Drawing of the Bolshoi Theatre in Russia.
07 Sep 2021

The extraordinary story of fire protecting one of Russia´s largest antique monuments


The Bolshoi Theatre… More Than Love


In this article provided by our CTIF National Committee in Russia, we present the extensive fire safety work done on one of the country´s most  prestigious monuments; the Bolshoi Theatre. 

Text by Evgeny Doyan, Alexey Lezhnin
Photos by Vladimir Smolyakov, from the editorial office archive and free sources

Great history, great attention, great opportunities, great responsibility. The last one is no longer about the theatre, but about the firemen who have kept it safe from fire and other calamities for 85 years. And if you reflect on it, if you feel the coolth and awe that comes over everyone who finds themselves under those legendary domes, you will understand: the 86th Fire Department is definitely not an ordinary division.

"This facility is a cultural heritage of our country, its historical legacy, you can't get used to it, and each of us is aware of our personal responsibility," says Vladimir Sotskov, the Head of the Fire Prevention Section.

When you are in the historic building, you realize that this place is more than two centuries old. Here the coronation celebrations of Alexander II were held, and here Galina Vishnevskaya was excluded from the party. Emperors visited these foyers, and even now top public officials, diplomats and foreign delegations come here. It is not enough to know the structural features of the building - you always have to keep in mind the place you are in and the prestige of your work.

Technically, it is not just the Bolshoi Theatre that is under the protection of the 86th Division, but the complex of its main buildings, which include the four-story Khomyakov House as a service building on Petrovka street and two buildings in Kopievsky Lane: one is a seven-story administrative building, the other is an almost inconspicuous engineering building. There is a pump station that supplies the fire and service water-pipes, transformer and distribution electrical substations, air-ventilation chambers and a chiller plant that serve the Bolshoi Theatre complex that also includes the New Stage building of the Bolshoi Theatre on Bolshaya Dmitrovka street. In the historic building on its ten above-ground and five underground floors there is a space for two auditoriums, the orchestra pit, three large rehearsal halls and many big and small service rooms packed with cutting-edge fire protection systems.

Each of the buildings of the complex has its own entangled layout, its own cellar stores, its own features and fire risks.

The personnel of the 86th Fire Department protects all this splendor: monitors the compliance with fire safety requirements of each facility, provides fire safety during mass gathering events, conducts practical training on the forced evacuation of staff and spectators in case of fire, is engaged in fire preventive maintenance of the facility. But the first and foremost love of this division is, of course, the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre.


The interior of the Bolshoi Theatre in Russia.
The interior of the Bolshoi Theatre in Russia.


Through foul and fair

Paramilitary Fire Division for protection of the Bolshoi Theatre was founded on May 21, 1935. Since then, this division has been inextricably linked with the main classical scene of our country. Its fighters guarded the Bolshoi Theatre in the tragic days of 1941, when the enemy air forces dropped hundreds of incendiary bombs on the city bristling with anti-aircraft guns. Members of the fire division regularly extinguished the bombs on the theatre building and roofs of adjacent houses.

However, on October 28, 1941 a bomber broke through to Moscow and dropped a 500-kg high-explosive bomb on the Bolshoi Theatre, which flew between the columns under the portico pediment, broke through the facade wall and exploded in the foyer. The explosion caused considerable damage to the building, partially collapsing the wall of the main facade and foyer slabs, crashing the balustrade and the grand stairs steps. A paramilitary fire department fighter Yakov Tyunikov perished. The firefighters, who also were on duty, were engaged in combating the numerous fires that broke out at the scene of the explosion, preventing them from spreading further. The memory of the fallen Yakov Tyunikov is immortalized on the memorial plaque of the Bolshoi Theatre.


A cultural hearth

There are endless stories about the Bolshoi Theatre, but the stories about the fires at the Bolshoi Theatre are even longer. The only problem is that all the historical "tricks", details and zests have been thoroughly discussed, sifted and selected long time ago, and any retelling would be a nimiety of what has been learned.

It is known that on March 28, 1776, the provincial prosecutor Prince Pyotr Urusov, received the highest permission from Empress Catherine II to maintain  theatre performances of all kinds, including concerts and masquerades. However, the Prince did not succeed in the field of art, and he preferred to hand over responsibilities to an English entrepreneur Maddox, who built in 1780 the theatre, named by muscovites the Petrovsky Theatre.

