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If you had decorative carved mouldings covered in 3,000 square feet of gold leaf to clean, how would you do it?

The obvious answer, as when Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre was being given its final lick, is to use vodka for polish and a squirrel’s tail for a cloth. What else would befit this famous theatre, which is about to enter a new era after a six-year, £450-million renovation?

Some theatres look smaller on the outside than they really are. The Bolshoi is not one of them – Bolshoi literally means “big”. Once through the giant neo-classical portico, however, the auditorium is quite cosy. The most striking thing is that vast amount of gold. One Bolshoi dancer claimed that the overall impression was of a Turkish brothel. That was unkind – Turkish brothels, with all their fake marble, are trying to look like the Bolshoi, but end up seeming cheap and tawdry. Whereas the Bolshoi, with lots of real marble, just about carries it off.

This incarnation of the theatre has been here since 1856. Post-restoration, it looks almost exactly the same as then, helped by a stroke of luck – the Bolsheviks considered destroying the building after the Russian Revolution of 1917, but instead decided to use it for party meetings. The ballet and opera companies survived, the dancers in particular maintaining an international reputation for excellence. The hammer and sickle no longer appear on the theatre’s curtain, nor the building’s façade.

The Bolshoi Ballet is known for its perfectionism – even if it’s considered a bit stuffy. Yet signs indicate that the theatre may become more adventurous and avant-garde.

Daniel Sandford is the BBC’s Moscow correspondent. He grew up in Ethiopia, and was previously a Rome correspondent.

This article was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.

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