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The Bolshoi Theatre was once synonymous with art at its most opulant, but now the building is in major disrepair. Walls are crumbling and the electrical wiring hasn't been replaced since the 1940s  

Bolshoi Theatre's troubles mirror Russia's rough times

MOSCOW (CNN) -- The Bolshoi Theatre's reputation was unsurpassed during the days of the Soviet Union.

But the prestige has waned in recent years, and the famed opera and ballet company increasingly has become another monument to a bygone era, when the resources of an all-powerful state were poured into the arts.

Now, even the pillars of the Bolshoi building's once-graceful facade hint at the neglect that has set in.

"It's a beautiful theater inside and out," arts critic Raymond Stults said. "Like all great opera houses of the world, it has its own special feel. But it is sadly just falling apart. The backstage is antiquated, and the exterior is in terrible shape."

Behind the curtain, preparations are under way for the start of a new season But morale is low, and the theater's dark passages backstage reveal the worrying extent of its disrepair. The electrical wiring hasn't been replaced since the 1940s.

To the public eye, this is still a spectacular palace of the arts. But even in these opulent surroundings, there is concern -- not least that the magnificent auditorium could be a fire hazard.

Putin seizes control

In recent weeks, the sinking of the Kursk submarine, and the fire at Moscow's television tower, have battered Russian national pride. Now even this symbol of artistic prowess appears threatened.

But the Kremlin has stepped in. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently dismissed the director of the 224-year-old theater, Vladimir Vasilyev, promising more funding and transferring responsibility to his own ministry of culture -- just like in the days of the Soviet Union.

And on Saturday, Anatoly Iksanov, former head of St. Petersburg's Bolshoi Drama Theatre, was named general director. Gennady Rozhdestvensky, a renowned orchestral conductor, was named artistic director.

"The Bolshoi is the Bolshoi," Russian Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi said. "This is much more than just a theater. It is a symbol of the country and a trademark of Russia. So of course I have a special interest in keeping the ballet and developing the opera and orchestra."



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