The Helikon is a Moscow opera theatre, an elegant, pastel-green mansion dating back to the 18th century in the very heart of the city. As might be expected of an opera house, it exudes dignity and grandeur – or at least it did until it was covered up in green tarpaulin, and major renovation work started. It is these renovations that have made the theatre the centre of a bitter battle that has divided the Russian capital's artistic community and led the two sides to accuse each other of being vandals and extremists.
After a changing of the guard in Moscow's political scene, the row over the reconstruction has suddenly become a political and cultural test for the city's aesthetes – as well as for its new mayor, who faces a decision that will shape his cultural agenda barely three months into the job.
On one side of the battle lines is the Helikon, a young dynamic opera company that is regarded as one of the best in Russia. On the other side is Arkhnadzor, a group of architectural preservationists who have often been seen as the lone voices of protest as some of Moscow's heritage has been destroyed in recent years.
The Helikon company had planned for years to renovate its theatre complex, adding a big stage to the tiny 200-seat theatre it had previously used. Work finally got underway on the project two years ago, but in September, the Kremlin fired Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow's controversial mayor of 18 years. Almost immediately, the interim government suspended the work along with other Luzhkov-era projects, saying it needed time to decide on the objections.