From rare books to pies: what and how people sold in Moscow’s center in the XIX century

From rare books to pies: what and how people sold in Moscow’s center in the XIX century
V. Makovsky. Flea market in Moscow. 1879–1880
Let`s look at three mysterious market places of the old Moscow by the eyes of experts in Moscow history of the XIX and early XX centuries.

Trading in Moscow of the XIX century took place not only in beautiful passages and small shops where people bought nice expensive things and delicacies. Flea markets and merchants` rows with their own laws were in place too. Who sold, what was sold and who were traders on Staraya and Novaya Squares, in the Sukharevsky market and the Upper Trading Rows on Red Square, read about it in this article on

Staraya and Novaya Squares: ragmen and fur merchants

The Kitai-Gorod Wall in the area of Lubyanskaya Square. 1920s

Erudites know that the name “Staraya Ploshchad” (literally “Old Square”) hides two mistakes at once — topographic and historical ones. First, it is not a square, but a street, and secondly, the Old Square is younger than the Novaya (literally “New”) Square.

Novaya Square appeared in 1783, when the flea market from Manezhnaya Square was moved under the arches of the Kitai-Gorod Wall. At the time, any open area with shops was called a square, and this square became “New” in contrast with Red Square. Trade was in full swing here: there were more than two hundreds wooden shops and 74 stone shops on Novaya Square. The fire of 1812 burn all wooden buildings which allowed to expand the market. It was at that time that Staraya Square appeared — it was the name of the passage between the Varvarsky and Ilyinsky Gates (Varvarsky Gate Square and Ilyinsky Gate Square nowadays). The area from the Ilyinsky Gate to Vladimirsky Gate was called Novaya Square.

In the 1870s, the squares unofficially changed their names according to the nature of things that were sold there. The section from the Ilyinsky Gate to Varvarsky Gate with rich shops of new goods became Novaya Square, and the section from the Ilyinsky Gate to Vladimirsky Gate — ragmen place — was called Staraya Square. Here is the description of those events by the writer Ivan Belousov (1863–1930) in his memoirs “Moscow which has gone” (1929):

“Staraya Square was a flea market; ragmen came here every day early in the morning, they went around the yards and cried: “Old rags to sell”... a large variety of things could be found there: old-fashioned puffed top hat, dress coat or uniform, out of fashion lady`s hat with feathers and flowers, moth-eaten fur coat, broken samovar and many other things.  Novaya Square was something different: they mostly sold fur goods, cotton, defected woolen clothes in small shops pressed against the Kitai-Gorod Wall, all the way to the Varvarsky Gate.”

Facade of the Ilyinsky Gate of the Kitai-Gorod Wall facing Novaya Square. Photo by P. Pavlov. End of the XIX - beginning of the XX century. Moscow Glavarchiv

The squares officially got back their original names in 1890. And in 1899, the flea market was transferred to Sadovniki Sloboda behind the Bolshoi Ustyinsky bridge. After that, they actively began to develop the squares.

By the way, the flea market on Staraya Square was famous not only for its dusty treasures that could be found there. The so-called refreshment stand was situated there — rows of shops with edibles where people could have a snack at very low prices. Belousov cites such prices: “A bowl of shchi cost three kopecks, and a bowl of porridge — two kopecks.” Not only people ate here. Ivan Slonov, merchant, traveler and memoirist (1851–1936) reminds in his book “Scenes of trading Moscow life” (1913):

“Old women with small baskets full of boiled peas were standing next to the flea market and a large flock of pigeons was around them; people passing by gave a kopeck and the women threw a handful of boiled peas to pigeons. Now, one can see such old ladies feeding pigeons with peas on Red Square close to the Saint Basil`s Cathedral fence.”

Bolshaya Sukharevskaya Square: stolen goods handlers and booksellers

Market on Bolshaya Sukharevskaya Square. 1900–1907

Peter I reign saw the mythical Sukharev Tower : a mysterious structure at the intersection of the modern Garden Ring, Sretenka Street and Mira Avenue was inhabited by terrible monsters according to rumors. The source of the myths was Jakob Bruce who settled there. A friend and ally of Peter I, he came from an ancient Scottish dynasty and was considered a sorcerer, but really he did not deal with magic — he was a scientist. On one of the upper floors of the Sukharev Tower, he arranged an observatory, equipped with “viewing tubes” and a huge star globe made by Willem Blaeu.

After Bruce`s death, the tower was assigned to the maritime department, and in 1829 it became a water station: a giant reservoir appeared on its first floor where water came from the Mytishchy water pipe. By that time, the Sukhareva Tower had already had another fame — every Sunday, its environs, Bolshaya Sukharevskaya Square, were filled with crowds of quick-eyed, cunning and tenacious sellers. They put their goods, old used nobody’s things of unknown origin and even functionality, on the shopboards or just on the pavement. Buyers scurried between the rows. They often were not seeking for some interesting things, but... for their own ones.

