Moscow GUM was one of those places where I, a naive girl from a small Russian town, was genuinely afraid to step in on my first visit to the capital. I was ten and the concept of a shopping mall was new to me. When I needed a new blouse or winter boots for the upcoming school year my parents usually took me to the Chinese market — rows of sellers under the open sky offering cheap clothes made… you guessed it, in China. Bargaining not only acceptable, but encouraged.
GUM essentially also represents rows of sellers — its first name in fact was the Upper Trading Rows when it opened in the beginning of XIX century — only now the sellers include brands like Gucci, Dior, and Manolo Blahnik. Why would I ever step inside? I did, however, every time I visited Moscow. Partly, because it’s right there, staring at you when you walk on the Red Square, as you always do when in Moscow. Partly, because it’s not your regular shopping mall, it’s an integral part of the history of Moscow and Russia.
The History of Moscow GUM
Built in 1893 on the site of wooden trading rows, GUM was the largest passage in Europe at the time. It wasn’t called GUM, though. That name came to life only after the Russian revolution of 1917. Back in 1893 it was referred to as the Upper Trading Rows. The Rows were designed in neo-russian style by architect Alexandr Pomerantsev and engineer Vladimir Shukhov who were inspired by the covered shopping streets of Paris. All the works, including the facade extending for almost 800 ft (242 m) and the mesmerizing glass ceiling, a firm construction supported by 50 000 metal pods, were completed within four years.
The Upper Trading Rows featured their own power plant and artesian well, wholesale trade in the basement, telegraph and bank offices, restaurants, salons, and stores of popular at the time brands. According to GUM’s website,
“It was a city, a perfect city of Russian merchant capitalism offering silk and brocade fabrics from Sapozhnikov brothers (6 Grand Prix at the World Exhibition), Mikhail Kalashnikov watches (Leo Tolstoy & Pyotr Tchaikovsky bought Patek Philippe watches in his shop), pastry of Abrikosovs (suppliers of the Imperial Court with the right to print the national emblem on the boxes), Brocard perfumery (another supplier of the Imperial Court as well as the official supplier of the Spanish royal court), and so on.”
By 1917, the Upper Trading Rows boasted some 1200 stores. Despite their success, after the Russian revolution all the stores were closed and goods confiscated. The rows reopened four years later, upon the signing of “Regulations on the State Department Store” by Lenin in 1921. Thus, the Upper Trading Rows were nationalized and the new name was introduced to the public. In Russian, State Department Store sounds like Gosudarstvenniy Universalniy Magazin, or GUM for short.
GUM was closed once again in 1930 on the orders of Joseph Stalin to create office space for the committee in charge of the first Five Year Plan. Stalin was going to demolish the building twice in order to widen the Red Square, in 1935 and 1947, but never executed those plans. After his death in 1953, GUM was renovated and reopened to public.
During the rule of Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, who worked on decreasing tensions between Soviet Union and the Western world, reducing the military budget, and opening the borders to economic reforms and international trade, GUM became one of the symbols of the new era, later called Khrushchev’s Thaw.
In the 1990s with the collapse of Soviet Union, GUM was privatized, and partially renamed to maintain the historic abbreviation. The word “Gosudarstvenniy” (“State”) was replaced with “Glavniy” (“Main”). No one seems to have noticed the change of the name, though, as GUM is still GUM all those years later.
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As Moscow is always my transition when I travel to and from home, I found myself wandering around Red Square and, eventually, GUM many more times since that first visit at ten years old.
The closer I got to that “sweet” age of late teens, when all you want is to be cool and very much like everyone else, the more vulnerable I felt inside, knowing full well I’ll never be able to afford anything. It was a kind of exercise in sadism to meet the eye of shop assistants in luxurious boutique shops, who surely knew I was broke as hell.
It took another decade for me to learn how to feel comfortable in GUM. Not that I can afford a Gucci bag or Manolo Blahnik shoes now, I just realized that 98% of people inside GUM cannot afford to buy anything, just like me.
Leave shopping in GUM for the rich and famous of this world. Instead, come here to eat. Surprisingly for a fancy shopping mall located smack in the heart of Moscow, GUM has a few affordable options.
