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The Torgsin

Smolenskaya Square, 54/1
3.56
From 1932 to 1936, the people delivered almost a hundred tons of pure gold, which made fighting the famine that plagued the country at the time much easier.
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This store once made a hundred tons of pure gold for the government.

‘… there appeared by the mirrored doors of a torgsin on the Smolensky marketplace a long citizen in a checkered suit, and with him a big black cat. Dexterously twisting among passers-by, the citizen opened the outer door of the store. But then a small, bony and extremely spiteful doorman barred his way and said irritably: ‘No cats allowed!’

This was how Koroviev and Behemoth, the characters of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, were greeted in the Torgsin, a store rife with commodities that were hard to find in the USSR.

Designed by the architect Vladimir Mayat in collaboration with Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky, the residential building with a store on Smolenskaya Square was constructed in 1928 on the former site of the Smolensky marketplace that had occupied this spot for many decades.

The building’s façade on its Smolenskaya Square side is unremarkable, except perhaps for the fact that its left side is divided into parts by wide pilasters. What the architect really focused on is the corner part of the house, the second façade of which is facing Arbat Street. Here, you can spot typical Constructivist motifs in the appearance of its rounded glazed corner, surrounded by small balconies from both sides. The five-storey house had another storey added to it in 1934.

In the years when the Soviet Union was hit heavily by a currency crisis, the ground floor of this building housed the Torgsin — an abbreviation for the ‘Soviet nationwide association for trade with foreigners’. On the 14th of July, 1931, the Torgsin — normally reserved for foreigners, who could supposedly buy an unusually great variety of goods there in exchange for foreign currency —  became accessible to the Soviet citizens, who could now bring here their tsarist-era gold coins, or any items made of gold, silver, platinum, diamonds, or any other jewels, in order to exchange them for various goods. From 1932 to 1936, the people delivered almost a hundred tons of pure gold, which made fighting the famine that plagued the country at the time much easier.

‘...weeping, plump pink salmon’, barrels of ‘Choice Kerch Herring’, pyramids of mandarins, a ‘chocolate Eiffel Tower’, almond cookies, ‘hundreds of bolts of cotton in the richest assortment of colors’, ‘calicoes, and chiffons, and flannels for suits’, ‘endless stacks of shoeboxes’ — this was what Bulgakov’s characters saw in the Torgsin. However, modern researchers don’t believe it was true, saying most of the torgsins in Soviet cities were nothing but department stores offering a rather mediocre selection of goods — flour, cereals, potatoes in bags… Only the hungry Soviet customer could see this as the cornucopia it was described to be.

In 1936, the Torgsin was closed, and the store was renamed as Smolensky aka Store number 2 (after Eliseevsky). Up until the mid-1970s, the upper floors of the former Torgsin were occupied with apartments, predominantly of the communal kind. Later, the residents were relocated, the building was renovated, and the upper floors were given to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the main building of which is found nearby.

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