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Credits roll for Moscow’s Soviet-era cinemas

Updated January 08, 2019

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MOSCOW: A view of the 1938 Rodina (Motherland) cinema, a Stalinist landmark with huge pillars decorated with Soviet mosaics.—AFP
MOSCOW: A view of the 1938 Rodina (Motherland) cinema, a Stalinist landmark with huge pillars decorated with Soviet mosaics.—AFP

SCATTERED throughout the city’s outlying neighbourhoods, Moscow’s Soviet-era cinemas have for decades served as the centre of communities. With names like “Mars” and “The Diamond”, the cinemas were mostly built in the 1960s and 70s during a Soviet film boom and were popular even after the collapse of the USSR, offering cheaper tickets than their counterparts in shopping centres.

Now — as part of a wider plan changing the face of the Russian capital — almost 40 of them are being turned into modern glass complexes. Developers say the project will brighten up dreary suburbs and bring more life to dormant residential districts. But it has faced a backlash from activists and residents, who say it will deprive locals of community focal points and destroy important architectural heritage. The plan is part of a major city redevelopment programme led by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin that has included the construction of a multi-billion-dollar park and the demolition of Soviet-era pre-fab apartments.

All but three of the cinemas will be completely torn down and rebuilt. One of those surviving is the 1938 Rodina (Motherland) cinema, a Stalinist landmark in northeastern Moscow with huge pillars and Soviet mosaics, where ADG Group plans to reopen the building’s original rooftop terrace. The rest of the cinemas were built in the brutalist style — a utilitarian form of architecture popular in the Soviet Union in the second half of the 20th century. Built in the shape of simple squares, some are on local high streets such as Almaz (The Diamond), a 1964 cinema painted turquoise in Moscow’s leafy Shabolovka district. Others — like the Angara, which is named after a Siberian river and already under reconstruction — are surrounded by typical late-Soviet housing blocks.

Ruben Arakelyan, who runs a Moscow-based architectural bureau, said that while it’s “right” to revive the cinemas, the brutalist buildings could have been preserved. He said some of the cinemas began “dying out” when people increasingly started to travel to the city centre for work after the fall of the Soviet Union. Local activists worry the cinemas will be turned into regular shopping malls — of which Moscow already has an abundance. “They tell us that these are depressing places that need to be torn down,” said Klim Likhachev, the head of a residents’ group to save the Almaz cinema. “By reconstruction they actually mean demolition. They are calling it a ‘neighbourhood centre’, but it will in fact be another banal shopping centre,” he said.

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2019

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