A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
25 November 2013
This Soviet-era circus is one of the most eye-catching buildings in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau. Closed for repairs in 2004, the circus has remained out of use since. However, while this dilapidated building may give the impression of a faded monument to a forgotten regime, a deeper exploration of both the building and its history would suggest that the Chisinau Circus is not as dead as it seems – but rather, merely sleeping.
Clowns, Bears & The Fall of the Soviet Union
Moldova’s Chisinau Circus was built in 1981, back when the nation was known as the ‘Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic’ under the USSR. Designed by architects S. Shoikhet and A. Kirichenko, it would stay open for the next 23 years – entertaining crowds in the Moldovan capital with a cast of clowns, trapeze artists, bears, lions and elephants.
In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, and the newly independent Republic of Moldova fell into an economic crisis. In 1992, a costly war against the breakaway state of Transnistria did little to help soaring rates of inflation. In 1993, Moldova finally saw the introduction of its own currency, the Moldovan Leu: replacing the temporary currency of ‘Cupons’ which had bridged the gap following the use of Soviet Rubles in Moldova. In these early years of independence the market was in freefall and in time Moldova would become known as the poorest country in Europe.
Nowadays just a drive through the hills and valleys of Moldova will reveal a landscape littered with abandoned factories, faded monuments and numerous towns that seem largely left to ruin; the turn of the twenty-first century may have welcomed in a steady economic growth, but the country still bears the scars of past hardships. It is interesting to note however, that despite the poverty which gripped Moldova throughout the 1990s (and unlike all the other industries which crumbled into ruin during those years), the grandiose Chisinau Circus never closed its doors.
Circuses were an important venue for entertainment in the Soviet Union. The Moscow State Circus was nationalised in 1919, later to be managed by the specially formed ‘Centralised Circus Administration’ (or ‘Soyuzgoscirk’). From 1929 onwards performers were formally trained at the Moscow Circus School, a state-run facility dedicated to promoting circus and performance skills. It was the first of its kind anywhere in the world.
Circus artists were able to enjoy many lifestyle benefits courtesy of the state, such as childcare, maternity leave, travel privileges, superior housing and improved retirement packages. It was a hard life, by all accounts – up to 20 hours of physical circus training per week – but the benefits put performers on a lifestyle par with government officials and other Soviet elite.
In 1956 the Moscow State Circus made its first tour of London and Paris; later touring the US as well, to gain huge popularity. While its Western counterparts tended to focus more on daredevil stunts and stand-alone set-pieces, the Soviet tradition was interwoven with Eastern European culture, dance, and performances were typically driven by one continuous storyline. This novel, exotic approach was a big hit with audiences in the West; and successes overseas only bolstered the USSR’s pride in its circus traditions, cementing these venues as a cornerstone of Soviet culture.
Perhaps this cultural significance explains why Chisinau Circus was kept in operation so long, even when other industries were failing in this threadbare nation. Even following independence, Moldova maintained close ties with Mother Russia – the Russian language is still widely spoken here – and it could be that the national circus offered a reminder of life and values in the days of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. For many during the early days of the independent Republic of Moldova, the Soviet years may well have felt preferable.
Whatever the case, Moldova’s national circus in Chisinau was to outlive the Soviet Union by 13 years. It wasn’t until 2004 that the venue was closed for extensive repair work… and it simply never reopened.
Fast forward through another nine years of decay and neglect, and cue my arrival in Chisinau in the summer of 2013.
Into the Ring
The circus stands back from a main road, alone in paved courtyard now crumbling and giving way to weeds. The brutalist design of the building, its triangular prows and sharply angled dome, gave the impression of a vast stone crown. Above the sealed entrance, a metal crest is formed by the dancing figures of two clowns; one of them now missing a head. Some local youths were posing by the circus with a blue, yellow and red Moldovan flag which billowed in the wind. We asked them about entry to the building, but they said it was impossible: the circus closed a long time ago.
Five minutes later, I was inside.
In the main foyer I was careful to stay away from the tall glass windows that faced down to the boulevard; though perhaps I needn’t have bothered, for all the dust and grime that had accumulated over the space of nine years of closure. The main entrance was blocked and barred, red Coca-cola stickers on the window glowing bright as the afternoon light filtered through. On either side, opulent staircases wound upwards to the higher floors.
