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.

Gen­er­ous in­her­i­tance

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.

Soviet times

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.

To­day’s Bes­sarabka

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)

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