to sightseeing and relaxation, also seek to do some good before they leave. During the summer, for instance, tourists helped to clear debris from a blocked bridge. The bridge is the only road connecting one of the nearby villages with the rest of civilization with its shops, hospitals and railroads.

Pavlichenkov also throws hopeful glances at foreign tourists, especially those travelling the northern route of the Trans-Siberian Railway. He considers them to be a perfect target group. “They are drawn by the charm of history. 120 years ago one half-wit built a mansion, and then another one found and restored it: that’s quite a story,” smiles Pavlichenkov. “Poor roads, bears, and the backcountry spirit do not repel them in the slightest. On the contrary, they bring additional flavor to the picture.”

So far Pavlichenkov has not yet figured out a recipe for transforming this altruistic story into a successful tourist project. However, he and a number of travel market experts are convinced that Astashovo shows potential.

Village renaissance

“Social science experts point to a surge of village renaissance that has been happening over the last eight years,” says Natalya Dronova, executive director at the International Center for Responsible Tourism. “Many city residents move to the village and start changing things there. Their stories barely get any media attention; however, with all things ‘real’ and ‘true’ currently trending, public interest in them is immense. And Astashovo is very real. When its owners decided to purchase the mansion, they were passionately following the goal of saving a unique monument of wooden architecture. They had no idea how much they would have to spend and how many obstacles they would have to overcome. This experience and these personal stories are Astashovo’s strengths. A genuine historical site will always have an advantage over a dull local history museum.”

“Astashevo can already be considered a new successful travel brand. Andrey (we are long-time friends) called me with a request to come up with a brand idea for Astashovo and its surrounding area. Something like Chukhloma Lakes, so he could promote the local forest mansions through popular local brands (Galich, Chukhloma, Sogalich). I responded that the best idea would be to simply use Astashovo. Astashovo and Pogorelovo could become the symbols of this beautiful area surrounded by several charming small historic towns and the driving force for local tourism. Especially considering how passive tourism development officials in these cities and the regional government can be,” says Mikhail Ilyin, Unknown Province project founder.

The mansion after restoration, summer 2016 / photo by Andrey Pavlichenkov
The facade after restoration, summer 2016 . photo by Andrey Pavlichenkov
The mansion after restoration, summer 2016 / photo by Andrey Pavlichenkov

“The mansion attracts tourists with its novelty, its fairytale appeal, and its forest location, complemented by comfortable accommodations”, says Ekaterina Zatuliveter, Altourism project founder. She brought several groups of socially conscious tourists to Astashovo – people who want to contribute to the place they travel to. “This concept works best for national tourism. Our mission of restoring Russian villages and small towns evokes a response in many people. They see the problem, they recognize it, and they are happy to take part in resolving it, going on one journey with us after another.”

“There is certainly some interest in this type of travel experience. Astashovo attracts people with its uniqueness and its relative proximity to the capital. It’s a memorable architecture monument. However, today there is no significant tourist flow to speak of, and the capacity for accommodation is quite limited. Small traveler groups should be a priority at the moment,” notes Yulia Grigoryeva, executive director at RussiaDiscovery.

“Spending a few days in Astashovo is a trip affordable only to tourists with mid-high income. A room at the local hotel costs 2,500-3,000 rubles per night. However, opting for a one-day tour with a tea break makes Astashovo affordable to other groups, too, while volunteering attracts those who find enjoyment in physical work and making a change,” says Dronova.

There are very few private restoration projects as large as this one in Russia. Hopefully, the second chapter of the tale of Astashevo will have a happy ending.

Author: Rimma Avshalumova
Translation: Philipp Kachalin

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