Yanko Mitev poses near his portrait, along side others, in the village of Staro Zhelezare, Bulgaria, Aug. 26, 2015. Two Polish artists, Ventzislav and Katarzyna Piriankov, began painting murals around the village a few years ago in hopes of starting a revival in Staro Zhelezare, which, like so many other Eastern European hamlets, has faced low birthrates and the exodus of young adults to more prosperous points west. The other portraits include Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church; Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum of Dubai; Boris III, the former czar of Bulgaria; and a generic Orthodox Jew in a black hat and side curls. (Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times)

Bulgarians hope Guevara and Bardot can save their village

“It’s a natural pairing,” Stefana Gospodinova, a 64-year-old resident of the remote Bulgarian village Staro Zhelezare, said of herself and Brigitte Bardot, the French femme fatale. “I am mistaken for her all the time.”

The two may not exactly look alike, but they do share a love for animals. Hence the depiction of Gospodinova and her mule alongside Bardot and her horse in a photo-realistic mural painted on a whitewashed wall.

Staro Zhelezare, population 400, is like so many other Eastern European hamlets withering in the face of low birthrates and the exodus of young adults to more prosperous points west. Except for the murals, which two Polish artists, Ventzislav and Katarzyna Piriankov, began painting a few years ago in hopes of starting a revival.

The idea, Piriankov said, “was to use the village as our canvas and to transform it into a work of art.” A rotating group of students are in Staro Zhelezare this week for the second summer in a row building what the artists call their “Village of Personalities.” This summer, they plan to add murals of Gandhi, Lincoln and Cleopatra.

Already, there is Che Guevara, depicted with Yordan Arabadzhiev, 68, who sees himself as having a similar revolutionary spirit flowing through his veins because his family were partisans resisting the Nazis in World War II.

“I’d much rather meet Che than any living king or queen,” Arabadzhiev said.

Yanko Mitev, who spends his days wandering the village, on the other hand, did not recognize the faces painted beside him. They are Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church; Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum of Dubai; Boris III, the former czar of Bulgaria; and a generic Orthodox Jew in a black hat and side curls.

His companions were good, Mitev said later, because he dreams of a world where “people live in peace and get along.”

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