Stolovaya №57 is a Soviet-style canteen on the third level of GUM, with all accompanying attributes like long line, fierce unsmiling serving staff, and mayo-filled salads. Perfect pit-stop for “pervoye, vtoroye and kompot” (“the soup, the main dish, and compote”) after a morning exploring Kremlin and Red Square.
While it is the novelty of Soviet service and food, although recreated, that brings tourists here, the locals are drawn in by nostalgia. How I personally can feel nostalgia for Soviet times, as I was three years old when USSR collapsed, is a mystery. My passport, though, states my place of birth as USSR, a country that doesn’t exist anymore. Once a Soviet, always a Soviet? Despite the long line and hit-or-miss food, I like stolovaya in GUM. Soups and salads are great, as are the baked goods. The main dishes leave a lot to be desired. Kompot is on point. But the best thing of all, it’s affordable.
For a foreigner, stolovaya is a great way to immerse oneself into Soviet past: walk the line with a tray in hands, be hurried by serving ladies to move along, and bus the table after lunch as the poster on the wall reminds: “Comrade, let us have a deal: clean your table after meal”.
GUM Ice Cream
It’s not just ice cream. It’s the ice cream. The legendary GUM ice cream in a waffle cup. They claim, until this day the ice cream is handmade according to the 1954 recipe with no artificial flavors or colors.
Back in 1954, the ice cream was prepared in accordance with GOST standards. GOST stands for “GOsudarstvenniy STandart” (state standard) that was developed in Soviet Union and used only for the products of the highest quality. Such tremendous respect and trust the acronym has in Russia, that anything labeled GOST sells “like hot pies”, as Russians say.
GUM ice cream was the most sought after ice cream in Soviet Union with flavors like crème brûlée, vanilla, and chocolate. Today, the ice cream stalls on the ground floor of GUM feature some additional fancier flavors like pistachio, cherry, and melon. What you have to try, though, is plombir which has a much higher fat content and no flavors. It’s not vanilla, but rather just sweetened cream, somewhat like fior di latte gelato in Italy. The price is 50 rubles, a bit less than $1.
Not particularly affordable, Gastronome №1, nevertheless, is an amusement park for food lovers and Soviet era aficionados. Treat it as a museum visit: walk around awe-struck by the chandeliers (seriously, chandeliers at a grocery store?) and explore the many extinct products popular in Soviet Union like “Tree Slona” (“Three Elephants”) tea, birch tree juice (yes, it literally is juice from a tree), and bird’s milk candies (no, there’s no actual bird’s milk there).
The gastronomy store was set up in the first line of GUM in 1953, after the death of Stalin. Gastronome, as it was referred to by locals, boasted marble counters, exquisite chandeliers and windows overlooking Red Square.
Unlike many food stores around the country, Gastronome was synonymous with abundance, imported products, and scarce goods. The lines formed around the store and out to Red Square.
In its original state, the store lived until 1990 when it was closed down. In 2008, Gastronome №1, an almost exact copy of Gastronome was opened in GUM’s third line. Although it offers Soviet classics to bring back nostalgia for the good old times, Gastronome №1 is there to satisfy customers with some seriously deep pockets. Next to the old-school tins of sprats and sardines you’ll find fresh oysters, live crabs from Kamchatka, and caviar. Next to Stolichnaya vodka — European wines, autographed by their creators. You can however get a few candy bars, a jar of vareniye, and Tulskiy pryanik without giving a leg and an arm.
One interesting fact to confuse you: in Soviet Union, Gastonome was the grocery store in GUM, but Gastronome №1 (its current name) was how people referred to Eliseevsky store on Tverskaya street, the store I personally call the palace of grocery stores.
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Throughout its history, GUM has always been a barometer of where our country was heading. After the bloodiest revolution of 1917 it was closed down, but reopened once Lenin decided to take course of New Economic Policy. During the dictatorship years of Stalin GUM was almost demolished twice, yet became stronger and more popular than ever with the start of Khrushchev’s Thaw. Every turn of history brought new twists to the destiny of GUM.
Right now the famous department store is on the crossroads of being a popular cultural attraction for tourists and a mecca for rich and famous to buy their daily ration of Gucci and Dior. It’s a welcoming place for everyone: whether you want to shop like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman or buy a $1 waffle cup of plombir. I’d argue the latter is more enjoyable.
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