The Torgsin store

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«Approximately a quarter of an hour after the fire started on Sadovaya, there appeared by the mirrored doors of a currency store on the Smolensky marketplace a long citizen in a checkered suit, and with him a big black cat».

The readers of the English Pevear and Volokhonski translation and those of the French Ligny and Gourg translation don't know to which store Mikhail Bulgakov is referring to in chapter 28 of The Master and Margarita, but the readers of most other translations do know that this «currency store» is called Torgsin. It's not clear why Pevear and Volokhonski did not translate the word Торгсин [torgsin] from the original text. Anyway, Torgsin is a typical Soviet contraction of торговля с иностранцами [torgovlia s inostrantsami] or trade with foreigners. This was the name for these stores which existed from 1931 to 1936. In theory, anyone with hard currency and valuables could enter a Torgsin store and purchase goods such as food and clothing which were unobtainable for Soviet citizens in normal shops. There were, of course, security guards at the door who would not let people in if they looked as if they did not possess any valuables.

The purpose of the Torgsins in the '30s was to collect as much foreign currency as possible by offering quality goods to the employees of foreign representations, tourists, engineers cooperating in projects aimed to realise Stalin's first Five Year Plans and Soviet citizens, provided they had access to hard currency, gold, or jewels.

Since the planned objectives of the first Five Year Plans were not achieved, the money galore expected from the export of grain did not come into the country, so something had to be organised to bring in foreign currency.

The Torgsin store was a little different from the берёзка [beryozka] which was introduced in the Soviet Union in 1964. A beryozka would only admit foreigners.

Since most Soviets citizens were not allowed to have foreign currency, they often waited near the stores and offered to buy some of the «exotic» purchases made by the foreigners as they left the store.

The specific store mentioned in the novel is the Torgsin on Smolenskaya Square, at the corner of Arbat and the Garden Ring. Today, it still functions as a high-end supermarket, and is a part of the Gastronom chain. It's the only store in Moscow where I could find the typical Belgian vegetable witloof (chicory tips), and they sell the nicest fresh-baked baguettes, more French than in France!

Metro: Смоленская (Smolenskaya)

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