Russia says it cannot afford to restore Bolshoi Theatre

Considered to be among Russia's most precious cultural institutions, the Bolshoi closed last month for a renovation supposed to give its 19th-century building a sparkle to rival the Royal Opera House in London, and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

The magnificent 180-year-old colonnaded building is widely regarded to be falling apart and the planned renovation is major.

The stage will be revamped, the sumptuous six-tier auditorium refreshed, the foundations and walls strengthened, escalators and lifts installed and its cracked façade repaired. The price for the work was 25bn roubles (£500m) but German Gref, the Finance Minister, has said the government cannot afford that.

He has asked the Bolshoi management to find ways to get the work done more cheaply and has suggested they should be looking at a price closer to 9bn roubles.

At a time when Russia is wallowing in record oil receipts and ramping up its defence spending, his comments have met with disbelief. Nikita Shangin, the project's chief architect, said that he would not participate in the renovation if Mr Gref got his way.

"If it becomes clear that all we're going to get is a cosmetic facelift I'm pulling out," he told Russian media.

Anatoly Iskanov, the Bolshoi's general director, said the government was trying to cut corners that could not be cut. "The Bolshoi building does not conform to any modern standards. For example, fire safety. There is no fire-exit network. And what is more, the building is simply in a hazardous condition. That's why we closed the theatre. To be inside there is simply dangerous."

The renovation project has been planned since 1990.