After standing for a quarter of a century, however, the building burned down, and in 1808 talented architect Carlo Rossi constructed a new building for the theatre on Arbat Square, which was lost in the Moscow fire of 1812. The next attempt was made in 1825, again in Petrovskaya Square by architect Osip Bove (Joseph Bové). The result "astounded by its magnificence and grandiosity, and captivated the eye with the proportionality of the parts, in which lightness was united with grandeur". It was a brilliant project and a marvelous realization, but on March 11, 1853, the fire destroyed everything except the portico columns and a couple of bearing walls.

"After the fire accident, I went into the interior of the theatre to look at the auditorium. What a sad and majestic picture at the same time! It was a skeleton, but a skeleton of a giant, inspiring involuntary respect. These relics spoke loudly about past glory, about former greatness. It is said that the auditorium after the fire was very similar to the ruins of the Roman Colosseum..." wrote the  director of the Maly Theatre,  S.I. Solovyov. 

The fire that destroyed the capital's best theatre was the subject of a thorough investigation, but no significant details other than the fact that the hearth was found "in a closet by the staircase on the right side of the stage" were revealed. There was no fire department in the theatre. The fighters of the fire division arrived only during performances, sometimes staying there all night, but on days when there were no performances, and also in the morning hours only stage-workers and other servants of the Melpomene were there.

The new building of the Bolshoi Theatre, designed by Alberto Kavos, was built according to the principle "five years in three years" – it was necessary to catch up with the scheduled coronation of Alexander II. Nevertheless, Kavos did not just rebuild the theatre, he achieved perfect acoustic characteristics of the auditorium, changed the semicircle of its stage, increased the stage portal arch, deepened and expanded the orchestra pit.

In 1870, a huge chandelier appeared in the Bolshoi Theatre and became one of its symbols. The diameter of this three-tiered structure is 6.5 meters and its height is 8.5 meters. The weight of the construction, with gilded elements and tracery pendants is 2300 kg. Originally the chandelier of the main historical stage was a candle chandelier, then an oil chandelier, afterwards it was a gas chandelier and only in 1893 it became electric.

Kavos's brainchild became even larger and more monumental, its crimson-gold decoration astonishing the imagination of the most demanding public. All these silks, tapestries, chandeliers, mirrors and staircases, all these muses and graces... The public adored the extravagances and adored their Imperial Bolshoi Theatre, but on March 13, 1917 it became the State Bolshoi Theatre.

Lenin had his own view on the world around him. Lenin loved the cinema. So, he demanded of his fellow party members to close Bolshoi Theatre altogether, and when they disagreed with him, he achieved a reduction in the state loan for its upkeep. However, the Bolsheviks quickly learned to use the building's useful space for holding congresses and conventions. The theatre was given the title of an academic theatre, and the creation of the new country was announced from its stage.

One day it finally became clear that the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre was in urgent need of a full-scale reconstruction, that behind its architectural merits and artistic successes was a 70 percent deterioration of the building, that all engineering systems were obsolete and needed to be completely replaced, that further work was hardly possible because of shortage of premises and space. Stopped on the threshold of the new millennium, it had to be completely renewed - to die, to resuscitate and start another life.

For many decades, the Bolshoi Theatre has never ceased to delight, amaze, fascinate and lure. For many decades it has remained as pride and patrimony, as a horn and criterion. And for all these years, the personnel of 86th Fire Department was on guard of its well-being, of its incredible stage life.


The house is packed out… 

If one repair equals three fires, what does reconstruction equal? And what then do we say about reconstruction multiplied by restoration?

In 2005 the authors of the project faced a difficult task: to keep the historical appearance of the building as a monument of architecture, but to provide the theatre with new premises. Therefore, it was decided to carry out a thorough restoration of the auditorium and to perform a global reconstruction of the stage with the development of the underground space and its subsequent saturation with modern technological equipment.

In other words, it was necessary to add technical progress of our time and good prospects for the future to the greatness of the past. On the official website of the Bolshoi Theatre, it said quite epicly: "Every day more than three and a half thousand professionals worked on the building, about a thousand of them were restorers”.

The firefighters have their own "fond" memories of that time, because during the six years of restoration, anything could happen here. The very fact that the giant theatre building was elevated and put on temporary piles is half the battle. The fact that they dug a twenty-meter foundation pit under its stage part is also not a big deal. But a hundred thousand approved and monitored fireworks is a serious thing. And dozens of timely detected fires, liquidated immediately, are no joke too.