Every detail of the interior was decked out in fine and lustrous fittings, from the marble floors to the surreally elegant lighting features which illustrated the socialist architectural style at its most dramatic. Set in the heart of the foyer was a wooden counter where patrons would have left their coats and jackets – the clothing racks and hangers spread out behind the desk in a strangely mesmeric pattern of symmetrical hooks and bars.
I hopped over the desk, opening a small wooden hatch in the wall behind. Ducking under the low lintel, I found myself in an engine room – a rusted staircase led down to a lower floor, where turbines like jet engines lined one wall and the concrete floor was littered with broken chairs and mismatched sections of long disused ducts.
Heading back up, in one corner of the foyer I found the ticket desk – a series of small windows set in a wood-panelled frame. Above it read the word “CASELE”, with a string of posters for performances once held here; clowns, elephants, acrobats and bears all featured in the faded designs. A string of smaller rooms led off from here, working their way back to the staff areas situated behind the main circus building. Most were filled with the collected litter of almost a decade, with signs of inhabitancy and the musty smell of damp and decay.
I could have spent longer exploring these dressing rooms, store cupboards and utility corridors, but I was eager to see the main attraction; and so I headed back out to the foyer, eager to find an entrance to the ring itself.
The broad staircases with their polished wooden rails, marble-effect steps, twisted outwards and around following the natural contours of the building; their extravagant design gave the impression of leaning inwards, as if warped by the centrifugal force. From the first floor looking down, I was able to make out a large design in the marble approach to the foyer – a mural of a dancing chimpanzee, largely obscured now by the dust and grime.
I was just stepping off the staircase onto the first floor balcony when I heard the noises, causing me to duck and run for the nearest doorway. I waited a few moments here, hidden in the shadows leading into a cluttered storeroom, waiting as the two voices approached. That’s when I realised they were speaking German.
Reassured that I wasn’t being pursued by security, I decided to go and make friends. The pair turned out to be a father and son, both armed with cameras and just as fascinated as I was by this grandiose state monument fallen to decay. We chatted for a while – comparing notes, comparing cameras, the two of them recommending a list of places for me to visit around Berlin – before I made my farewells, and stepped into the circus ring.
Placed centrally on the grand first floor landing, flanked by colourful murals of circus performers, wild animals and mythical creatures, a square wooden passage led into the heart of the circus. Stepping through the polished portal I came face to face with the ring itself: a padded circle surrounded by a barrier of white washed brick, tiered seating rising up on all sides. The stillness of the dusty ring seemed so far removed from its original purpose, as to give the whole scene a dreamlike quality. The empty seats, fading into darkness above, still somehow heavy with the murmurs of a long-departed crowd.
I stepped into the ring itself, spent a few moments admiring the view from the very centre. This would have been a majestic venue when in use, its simple, bold designs and twisted symmetry encapsulating everything that was good and powerful about the brutalist architectural movement.
Crossing to the far side of the arena, now at the rear of the circus building, a broad corridor fed into the ring from the darkness beyond. This would have been the stage entrance, then; I followed the passage deeper into the bowels of the circus.
Here and there doors opened up from either side of the corridor, leading to bare concrete rooms, hard wooden floors lit either by small windows near the ceiling – or not at all. I guessed I was standing in cells once occupied by the brown bears who would dance and spin hula-hoops, juggling or riding bicycles around the ring. Was I imagining the faint musty smell of animals, almost imperceptible from the damp odours that clung to the rest of the decayed circus? Impossible to say.
At the far end of the passage the darkness lay thick about, and I was forced to pull out my torch as I explored. There was graffiti in places, Russian characters scratched deep into the plaster work. In one corner I pushed open a door, onto a bright, white-washed corridor which led upwards: up to the top floor of the circus building, to the dressing rooms and manager’s office. Taking one last, long look at ring – that same square of distant light which had once beckoned performers to the stage – I made my way up the creaking stairs.
Inside the Crown
While the lower levels of the circus had felt dark and ominous, the higher I climbed the more bright and spacious my surroundings felt. At the top of the wooden stairs, passing through a corridor of crumbling white plaster, I came at last into a dressing room on the top floor.
