The 1938 Rodina ("Motherland") cinema has huge pillars decorated with Soviet mosaics, Dec. 13, 2018..
The 1938 Rodina ("Motherland") cinema has huge pillars decorated with Soviet mosaics, Dec. 13, 2018..

MOSCOW - Scattered throughout the city's outlying neighborhoods, Moscow's Soviet-era cinemas have for decades served as the center 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 centers.

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 program 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.

Real estate company ADG Group bought 39 Soviet-built cinemas from the government and plans to turn them into what it calls "neighborhood centers."

'There is nothing there'

Grigory Pechersky, ADG Group's founder and co-director, said the majority of the cinemas were in "extremely poor" condition when his company bought them in 2014.

"Around half of them were closed since the 1990s," he told AFP in the group's central Moscow office.  

Pechersky said the project aims to "recreate the historical function of the cinemas, which is for residents to spend their free time comfortably."

Moscow's infrastructure in residential areas is limited, he said, and Muscovites tend to travel to the huge city's center for quality entertainment and shopping.  

"Those areas are very densely populated but in many cases there is nothing there," he said, adding that around 10 million people live between Moscow's two main beltways where the cinemas are located.

All but three of the cinemas will be completely torn down and rebuilt.

Pedestrians walk outside the 1938 Rodina ("Motherl
Pedestrians walk outside the 1938 Rodina ("Motherland") cinema in northern Moscow, Dec. 13, 2018.

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.  

'Little architectural value'

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 southern 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.

According to ADG Group, they have "little architectural value."

Soviet mosaics decorate huge pillars of the 1938 R
Soviet mosaics decorate huge pillars of the 1938 Rodina ("Motherland") cinema in northern Moscow, Dec. 13, 2018.

The company hired the British architectural firm run by Amanda Levete — who has worked on London's V&A Museum and Lisbon's MAAT contemporary art center — to design a concept for the new cinemas.

The group's main architect Alexei Belyakov said the cinemas will be reconstructed in a similar style, to form a recognizable "network" across the far-flung districts.

In drawings seen by AFP, they will all have a glass front and will be considerably larger, to make room for retail space and cafes.

All they will retain is the logos of their original names — taken from cities and rivers of the Soviet Union, planets, mountains and precious stones.

Belyakov said that while the cinemas "were built in the spirit of the time, they are not practical anymore."  

'Our favorite cinema'

But many Moscow architects disagree.

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.

A view of the 1938 Rodina ("Motherland") cinema, a
A view of the 1938 Rodina ("Motherland") cinema, a Stalinist landmark in northern Moscow with huge pillars decorated with Soviet mosaics, Dec. 13, 2018.

He said some of the cinemas began "dying out" when people increasingly started to travel to the city center 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.  

"But this is our favorite cinema. Nobody asked the residents," Likhachev said. "By reconstruction they actually mean demolition. They are calling it a 'neighborhood center', but it will in fact be another banal shopping center."  

Activist Pyotr Ivanov said the problem with the plan was that it assumed each neighborhood where the cinemas are based had the same needs.

"All of them are different. You could only make universal decisions like that in a command economy like the Soviet Union," he said.

A view inside the 1938 Rodina ("Motherland") cinem
A view inside the 1938 Rodina ("Motherland") cinema, Dec. 13, 2018.

Two Metro stations away from Almaz, residents have also been fighting to preserve the Ulaanbaatar, named after the capital of once Soviet-friendly Mongolia.

Another of the movie theaters, the Baku Cinema in northwestern Moscow, has served as a community center for the Azerbaijani diaspora since the Soviet era.

ADG Group's Belyakov brushed aside criticism, saying it was important for the Russian capital to look to the future.

"Moscow is moving forward," he said.