Ashby Gaines (Russian Studies Program, College of William and Mary)
Vladimir Lenin once said, ‘Of all the arts, the most important for us is Cinema’. While this claim can be debated, The Aurora Theater has proven that cinema is a highly coveted art form in St. Petersburg. The Aurora Theater opened its doors under the name The Piccadilly Theater in 1913 and since then has been the oldest continuously operating movie theater of St. Petersburg. Located on the bustling Nevsky Prospekt, the theater epitomizes the spirit of Petersburg’s main street. In the late Imperial capital, the Nevsky served as a display for the goods of the new market economy, the place where all the existing classes and cultures came together to consume its commodities (Berman 193). The motion picture was the unusual Western product that the newly opened theater offered to Petersburgers from all walks of life. Although Lenin saw cinema as a primary tool of propaganda, Petersburg moviegoers never were just silent objects of the official film culture. Rather, they kept on negotiating a complex dialogic relationship with films they watched and turned The Aurora Theater into the place where Petersburgers of all walks of life enjoyed modern film culture.
The Theater’s location on Nevsky Prospket and its proximity to the Anichkov Palace immediately gave the Theater a sense of regality. Due to its central location, the Piccadilly became a symbol of convenience and luxury. Seats ranged from 35 kopecks to 1-5 rubles. The Theater was adorned with elaborate decorations which included mosaics, gold plated tiles, paintings, plaster casts, and giant Chinese vases. These vases were brought to Russia by the merchant who built the Theater. A fountain used to stand as a beautiful center piece to the theater.
When Bolsheviks took over the city, they decided to mark the beginning of the new era by changing the names of cities, streets, and even specific buildings. The Picaddilly Theater lost its original name too. In 1924, the authorities renamed the city from Petrograd into Leningrad. Previous to this, they had renamed the Nevsky into Avenue of the 25th of October, the day the Revolution took place. Around this time the workers wrote a letter to one of Leningrad newspapers asking to replace the incomprehensible name of the movie theater with one that celebrates the workers’ revolution (Ivaneev “Nazvanie” 18). In 1932 The Piccadilly Theater was renamed The Aurora Theater in order to commemorate the Battleship Aurora. The battleship became a symbol of the October Revolution after the release of Sergei Eisenstein’s October.
By changing the name of the theater from Piccadilly to Aurora the city authorities inscribed the official myth of the October Revolution into the map of the former imperial capital. On the main street, named after the key event in the history of the new society, there was no place for a movie theater named after a major street in London. Bolsheviks also tried to redefine the function of the street in the life of the city. Instead of being the center of the city’s commercial life, the street now had to be the center of the new utopian community of revolutionary proletarians. The movie theater, in accordance with Lenin’s vision, was supposed to convey the new ideology and education to the masses.
After the end of communism, many streets and attractions on Nevsky Prospekt regained their original names. However, The Aurora kept its new name. As the Theater’s manager Arina Arakelova told me during our interview, she likes this name; which evokes Roman mythology and captures the beauty of the Theater (Arakelova interview).
While the ideological significance that the Soviet authorities intended the name to carry does not mean much to the current management, they might be concerned with the brand recognition. After all, the name has been on the front wall of the theater for more than fifty years. Like the case with other Soviet-era brands, such as the newspaper Komsomolskaia Pravda, the leading Russian tabloid, or the Red October chocolate factory, the management keeps the communist brands for marketing rather than ideological purposes.
The Aurora survived and even thrived during the Soviet era despite the Bolsheviks’ initial hostility to the artistic production of the old regime. After the October Revolution, the authorities nationalized the Theater but following Lenin’s dictum on the importance of cinema for the propaganda of Marxism to the illiterate masses tried to use the theater’s screening room to promote their ideas. Propaganda films did not attract a lot of viewers and in the 1920s the theater also screened a lot of Western imports, among them The Thief of Baghdad (Dir. Raoul Walsh 1924) and The Nibelungs: Siegfried (Dir. Fritz Lang 1924) (Ivaneev 15). The Bolshevik rule at Smolny and in the Winter Palace did not mean automatic Marxist cinema’s rule on the Nevsky. At The Piccadilly mostly commercial cinema captivated the audience. Everyone (workers, peasants, former ruling classes) watched Hollywood and European melodramas and epics in one big screening room. Movie-goers of all walks of life united in front of the silver screen.