A couple of broken, full-length mirrors lay propped against one wall while a cluster of work benches and desks had apparently been repurposed as an art studio. Here and there the walls had been used as a canvas, with blobs of paint and graffiti tags smeared over plaster, doors and across the faded faces of elephants peering out of old show posters. The room beyond was a bathroom; a tall, tiled space set right beneath the triangular eaves of the outer frame. A floor to ceiling window had been smashed, so that I was able to look down over the edge at the courtyard far below.
Another room here looked as though it had once served as an office: a broken desk and sheaves of old paper scattered to lie across the floor.
The rooms fed into a circular corridor that wound around the top of the crown. Chunky concrete bulkheads jutted out at each intersection, the outer walls in between broken up by a series of windows set with thick, bathroom glass.
Around a quarter of the way around the structure I came across the remains of a piano… the soundboard was leant up against the white plaster wall, its polished wood offering the only splash of colour in an otherwise bleached corridor. I scraped a coin across the strings and the mournful cascade rang out loud and clear, producing an eerie echo in the confined space.
Doorways were placed at regular intervals along my circular route, opening inwards to more rooms and store cupboards, or meeting staircases that descended back into the darkness. I stopped at one door, a wooden frame which seemed to look out over a void. As I stepped through the opening and my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I found myself on a metal gantry raised high above the circus ring.
There were old cables scattered about, rusted ladders and rigging. It looked like the platform was designed to allow technicians access to the stage lights and canopy. It’s possible that this vantage point also served a purpose in the aerial trapeze acts for which Soviet circuses were so famous. Rather than leave by the staircase, I decided it would be more interesting to climb down the metal scaffold, over the side of this platform and back to the seating below.
According to official specifications, the Chisinau Circus features seating for up to 1,900 spectators; the arena has a diameter of 13 metres, while the dome above is designed to be detachable for summer performances. I took a seat in the upper gallery, and spent a while just soaking up the atmosphere as I looked down on the ring below. In places such as this, it often isn’t hard to picture the building in use and full of life. While the bustle and chatter of people comes to mind easily enough however, I was trying to see this ring as it had been just under a decade ago – a confusion of fire and lights and exotic performing animals.
In 2008, four years after the initial closure, a Cypriot company took up the lease on the property. They reserved ownership of the circus for a period of 29 years, vowing to renovate the structure and return it to use. By 2011 they had made no progress however, and the Moldovan government was impatient to see results.
The Prosecutor General filed a civil lawsuit against the firm for failure to deliver on their commitments. It passed, and on 31st March the contract was annulled by the Economic Court of Appeals. Now, Moldova’s Ministry of Culture is keen to see the circus operational again at any cost. According to one source within the country, artists are already rehearsing for a grand reopening performance – and the event will go ahead even before the building has been fully renovated.
I wish them all the best. Chisinau’s circus is a building quite unlike any I’ve explored before, and such a grand, elaborate monument to an inseparable thread of Moldovan heritage deserves to be seen and appreciated by the flocking crowds it was once built to accommodate.
On my way out of the circus I stopped to admire a finely detailed sculpture hung in the arch above a stairwell; a youth dressed in a jester’s motley rode a pig headlong through an ambush of tigers, while an elephant and a monkey performed tricks behind him to the fanfare of trumpets and a fluttering of flags. The two lowest creatures, those within arm’s reach, had sadly been defaced by vandals; it gave the illusion of bodies spilling out of the picture, only to crumble and fall to dust on touching reality.
I was startled from my thoughts when a sudden, loud crash rang out through the foyer… then moments later a second and a third. Discretely moving on towards the exit, I heard the sounds again for what they were: the sound of construction and repair work, echoing out from one of the internal chambers of the circus.
The unmistakable sound of progress.
Update – December 2014
After this article was shared on Reddit, one of the comments posted in response came from a user named ivanpomedorov. Ivan grew up in Chisinau, and he shared a link to some family photos taken at the circus back in 1985, 1989 and 1990. For me, it was fascinating to get even a small glimpse of this place while it was still in use – so I’m sharing the link here, for the benefit of anyone else who might be interested.