Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Kitchen Debates Redux

In the early Fifties, shortly before the Nixon-Kruschev Kitchen Debates, the Soviet Union decided to prove that it too could be a consumer society -- that the Dictatorship of the Proletariate could shower goodies on the worker as well as any capitalist trickle-down. Enter GUM

GUM, or the Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin (Главный Универсальный Магазин), was originally housed in the shell of what had been a 19th century trading mall on Red Square. Once the Soviet Union picked itself up from the devastations of the Great Patriotic War, the mall was converted into a general mass-merchandise mart for the masses.

The range of GUM's goods counted over 30 thousand items, including textiles, ready-made clothes, shoes, knitted and linen goods, kitchenware, household goods, furniture and rugs, furs and headwear, stationery and toys, and recreational goods. Eventually, some specialty food items were included as well. The basic idea was, You can get anything you want at the State Department Store.

And anywhere as well. As the decade wore on and the missle gap closed, branch GUMs opened around the country, diffusing through the vast reaches of Mother Russia all the goods and trinkets the Central Planning Office could order up. Pictures in Soviet Life proudly showed ordinary Russians being... uhm.. as almost American as anyone.

Life Magazine showed us the same pictures, but with a different sub-text. Those poor Russian wannabees! Look at them lining up outside gussied up warehouses to grab what they can carry. Sure it's better than nothing -- even if it is shoddy -- but would you want to live there?

Yesterday, for some reason, I thought of GUM.


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