Under Stalin, the layout of the movie theater has changed. With the advent of the new Soviet elite, the bureaucratic class known as the nomenklatura, hierarchy and class division returned to the Soviet society. This Soviet quasi-feudal estate system found reflection in the layout of the movie theater. The administration decided to add an additional smaller and more luxurious screening room—the White Screening Hall. The city authorities adorned this new screening facility with the sculptures looted from aristocratic palaces. The sculptures still can be seen in the ‘VIP’ screening room in the Aurora along with elaborate chandeliers. The inscription on the chandeliers says that they were given to Nicholas I as a wedding present.
In the 1930s, the Theater came close to what in the US has been known as the movie palace. In 1936, Aurora doubled in size. In addition to the White Screening room, the theater acquired a concert hall, as well as a new foyer. The combination of the elaborate decor, cinema, and live entertainment enchanted the movie goers. Since films of the 1920’s and early 30’s were silent, the Aurora brought in musicians to bolster the experience of the movie goer. Renowned Russian performers, such as Klavdiia Shul’zhenko, performed in the concert hall of the Aurora in 1920s and 30s. The famous Dmitri Shostakovich played piano during silent films to earn extra money during his time as a student in St. Petersburg (Arakelova Interview, Ivaneev “Rasskazyvaet” 15)
An orchestra played in the foyer to welcome and entertain movie goers upon their arrival to the Theater. During the silent film screenings, the Theater used either the services of a pianist or at times of an entire symphony orchestra. On December 27, 1924 during the premiere of Lang’s Nibelungs (Part 1) the symphony orchestra performed excerpts from the works of Richard Wagner (Ivaneev 15).
The Theater remained a popular attraction even during the darkest days of the Siege of Leningrad. The Aurora was closed only during the first winter of the Siege and remained open for the rest of the war. On the one hand the government viewed the theater as part of their anti-Nazi propaganda campaign, on the other hand, the ordinary moviegoers wanted to escape the horrors of war during the screenings of popular genre films. Hence, the movie theater combined propaganda reels with commercial entertainment and by doing so preserved the role of the cinema as venue for modern commercial culture on the main street of Leningrad.
After the war, The Aurora screened a strange mixture of Soviet films, films sent to the Soviets by the allies and escapist comedies captured from the Nazis. Nazi films would not be advertised in the press. In addition, Nazi films would not have any credits. Instead of credits, an intertitle would open the picture: “This film was captured as a war trophy after the defeat of Fascist Germany by the Soviet Army in May 1945” (Ab “Etot” 31). In 1947, Soviets released the trophy film Die Frau Meiner Traume (Dir. Georg Jakoby 1944), which ended up to be most successful trophy film in the Soviet Union. German actress Marika Rokk became a cult actress among Soviet moviegoers. Ironically older Petersburgers in the foyer of The Aurora Theater still recollect this Nazi film screening as the brightest movie going memory of their youth (Ab “Avrora” 32)
By the 1990s The Aurora finally caught up with the digital revolution. The theater was the second in St. Petersburg to acquire the new Dolby Digital Sound equipment, which also included an impressive 100 square meter sound proof movie screen. Renowned Russian filmmaker, Nikita Mikhalkov, noted that The Aurora’s screening rooms have the best acoustics of any movie theater in Russia. Since Soviet times, the seating has been reduced from 800 to 600 seats in order to increase comfort for the movie goer. In addition to these improvements, the Theater opened two Cafes which serve refreshments and light snacks including the American-style pop-corn.
The Aurora is considered a first screen theater, which means it shows the newly released films. Most films are Hollywood products, which are usually dubbed into Russian. Occasionally films are screened in the original language of the picture with Russian subtitles. Currently, the Aurora Theater plays films to the diverse audiences circulating on the Nevsky: ranging from the locals of St. Petersburg to the international tourists from all over the world. In 2011 popular American films such as the Black Swan, Water for Elephants, and Harry Potter, played alongside Russian produced pictures. These Russian films included film adaptations, such as Anna Karenina and Master and Margarita. In addition to screening commercial films the theater targets more sophisticated audiences by occasionally screening experimental and international art films. The movie theater draws cinephiles through special events, such as film series and festivals.
Recently, the Aurora Theater has been hosting international film festivals including International Festival of Finnish Film, the Festival of Festivals, and most recently, the Kinoforum (The St.Petersburg International Film Forum). The Aurora participated in two programs organized within the framework of the Kinoforum: the “Competitive” program and the program titled “Relevant Cinema: Cinema Ready to Explode.”
Under the Festival’s Competitive program, the organizers screened “Best of the Best”–the films that have received major international awards in the past. New films by beginning film makers were also screened in the Competitive category. In the program “Relevant Cinema: Cinema ready to explode” the organizers showed films and documentaries dealing with the topics of global wars, insurgencies, and disasters.
