Mention Moscow’s Red Square and rows of tanks and military parades might come to mind, not a world class shopping centre. Yet, along the eastern border of Red Square an intricate neo-Russian façade opens into GUM, a large shopping mall housing world famous brands including Dior, Prada, Hermes and Gucci.
The GUM Store History
Back in 1893, the three-storey building opened as The Upper Trading Rows. Walkways linked three long arcades lined with stores of varying size and prestige. In 1921, the building became The State Department Store and GUM (the acronym for the name in Russian) was born.
Stalin closed the store in 1930 in to house various governments departments and ministries in the building. According to local legend Stalin planned to demolish the building in 1930 and again in 1947 but fortunately never got around to it.
The building re-opened to the public in 1953 after undergoing restoration. Now privately owned, the shopping centre has a new name: The Main Universal Store, conveniently retaining the acronym GUM in Russian.
Entering the building, I’m blown away. Light filters through the glass ceiling, built to withstand heavy snow falls. There’s a feeling of openness. The cream interior made up of row upon row of arched shop windows contrasts with the ornate black wrought iron balustrades and wooden handrails.
I walk past the high-end fashion and accessory stores. They are mostly empty, their wares well out of reach of most of the tourists here today. One shop window displays a selection of old valve radios and an open suitcase containing a record player.
The display of large ornamental fruit and vegetables decorating the central fountain, a common meeting place, changes according to the season.
Tourists line up at little food stalls topped with red and white striped awnings to sample the famous GUM ice cream, buy specialist cheeses, cold meats or freshly baked biscuits.
These stalls are an extension of the vast Gastronome No 1, a delicatessen offering fine foods from across the world. This store has to be seen to be believed. It goes on and on with sections selling everything and anything necessary to prepare a gourmet meal. There’s a huge range of baked goods and wine from all over the world. Shelves of canned goods and cured meats reflect Russia’s Soviet past.
Attentive staff wearing white shirts and caps and maroon aprons offer their assistance at every turn, eager to explain and advise.
The different types of caviar and the range and prices confuse me. I want to eat caviar in Moscow, but how to choose? Red or black? Expensive or mid-range? Taking my guide’s advice, I select a little jar of not too expensive red caviar. Then I move on to the bakery where choosing the loaf of bread to accompany my caviar is almost as difficult.
At lunch time, I sit down on a bench outside the Cosmonaut Museum for my Russian caviar meal. The little round red salmon balls explode in my mouth, their salty fishy flavour tempered by the fresh chewy bread.
On GUM’s third level, people line up outside Stolovaya No 57, a Soviet canteen-style diner, another worthwhile Russian experience. Seeing the long queue, my husband needs persuasion. Twenty minutes later, we approach the counter.
Taking a tray, cutlery and paper serviette, we peer through the glass display cabinet at the range of plated foods on display. I serve myself, sticking with Russian fare – eggplant rolls, beetroot salad and meat filled blini and a frothy cappuccino.
My husband chooses potato pancakes and mushroom sauce. He agrees that the food and experience were worth the long wait. We follow the instruction on the sign on the table:
“Comrade, let’s have a deal: Clean your table after [your] meal!”
Returning to Red Square in the evening, lights strung up around the arches, windows and roofline of GUM create a fairy atmosphere. A clear contrast with the military parades which once (and occasionally still do) filled the square.
Enjoyed this insight into life in Russia? Then you may like to read about Russia’s darker history – about the Gulags (Labour Camps) here.
I was in Moscow in 1976 and remember GUM clearly. It was certainly a Very different experience. It was pretty empty Except for the occasion shop/stall that sold a random product eg butter, light bulbs. When news got out, there’d suddenly be a long queue waiting to buy.
I also visited a bread shop but it was a simple affair. You queued to choose, the you queued to pay at another counter and then after receiving a docket you queued to receive the goods. Again a very clear memory – the staff used to ones to open the cabinet and reached in with their hands to get the bread.
It was a beautiful building even then.
Thanks for a great memory
Thank you, Manuela for sharing your experience. How different Moscow was when you were there in 1976. I’d love to hear more about that trip. You would find things changed radically – there is so much money around (in Moscow anyway). We heard there were two Russia’s – Moscow being one and the rest of the country being the other.
Joanne, thanks so much for this delightfully informative experience! You’d be the best tourism writer… Your touch of humour is the froth on that cappaccino! I miss seeing you as we did on occasion in the Brookie CBD ;-(
Thanks Nancy. Perhaps as things open up we will catch up in passing – hopefully it won’t be too long.
Next year we hope to get to Moscow, we’ll have to put this place on our must do list. I do enjoy your. Thank you, Laurel
I do hope you get there, Laurel. I found myself enjoying reliving our trip as I wrote up the stories, and wanting to go back!
This too brought back memories of my trip back in 1974 & visiting the GUM department store.,.
I remember buying lots of ice creams there as we had a lot of money from selling jeans & there wasn’t much else to spend the money on,
I also recall thinking it unusual to have to pay at a different place – the lady serving didn’t handle the money which is probably now a great idea given what we are currently dealing with the COVID virus.
Thanks for refreshing my memories of my time in Russia with Contiki Tours.
Great memories, Chrissie. Thanks for sharing. I had heard about the selling jeans phenomenon but now I’ve ‘met’ someone who did.
Hello Joanna, I once visited Moscow on a day trip from London, when I was working for the BBC. It was ridiculous to fly there and back on one day. And we didn’t go to GUM. So I really enjoyed reading this article and when next in Moscow (might be a while!) I will go… to eat especially.
A one day trip sounds crazy, Seana. You’d find many changes should you return.