The GUM is a masterpiece of architecture, as well as a shopping centre. Here is the story of how a street market across from the Kremlin wall became a sublime emporium, the GUM.
Brisk street trade thrived in the plaza by the Kremlin wall since time immemorial. The place was a busy marketplace as far back as the 16th century. Originally, only ambulant pack-peddlers were allowed, but eventually, stalls sprang up. Once, after Moscow had been ravaged by a particularly devastating fire, Ivan III had new rows of stalls built to arrange the trading in a more orderly fashion. The new stalls, also built from wood, lasted until Tsar Boris Godunov had them rebuilt in stone. The Upper Trading Rows were built between the streets of Ilyinka and Nikolskaya, the Middle Rows stretched between Ilyinka and Varvarka, and the Lower Rows were located in the space between Varvarka and Mytny Dvor.
Those new structures were no longer merely rows of stalls or shops — they took up entire blocks and they sold everything, from rare books to velvet and brocade fabrics.
The sprawling market grounds continued to swell as time went by, until authorities once again moved in to bring the place up to date. Catherine II of Russia commissioned Giacomo Quarenghi to design a new building to house the trading rows. Quarenghi had the Upper Rows frontage altered, adding a second floor and a massive portico. However, the construction was coming along too slowly. During the 1812 Franco-Russian War, the buildings adjacent to the Kremlin burnt down and had to be built back from scratch.
Joseph Bove was commissioned to design and oversee the reconstruction. The elegant new building of the trading rows faced Red Square and the adjacent Nikolskaya and Varvarka streets in a semblance of the Russian letter 'Г' ('G'), which earned it the alias 'Glagoli' — the name of the letter in the Russian alphabet. Another renovation was in order as the building was found to be in a bad state of disrepair fifty years later. But there was the rub: the trading outlets inside the Upper Rows belonged not to one but to a multitude of different shopkeepers. The authorities spent about twenty years negotiating the terms of reconstruction with them, but no general consensus was in sight. In the meantime, the buildings continued to fall apart. Eventually, Moscow Mayor Nikolai Alexeyev ordered the unsafe building closed, and set the wheels in motion for a new building to replace it.
The architectural tender for a new Upper Trading Rows building was announced on 27 November 1888. Out of the 23 entries submitted, the design by Alexander Pomerantsev was selected as the winner. The construction was completed with incredible alacrity — in just four years. The new Upper Trading Rows opened on 14 December 1893. The opening ceremony was attended by the Governor-General of Moscow Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich and his wife Elizabeth Fyodorovna.
Europe had never seen anything like this three-storey stone building or, more precisely, 16 buildings linked by passages, with gazebos in the Russian style, arcades and an imposing glazed dome on top. Some historians contend that the building was in fact designed by the legendary engineer Shukhov, creator of the famous tower that bears his name, but there is no evidence to back this claim. The vaulted glass structure was a massive innovation. The glass cover, resting on steel trusses, spanned a huge space. In addition to its other benefits, this engineering solution solved the problem of lighting such a big space during the day: natural daylight took care of it. Surprising as it may seem, a few dozen original shop structures have survived to this day.
The new Upper Trading Rows were like its own city inside Moscow with its own electric power plant and artesian well, a telegraph office, a bank, an atelier and a few restaurants. But at least the new building fit in well with the rest of the Red Square complex.
The stalls were out, replaced by boutiques. There were more than three hundred departments overall in the new department store. The top floors were reserved for retail while wholesale trading was confined to the basement. The new shopping centre soon transformed into a high society hangout. Moscow's ladies of fashion would flock here to attend musical evenings and art shows, as well as shop for dress fabric or a handbag.
It was here, in close proximity to the Kremlin, that shops pioneered selling at fixed prices. Those who disliked the service were welcome to leave a complaint in the complaints log. Porters would haul heaps of wrapped-up purchases to the horse-drawn coaches.
The Upper Trading Rows were closed during the 1917 Revolution. The People's Commissariat for Food moved in, sharing the premises with a warehouse for requisitioned property. The top floors were converted to communal housing. The GUM Department Store we know did not open until the 1920s. Vladimir Mayakovsky's line was printed on a contemporary GUM advert: 'To the GUM, Komsomol members!' But the new GUM did not last either. Some Soviet ministries took over the building in the 1930s and 1940s. The first row was converted to an office for Lavrentiy Beria.
Soviet authorities seriously considered pulling the building down several times. At one point, a Victory Memorial was planned in its place. The choice of replacement made sense. Firstly, the Victory Parade had taken place in Red Square, and secondly, radio announcer Yury Levitan had broadcast the tidings of a victorious end to the Great Patriotic War from the radio studio right behind the GUM. But those plans were never meant to be.
The Soviet Union's No. 1 department store finally reopened on 24 December 1953. And it has never closed since. The GUM is perennially abuzz with fashion shows and concerts; the latest fashion collections by Russian and international designer brands grace its luminous windows. And, last but not least, the tradition of dating by the fountain is as alive as it was years and decades ago.
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