Clip Promoting Kinoforum Programs
Giving us an interview in the middle of her busy screening and festival schedule, the theater’s Marketing Director, Arina Arakelova, remarks on Lenin’s quote, ‘‘What Lenin said was correct. Cinema was the most important of art form during his time- a time of mass illiteracy in the population, most people couldn’t even read’’, Arakelova went on further to say that cinema may have not been the most important art form of Soviet times or even in current times, but cinema reaches the most people of any art form. This a key point about The Aurora and the Nevsky: for Arakelova the moviegoer is the most important person. Of all components of the spectatorship experience the moviegoer matters most of all—Arakelova implies.
The success and current pristine condition of the Aurora Theater can be attributed to one thing- the movie goer. For a century, the movie goers of St. Petersburg have kept the Aurora alive through their patronage. The Aurora has had a loyal clientele base since it’s opening in 1913. Arakelova describes this loyalty, ‘’Multiplexes outside the historical downtown create competition for our Theater, but not much. Our Theater has survived with little assistance from the city government- we make all our own updates and restorations based off what the Theater grosses. The Aurora is a special place to experience cinema for our clientele.’’ The Theater’s iconic status and passionate staff allured movie goers in the past, just as it does today. One of these movie goers is Raisa Sergeevna Loginova, whom I interviewed in the Theater’s foyer after the screening of Hollywood comedy, Monte Karlo (Dir. Thomas Bezucha, 2011).
In her early seventies, Raisa Sergeevna is sharp, energetic, and at times a prankster. She continues to work and laughs at the idea of retirement. She was born in the little town, Dzerzhinsk, east of Moscow and has lived in St. Petersburg most of her life. To Raisa, cinema serves as an escape from the everyday ordeals of reality. Raisa started going to the movies when she was nine. She claims that movie-going was an essential part of her childhood and early teen experience, ‘‘At the age of 9 or 10, my friends and I would spend all day at the movies! Our fathers were killed in the War and our mothers worked all the time to support the family. The movies were like our babysitter!’’ She saw her first movie at The Aurora Theater in 1959. The palatial foyer of the downtown theater made a strong impression on the working class young woman. Raisa recollects the orchestra that used to fill the Theater’s foyer with music as well as some of her favorite actors of the time. Some of these actors include Russian actor- Innokentii Smoktunovskii and Russian actress- Natalia Kustinskaia. Raisa also discussed some of the films that mesmerized her in her youth and still do to this day. Her favorite movies include the legendary Anna Karenina (Dir. Alexander Zarkhi, 1967), and Liberation (Dir. Iurrii Ozerov, 1967-71) – a Russian war epic.
Raisa also recollects Gone with the Wind as the brightest moment of her youth. This however most likely is an aberration of Raisa’s memory. Gone with the Wind was released in the USSR in 1990 on the fiftieth anniversary of the epic’s original release. Raisa was among the Russians who benefited from Gorbachev’s policies and finally saw the famous Technicolor classic at the end of the Soviet era. It is most unlikely that she saw it in the fifties.
On July 6th, Raisa, her 17 year old granddaughter Natalia, and I made a trip to the Aurora to see the American Teen Idol, Selena Gomez’s new film Monte Carlo. Upon arriving to the Aurora, Raisa seemed to be captivated by the Theater’s alluring atmosphere. Arm in arm with her granddaughter, Raisa got some popcorn and marched giddily into the ‘VIP’ screening room. After the film was over, Raisa and her granddaughter settled into the foyer and recapped her experience with Aurora, “When watching Monte Karlo, I felt as though I actually went to Paris myself! It was very modern and close to actuality. I very much enjoyed the movie!” When asked about her opinion on Lenin’s idea that cinema is the most important of all the art forms, Raisa answered in her true-to-self outspoken fashion. She says, ‘’I agree! During our time, cinema was the most important! Back then, we could go to the movies or we could go dance to the orchestra music… now everyone watches everything at home and young people just sit in their apartments and smoke pipes!’’ She feels that people are more alienated nowadays and have few communal experiences where they get a chance to exchange their opinions and emotional reactions.
Raisa is not a big fan of the new but impersonal multiplexes in the vertical malls that mushroomed on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. She however enjoys going back to The Aurora on the Nevsky. She feels that this is the place where modernity and history intersect, local and global talk to each other. After the screening Raisa smiled and told me: “There is nothing to compare with The Aurora Theater.” At that moment I just did not pay attention to her words. Later I realized that she has just rephrased an opening line of Nikolai Gogol’s “Nevsky Prospekt”: “There is nothing better than the Nevsky Prospekt.”