Founded in 1912 by the great clown and animal trainer Vladimir Durov, and still run today by his octogenarian great-granddaughter Natalia, the Durov Animal Theatre is a much-loved and genuinely unique Moscow institution that has been enchanting and amazing children for almost a century.
Eccentricity and a love of animals have been characteristic of the Durovs, an old noble family, since Nadezhda Durova ran away from home and disguised herself as a man to fight as a cavalry officer against the French in 1812. She became the first woman to be awarded the St. George's Cross, and her autobiography was championed by Pushkin himself. She was also famous for her love of animals, and the menagerie of pets and strays she kept at her country house. Her great grandsons, Vladimir and Anatoly, spurned their aristocratic roots to become the most famous circus performers in Russia in the early years of the last century. Anatoly concentrated on clowning and satire, while Vladimir turned his attention to animal taming, and developed a revolutionary technique that based the training of his charges on a system of rewards rather than punishments. He invested a huge amount of time into study of the movements of the different species he trained, and developed acts and tricks that exploited and extended the animals' natural behaviour. The technique was famously used to teach sea lions to "juggle" by working with the movement they use in the wild to toss and swallow fish.
Durov's principles are kept alive in the theatre today, where it is the proud boast that no handler has ever used a whip or a cane. Although modern attitudes to animal welfare may nonetheless condemn the use of bears, tigers and hippopotami for performances, there's no denying the obvious affection for the animals and concern for their well-being demonstrated by Natalia Durova and her co-workers. Equally commendable is the commitment, also established by Vladimir Durov, to keep theater tickets no more expensive than a loaf of bread. And, all that aside, it's a rare child that wouldn't thrill to see the chimpanzees' tea party, Fenya the monkey trying on hats or Tishka the raccoon doing her laundry.
The theater has a big and a small stage, and also a museum which charts the history of the theater, and contains a number of past performers preserved for posterity with sawdust. Particularly for younger children, the Durov Theatre is a genuine treat.
Address: 4, Ulitsa Durova, Moscow, 129090, Russia
Transport: Tram 7 from Prospekt Mira Metro Station or Bus 24 from Tsvetnoi Bulvar Metro Station