Bessarabsky market remains durable landmark in Kyiv for more than century
Bessarabska Square, in the heart of Kyiv, at the crossroads between Khreshchatyk Street and Taras Shevchenko Boulevard, is well known for its covered market, which is housed in an imposing brick building.
But 200 years ago, the scene was much less impressive. And according to Kyiv researcher Mykhaylo Kalnytsky, even at the beginning of the 20th century Bessarabsky market “had an extremely unpretentious appearance,” serving as an outdoor display of goods sold by street vendors.
“By the beginning of the 20th century, Kyiv had been following European architecture trends, and new elegant houses adorned Khreshchatyk Street. However, the market made an unpleasant contrast with them,” Kalnytsky says, writing in his blog.
Ukrainian historian Pavlo Lebedyntsev, who lived in the 19th century, had a theory that Bessarabska Square, or Bessarabka, got its name for numerous homeless people who lived there. At that time, they were called bessarabs.
Other historians, however, said the square got its name from traders from a southwestern region of Ukraine — Bessarabia.
Kalnytsky said that the place was popular among traders because it was located near densely populated streets and was easy to reach by carriage from Velyka Vasylkivska Street. But by the end of the 19th century, the local authorities wanted to modernize the market, and put it under a roof.
The only problem, Kalnytsky said, was the cost: the market building would cost around 500,000 rubles but the city, with annual revenues of only around 2–3 million rubles per year, couldn’t afford it.
Luckily for Kyivans, a generous benefactor ensured the market was finally built.
In 1904, the multimillionaire sugar magnate and philanthropist Lazar Brodsky died, and left 500,000 rubles to the city to build a market.
But the gift came with strings attached, and at first the city didn’t want to take up the offer.
According to Brodsky’s will, in return for the money, the city had to allocate annually 4.5 percent of the inherited sum, or 22,500 rubles, to institutions funded by Brodsky, such as a Jewish hospital.
“They probably thought that today there would be a market, but tomorrow it might burn down, while the city would have to pay the donations forever,” Kalnytsky wrote in his blog.
However, the local authorities and executors of Brodsky’s will came up with a scheme to get hold of the money.
The city issued bonds worth 500,000 rubles with a 4.5 percent annual interest rate. The executors of Brodsky’s will bought the bonds with the money Brodsky had left. The city then took out a 64-year mortgage using the money. The city planned to repay its debts in full and be free of any liabilities, and the executors of Brodsky’s will would have been able to invest the money in other companies and use the returns to keep maintaining Brodsky’s institutions.
Kalnytsky said the scheme was perfect, as it allowed the city to avoid perpetual obligations, while at the same time all of the conditions of Brodsky’s will were met. However, history intervened. “None of the participants of this elegant financial operation could have imagined that in just 10 years the city’s bonds would become worthless pieces of paper,” Kalnytsky wrote.
But that is what happened after the 1917 October Revolution, which brought the Bolshevicks to power.
Bessarabsky market was built in 1912, and has remained relatively unchanged in appearance since then. The building, which was designed by Polish architect Henryk Gay, reflects the fashion of those times — the modernistic style that was becoming popular across Europe.
According to Kalnytsky, the architect’s plans included 31 sales spaces, a large hall where more than 200 vendors could sell their products, and a restaurant. However, even after it was built, people were still selling goods in the street near the Bessarabsky covered market.
The market also had a modern refrigerated room in its basement where food could be stored. During the Holodomor, a man-made famine in 1932–1933 orchestrated by dictator Joseph Stalin, which killed more than seven million people, the refrigerated room was used as
a secret morgue for people who had starved to death.
After World War II, from which Bessarabsky market emerged largely unscathed, the Soviet authorities in 1946 erected a monument to Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin across from the market. Some historians believe that the Soviet authorities then considered demolishing the market, as they thought it was inappropriate for the statue of Lenin — a fierce opponent of capitalism and market economics — to be placed so close to the famous market.
According to Kalnytsky, city plans from those times indicate the Soviet authorities instead decided to turn the market into an administrative building.
That never happened and the market is still at Bessarabska Square, while the Lenin statue was toppled in 2013 by EuroMaidan Revolution participants.
Kalnytsky said that nowadays Bessarabsky market is much smaller than it used to be, as most trade went on not in the building itself, but in the surrounding streets.
In the 1950s, the city authorities built a boulevard with trees and benches on Basseina Street next to the market, but in 2001 it was redeveloped, the trees torn down, and a broad roadway put in its place.
Also in 2001, the Metrograd underground shopping mall was built under the square in front of the market building.
In the last few years, Bessarabsky market itself has been greatly transformed. New cafes with Mexican, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern cui- sine have opened there, attracting hundreds of office workers from the area nearby during lunch hours.
The opening party of this year’s Yalta European Strategy annual conference, organized by oligarch Viktor Pinchuk, was held inside the Bessarabsky market to demonstrate Ukraine’s agricultural and urban potential to foreign guests.
“The changes that are happening with Bessarabsky market follow the global trend to restore old urban markets and turn them into dynamic centers of urban life,” the conference organizers said in a statement.
The distinctive Bessarabsky market, located in the heart of Kyiv at the crossroads between Khreshchatyk Street and Taras Shevchenko Boulevard, doesn’t look much different between 1910, at top left, and in 2017. The market, housed in an imposing brick building, opened in 1912 and remains a well-preserved landmark today. (Courtesy/Kostyantyn Chernichkin)