Christmas in ГУМ

This is the first time I use Cyrillic letters in the title of a post. I thought it was appropriate, because this three letters are so symbolic of the Soviet era and, by contrast, of what Russia is today.

First of all, ГУМ (GUM) is an interesting abbreviation. In the Soviet Union  there was no free market or free competition, so all department stores were state-owned and largely state-run and they were appropriately called “Государственный универсальный магазин” or simply “State Department Store”. The acronym GUM became so popular and recognised that even after the privatisation at the end of the Soviet it was renamed in such a fashion that it could maintain its old abbreviation and thus still be called GUM. This was achieved by replacing the first word Gosudarstvennyi (‘state’) with Glavnyi (‘main’), so that GUM is now an abbreviation for “Глáвный универсáльный магазѝн” or “Main Universal Store”.

The world’s most famous GUM is located in Chinatown. But not the Chinatown you are thinking about! It is next to the famous Red Square in Moscow, but already in a neighbourhood called “Китай-город“, literally: China Town. No one knows for sure where this name comes from. It is only certain that it has nothing to do with Chinese communities, as there never has been one living there.

Moscow’s GUM has a very rich history, dating back to when Catherine II of Russia commissioned Giacomo Quarenghi (an Italian Neoclassical architect  to design a huge trade center along the east side of Red Square. By the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the building contained some 1,200 stores. It continued to be used as a department store until Joseph Stalin converted it into office space in 1928 for the committee in charge of his first Five Year Plan. After reopening as a department store in 1953, the GUM became one of the few stores in the Soviet Union that did not have shortages of consumer goods, and the queues of shoppers were long, often extending entirely across Red Square.

Today Moscow’s GUM is, I think, a good symbol of Russian’s society and economy. Under the same, spectacular glass roof (GUM actually has a spectacular glass roof, this is not a metaphor! 😉 ) you can find top-of-the-line luxury brands (from Hermes to Gucci, to Vacheron Constantin to Brunello Cucinelli, to name just a few) and buy the finest Russian caviar at Gastronome No 1, but you can also buy exquisitely authentic Soviet ice cream cones for 50 Rubles (about 75 cents in EUR/USD) and GUM’s canteen (Stolovaya No 57) remains by far one of the most affordable places where to eat traditional Russian and Soviet specialities downtown Moscow. There is also a number of cafes with open vistas on the marvellous internal architecture of the complex, from second and third floors balconies and bridges, without spending more than two-three Euros/USDs for a cappuccino or a snack.

GUM is a place worth visiting more than one (not just to get ice cream every time!), but because it “dresses up” for every season. The most spectacular decorations are, of course, for Christmas and every year a different theme is carried out throughout the mall. The picture above is from a few years back, when the theme was the circus.

Would you like to visit Moscow iconic places and at the same time learn more about their history and where to get the best deals with a guide (me) speaking English, Italian, French and Spanish? Or would you like to go off the beaten track and discover the hidden gems of Russia? In any case do get in touch and we are happy to organise an unforgettable, tailor-made experience for you! 🙂



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