Vladimir Gilyarovsky calls Sukharevka, the Sukharevsky market, “daughter of the war”. The matter is that after the fire of 1812, plunderers scratched around Moscow. Later, when inhabitants began to come back to the city, a decree was issued which read that the person who held a thing at that moment was considered its owner. And Sunday was announced the day when used things could be sold. An area near the Sukharev Tower was assigned to the merchants, and robbed Muscovites tagged there.

“In the old days, Moscow people went there in order to look for things stolen from them and not without success, because since old times Sukharevka was known to be the place for sale of stolen goods. A thief-individualist brought stolen things and buyers carried them by cartloads. Thing were sold cheaply at Sukharevka, “on occasion”. Sukharevka lived by accident, often by mischance.” Vladimir Gilyarovsky, “Moscow and Muscovites”, review “Sukharevka” (1926).

Trading at the Sukharev Tower on Great Saturday. Photo by N. Shchapov. 16 February, 1905. Moscow Glavarchiv

A few decades later, Moscow booksellers settled at the tower vicinities. Before moving to Sukharevka, merchants of old books were gathering at the Smolensky market. Afanasiy Astapov, Moscow bookseller (1840–1918), wrote in his book “Memories of an Old Bookinist” (1892) that it happened almost immediately after the abolition of serfdom, that is, after 1861. Astapov noted that a special kind of booksellers was generated near the Sukharev Tower, he called them “Khlestakovs in their own way”.

“I call sellers of Sukharevka artists and Khlestakovs, because these types are produced very easily from them, insensibly for themselves. The lack of money refines their mind, making it work at its limits in order to reach the goal. If a book, Russian or foreign, but strange or new to such a seller, falls into his hands, he will turn on all his thinking abilities and play around with it like a Monkey with the glasses.  He will interrogate one bookseller, then the second one... And having learnt the price, he will hike it so much, that even a book-lover will refuse buying it.”

There were also completely dishonorable booksellers, who made history with their cunning. For example, there was a certain Ilya nicknamed Packer. He bought sacks of wastepaper from ragmen and then fixed on these books good covers, that is to say, he made “packs”. The name of a classical author could be found on the jacket, but the book itself could contain a manual inside. A buyer who does not know much about it buys the “pack” and the Packer promptly hides in the crowd with his sack.

But there were really valuable antique objects too that collectors hunted for. For example, Alexei Bakhrushin, creator of the Theatre Museum,was among the buyers. It was here that the passionate collector of theatre-related things found many exhibits.

The Sukharevsky market was constantly growing, capturing nearby small streets. For example, in 1915 its total area exceeded four hectares. The Soviet government tried to close the “epicenter of speculative infection” (the Sukharevsky market was called like this by the Pravda newspaper in 1920), but the merchants resisted.  The legendary flea market continued to exist during the period of the New Economic Policy, being displaced to the lanes of Sretenka Street. In 1924, the Moscow City Council decided to create the Novosukharevsky market, which existed till 1930.

Red Square: Piemen

Cross Procession on Red Square. View of the Trading Rows designed by Bove. Engraving of 1846

In the XIX century, fables were told about the Upper Trading Rows (now it is GUM department store) and the events that took place here. People started trading at the very heart of Moscow in the ancient time. Under Catherine II, a huge trading center was erected in place of small shops. The construction of a classicism building designed by Giacomo Quarengui was not completed; it was Joseph Bove who took it up after 1812. The building was quickly decaying, and in 1869 it was decided to reconstruct it. But shop owners who had their own ideas about the arrangement of the rows could not come to an agreement with the city government for long 20 years. During this period, a part of the building was critically destroyed, and the merchants had to accept the reconstruction. The book by Ivan Slonov tells us eloquently about the appearance of the shopping rows of that time:

“Old city arcade looked like dark ruins. Their passages were not clean; there were a lot of stairs and different footboards there; waking on them required great caution.  Large piles of boxes, bales and different rubbish laid near the shops. Light penetrated here through so-called row lamps with low dirty frames and broken glass which allowed rain and snow on the heads of people. The sun was not visible at all, so, piercing dampness was always felt at the rows, that`s why most merchants suffered from rheumatism.”

However, there was a section in the old building of the Upper Trading Rows, that Slonov remembers warmly, it is so-called pie exchange floor. It was situated in the central part of the building, opposite the monument to Minin and Pozharsky, and represented an assembly point of sellers of pies and other baked goods. Boxes of hot foods covered with blankets, hung over the shoulders of merchants. They were “untidy and disheveled”, says Slonov, but rather uninteresting, as they accompanied their sale with jokes. Funny scenes could be seen every day at the pie exchange floor:

“A boy is eating a pie with jam, in which he finds a piece of dirty patch. He addresses to the pie seller: “Sir, your pies are stuffed with rags...” And the merchant answers: “And what do you want, conniver, for two kopecks? Shall I give you some with velvet?””

They began to disassemble the old shopping rows in 1888, and in May 1890, the ceremony of laying the foundation for a new building took place. The new-built shopping arcade opened its doors for the visitors in 1893, though some fit-out works were carried out till 1896. In 1923, the Upper Trading Rows turned into the State Department Store.

The Upper Trading Rows in Moscow. Beginning of the XX century