The Difference Between the Bolshoi and the Maly Theatres. Moscow is often called the Third Rome, and it’s a legendary city, a city of warriors, which has risen from ashes and dust multiple times. It boasts hundreds of historical sites, known both globally and only to a select few. Speaking of the world’s cultural heritage, two of Russia’s oldest and most renowned theatres, the Bolshoi and the Maly, rightfully belong to it. Interestingly, not all Muscovites know what sets the Bolshoi Theatre apart from the Maly Theatre. Is it just a matter of size? Let’s try to clarify this question.

Historical Background

Both theatres trace their roots back to the 18th century. The Maly Theatre, founded in 1756, was the first to appear. By the highest decree of Her Imperial Majesty Empress Elizabeth I: “…we command the establishment of a Russian theater for the performance of tragedies and comedies…” – the first acting troupe was created at Moscow State University, primarily composed of talented students. The current theatre building was officially opened in 1824.

The birth of the Bolshoi Theatre was delayed by exactly 20 years. In 1776, Prince Peter Vasilyevich Urusov received Empress Catherine II’s permission to construct this haven of Russian stage culture. The prince began building the theatre, which was opened with great pomp in 1780 (on Petrovka Street). The building has been reconstructed and even relocated multiple times. The theatre complex as we know it today has existed since 1825.

Both main architectural ensembles were created by different architects and, naturally, followed different designs. The Bolshoi was constructed based on Professor A. Mikhailov’s developments, partially supplemented by the architect O. Bove. Over its two centuries of history, it has been completed, rebuilt, and reconstructed many times but has largely retained its original appearance.

The Maly Theatre was overseen by architect A. F. Elkinsky, who adapted a merchant Vargin’s mansion for the theatre. The already-mentioned Mr. O. Bove was also involved in the project. His sketches formed the basis of the design. The theatre adopted its final appearance in 1838-40 under the guidance of the renowned Russian architect Konstantin Ton, a favorite of Tsar Nicholas I.

Almost immediately after their openings, both theatres determined their genre and the direction of their theatrical art. As a result, distinct internal structures were established.

The Bolshoi Theatre

Today, it’s a massive, monumental building with a recognizable facade known to nearly every Russian. After the last reconstruction, without losing an ounce of its historical beauty, the theatre was transformed into a modern structure incorporating all the latest technological advancements. The historical hall’s capacity is approximately 1800 people, and the troupe’s total number exceeds 900 artists.

The Bolshoi Theatre specializes exclusively in opera and ballet. While it has been remarkably successful in opera, its achievements in ballet are simply spectacular. The ballet of the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre of Russia (its official name) is rightly considered the best in the world.

The Bolshoi has given the world stars like Maya Plisetskaya, Ekaterina Maximova, Vladimir Vasiliev, Elena Obraztsova, and Ivan Kozlov, among others. There isn’t enough space on this page to list all the celebrities who have danced and sung on its stage.

We could continue describing the significance of Russia’s most legendary theatre, but to understand the difference between the Bolshoi and the Maly Theatres, it’s time to move on to the State Academic Maly Theatre of Russia.

The Maly Theatre

In terms of architectural scale and capacity, the Maly Theatre noticeably lags behind its “colleague” in the realm of performing arts. However, it is also highly popular.

The Maly Theatre specializes in drama. Over its more than two centuries of existence, it has staged probably all well-known dramatic works in human history.

Numerous talented actors and directors have worked within its walls. Just mentioning names like Ivan Ilinskiy, Elena Bystritskaya, Mikhail Zharkov, and many others is enough to understand the significance of this theatrical sanctuary for Russia.


Throughout their entire histories, these theatres have never had a single leadership. Although attempts were made during the Soviet era to unite the two beacons of cultural life under one umbrella, fortunately, it did not happen. The difference in each theatre’s “professional orientation” is still evident. Each theatre should be led by “specialists in their field.”

Today, the Bolshoi is led by V. G. Urin, an experienced administrator who has primarily worked in the field of music and dance, and possesses undeniable organizational talent. The Maly Theatre has been under the guidance of the talented leader and great actor Yu. M. Solomin for many years.