The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This grand Moscow store was a land of plenty since the czars. Its 120-year run is near an end.

An assistant carries New Year’s goods with a 70 percent discount at Eliseevsky in Moscow on Friday. The store is scheduled to close on April 11 after 120 years. (Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

The lightbulbs on the old chandeliers are flickering, and the dark wooden shelves are bare. This food emporium, once known for carrying exotic goods even in the time of Soviet rations, is now trying to sell the last of its stock.

Most of the visitors to Moscow’s Eliseevsky market these days aren’t shoppers. Instead, they’re wielding cameras to photograph the more than century-old art nouveau adornments, perhaps for the last time.

Eliseevsky — born in czarist Russia, a witness to the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, a survivor of wars and bastion during eras of shortages and plenty — is due to close Sunday after 120 years. The pandemic was too much to overcome.

Often listed as a must-visit for tourists, the store suffered from restrictions on international travel to Russia. At the same time, many of its Russian customers scaled back, looking for cheaper groceries as disposable incomes sharply fell in 2020.

Eliseevsky becomes another of the many venerable brick-and-mortar businesses around the world that could not ride out the pandemic’s economic squeeze — raising questions about the next chapter for one of Moscow’s best-preserved time capsules from the early 20th century.

Nostalgic Muscovites are hopeful the city will step in and save the site for some enterprise.

Galina Gavrilovna, an 83-year-old engineer who visited the store Friday, paused in front of a photo depicting Eliseevsky’s heyday — barrels of fresh produce and a sign advertising Havana cigars.

She observed that now there are wreaths at a 70 percent discount by the entrance — fitting because it’s what Russians send to a funeral to express condolences. The only fresh fruits for purchase are bananas.

“Any European capital has one of these places that has existed for centuries and is being well-protected as the national treasure it is. And what do we do?” Gavrilovna said. “All that is left is to cry.”

Cheburashka was the beloved misfit of Soviet animation. It’s now a missing treasure for Russia.

The owners of Eliseevsky are also locked in a legal dispute with Moscow authorities over property rights. An attempt to auction the site in 2015 failed. The city still owns the space.

Eliseevsky was managed by Alye Parusa, a high-end grocery chain that recently went out of business. Eliseevsky’s representatives said they have tried striking a deal with other retailers, but the property ownership wrangle scares off potential bidders. 

Moscow’s department of city property told the state-run Tass news agency on Wednesday that the city intends to preserve the site in some fashion.

“The chapter on this is not yet closed,” the department told Tass in a statement, adding that “regardless of who the owner or tenant of the premises is, an agreement on the protection of site will be signed with them under an obligation to preserve an architectural monument, an object of cultural heritage of federal significance.”

The palace-like interior of Eliseevsky was the main draw for tourists. Two chandeliers hang from an ornate ceiling. Gilt columns line the walls. The front of the store, looking out at Moscow’s main Tverskaya Street, has a row of stained glass.

Denis Romodin, a historian at the Museum of Moscow, said Eliseevsky is one of just two retail spaces in Moscow with such pre-revolutionary interiors. But Eliseevsky’s level of preservation makes it “one of a kind.”

The building’s history is just as vivid.

It was once owned by Zinaida Volkonskaya, a princess and Russian cultural figure in the 19th century. She remodeled the house, passed down to her by her father, into a literary salon whose luminaries included Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin. For about 40 years, from 1829 to 1870, it was largely uninhabited and sometimes referred to as haunted.

St. Petersburg merchant Grigory Eliseev then bought the building in 1898. Three years later, he opened his store, quickly a hit among Russian nobility for the selection of European wine and cheeses.

Romodin said it was Russia’s first store with price tags — before Eliseevsky, haggling was the norm — and it was also unique in its innovative technology for the time: electric-powered refrigerators and display cases that allowed goods to be stored longer.

Even in the Soviet Union’s hungriest years, the 1930s famine, Eliseevsky stocked pineapples.

“One could find outlandish delicacies here, which at that time seemed very exotic,” Romodin said. “It was already impossible to surprise Muscovites with wine shops. But a grocery store with luxurious interiors, and large for that time, amazed and delighted Muscovites.”

That much hasn’t changed. Alexander Ignatiev, 30, said he lives far from Moscow’s city center, but he stopped by Eliseevsky to snap a selfie inside.

“I really want to believe that the government will first and foremost save its interior and all of the decor because this is not even a place to shop for some gourmet delicacies, this is first of all history, Moscow’s landmark,” he said.

Eliseevsky had a period of infamy in the early 1980s, when its director at the time, Yuri Sokolov, was at the center of one of the Soviet Union’s most scandalous large-scale corruption cases. He was sentenced to death in 1983.

But for the store’s longtime customers, their fondest memories were the scents from its bakery, the cuts of meat, the pistachio ice cream cones. One 85-year-old Muscovite brought her grandson to Eliseevsky just so he could see its beauty for himself.

“So many foreigners came here to take pictures,” said 55-year-old Ksenia Katarskaya. “Every country, every big city has this place where tourists come, and you don’t go here just to buy food, you come to take in the culture. They don’t make stores like this anymore.”

Russia’s ‘foreign agent’ law now threatens rights group that survived even Soviet pressures

Jailed Russian opposition leader Navalny declares hunger strike

McDonald’s made its Soviet debut 30 years ago. Its golden arches were a gateway to Western influence.