Moscow store clings to past, looks to future Like society, GUM is study in contrasts

October 04, 1992|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW — Moscow--Moscow's biggest department store rises in worn splendor along one side of Red Square, holding within its sandstone walls a small-scale version of the increasing polarization of this post-communist society.

Crowds of people push through the cavernous halls of the State Department Store, known by its Russian initials as GUM, but few are buying. Shelves are stocked, but only in extremes. They are full of what most Russians can only dream of buying -- and what they wouldn't dream of buying.

For the small percentage who are becoming rich in the transition to capitalism, there's lots to buy -- for dollars or German marks.

In one corner of GUM (pronounced Goom), the new and elegantly decorated Christian Dior shop sells the nouveau riche Russian a tube of lipstick for $15. Other hard currency stores are sprinkled throughout GUM: Benetton, Botany 500, Lego and more, all bathed alluringly in modern lighting and run by smartly dressed, helpful clerks.

But 90 percent of the Russian population has been plunged into poverty by the failure of communism, and they only have rubles. For them, GUM offers shoddy draperies, cheap shoes and thin, nonabsorbent towels -- merchandise they don't want to waste money on.

The average Russian, who earns about $15 (4,000 rubles) in a month, can only afford a hideous tie for 65 rubles (about 30 cents). For him, there are no boutiques with chic brands -- only sections morosely labeled "Ties" or "Fabric", dimly lighted and policed by formidable clerks in blue smocks.

Thus GUM approaches its 100th birthday, half stuck in the Soviet past, half tumbling toward a capitalist future.

GUM began life under the czar. It opened in May 1893, a mammoth, modern undertaking. The builder used 40 million bricks for the ground floor. Red marble was brought from Finland and blue marble from the Don, south of Moscow. The architect, Aleksandr N. Pomerantsev, had grand aspirations, designing in a style sometimes called Russian gothic.

The store, a three-tiered arcade with three parallel passageways, is a riot of columns, gables, porches and pointy metal pieces. It stands on the east side of Red Square in wonderful counterpoint to the hard, unforgiving Lenin tomb across the square.

Most Muscovites shop in their neighborhoods, rather than battle the crowds at GUM. But GUM, with its glass ceiling and central gold fountain, remains a grand tourist attraction -- for Russians as well as foreigners.

Alyona Borovikova and her husband, Vladimir, visiting Moscow from Sverdlosk, have combed GUM's arcades with only small success. They are impressed by the loaded shelves, but the most desirable goods are priced in dollars, which they don't have.

"We came to Moscow to buy," Mrs. Borovikova, 24, says. "Our relatives asked us to buy whatever we could find in Moscow. They asked us to buy anything that will survive the trip home -- salami, anything in jars, cookware."

Mrs. Borovikova and her husband work as cooks; each earns 3,500 rubles a month. After walking up and down the long hallways at GUM, they are unable to find winter coats, but Mrs. Borovikova finally finds a sweater for herself for 2,000 rubles.

"We aren't sorry we came," she says. "The trip isn't bad -- only 32 hours by train."

Some Russians have developed a pipeline of hard currency -- usually by working in joint ventures set up between foreign and Russian companies. Those fortunate enough to have dollars or marks often wait in line for up to an hour to get inside shops such as Karstadt, a German department store that opened in GUM a few months ago.

Larissa Aksyonova, well-outfitted in a black leather jacket, has // been waiting 45 minutes and still has a ways to go.

She works for a cookie and cracker company. Because of her job, she has traveled abroad and has earned hard currency.

"I can't remember when I came to GUM last," says Mrs. Aksyonova, who hopes to get into Karstadt to buy stockings. "But I heard the Karstadt store had opened, and I had been to one in Germany. So I came to see it."

She's hopeful about the future. "There is a sharp contrast now between the full hard currency stores on one hand and the empty ruble stores on the other hand. Probably no country could avoid such a period before the economy improves."

Management has big plans for GUM, says Galina Sinelnikova, a spokeswoman for the store. A European store selling haute couture will open soon. Restaurants are envisioned -- the future will come to life, here, amid the peeling paint and discouraged faces.

"We are changing the image," Mrs. Sinelnikova says firmly. The historic building, she adds, will be returned to its historic grandeur.

Today, GUM is swathed in scaffolding as it undergoes a face-lift for next year's birthday celebration. The renovation is expected to cost $100 million, and GUM's management hopes the influx of hard currency from the new shops will help finance the work.

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