The theatre is a terribly complicated and troublesome "household": To the outside eye it is divided into a stage with makeup rooms and an auditorium with a checkroom. In reality, the theatre is its workshop, dressing rooms, assembly rooms, sewing rooms, props rooms, and other closets by the stairs, where there are always lots of people, fabrics, sawdust, paints, and creative clutter.

The Bolshoi Theatre has many times more of these things. One of its warehouse complexes, which is designed for the storage of scenery and props, is the largest in Europe. But you have to admit that the theatre is no ordinary theatre either. That's why the fire safety curtain here weighs 20 tons, and the hatch designed to release smoke from the stage weighs 70 tons.

And so it happens with everything here: if there is a fire warning system, it will have 9864 cutting-edge detectors, if there is a fire alarm system, it will have 1200 detectors, and if there is a water fire fighting system, it will have 580 fire hydrant cabinets and 4000 sprinkler irrigators and drencher sprinklers, moreover, one third of them protect the historic above-ground part of the theatre and belong to the high pressure water-pipe of fine spray water.

"It can be supplied at pressure of up to 140 atmospheres, so the output is very fine particles with a huge heat-absorbing capacity compared to ordinary water droplets," explains the Chief of the 86th Fire Department Vladimir Litvinov.

In addition, the main building of the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre is equipped with smoke exhaust systems, air overpressure, gas, sprinkler and drencher fire extinguishing systems. Finally, when the fire protection system is triggered, electromagnetic locks on the fire doors will automatically open and all 15 elevators will go to the evacuation floor.

"Previously all the spectators in the audience came through three central entrances. Now there are eight entrances, and evacuation is possible through 15 entrances. The issue of separating the flow of people during evacuations is extremely important in ensuring fire safety," explains the Chief of Department, emphasizing that training on forced evacuation of theatre workers and artists in case of fire is held twice a year.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the authors of the project was the revived sound. Thanks to the mastery of the architect Alberto Kavos, the Bolshoi Theatre was one of the best theatres in terms of its acoustics. However, due to the later emergency repairs and replacement of the engineering structures, the unique acoustics were lost. In the twenty-first century the sound was restored, but the wood returned along with it." 

A wooden soundboard in the orchestra pit structure, a wooden reflected ceiling above the auditorium, floor slabs, balconies, cantilever beams, and armchairs," the Chief of Department lists. – Also, to improve the acoustic characteristics of the auditorium we revetted the walls with acoustic fir panels.


Interior view of the Bolshoi Theatre in Russia

The fire load is very high, especially considering the hundreds of electrical appliances, kilometers of cables and other equipment.

There's nothing wrong with the fire protection. For example, all wooden floor elements were made fireproof.

"I personally took samples and tested them for flammability," says the Chef of Department, "it is a very high-quality treatment".

A separate and constant concern of the 86th Fire Department inspectors is the inspection and analysis of scenery. There are new theatricals and forgotten old ones, but if more than three months have passed since the last flammability inspection, it should be repeated. All samples of scenery of new or current repertoire are mercilessly burned by the division's staff to verify their compliance with the declared fire-hazard characteristics.

 Previously there were four premiere theatricals a year, but now the number has multiplied.

"And the scenery has become different too," says the Chief of Department.

"The era of papier-mâché is gone; now if you need a cabinet as the theatre set, you build a cabinet instead of drawing it; if you need a hall with columns, you build a hall; if you need a 1:1 scale railroad passenger coach, you build a natural-looking coach. This is where the problems arise, because volumetric and complex structures need to be quickly disassembled, moved, so the theatre sets must be light. But light materials are as usual flammable. Therefore all decorations undergo fire-resistant treatment"


The new life of the Bolshoi Theatre

The Bolshoi Theatre is always quintessential. From Apollo's quadriga on the pediment to the elite backstage squabbles, from the golden glitter of the Tsar's box to Schepkin and Chaliapin, Ulanova and Grigorovich, from its imperial status to two orders of Lenin, from «Life for the Tsar» to «Spartacus» and «The Nutcracker», from fires that destroyed it without pity to reconstruction worth 35 billion rubles. 

The project was realized: reborn from the dust of construction pits and the silence of the restoration workshops, the Bolshoi Theatre became part of our world filled with special effects, computer graphics, and electronics that control giant and small mechanisms with the precision with which nature controls the ebbs and floods. The Bolshoi Theatre has become a foremost part of the modern world.