Russia's largest children's store reopens as patriotic mall

MOSCOW (AFP) - A legendary store where children once flocked to snap up the latest toys has reopened in Moscow after massive, if controversial, renovations as a glitzy mall boasting "the biggest of everything".

Under wraps since 2008, Russia's largest children's store - historically known as Detsky Mir, or Children's World, though now called the Central Children's Store on Lubyanka - has undergone a reconstruction worth eight billion rubles (S$187 million) to try to attract a new generation of young shoppers.

Gone are almost all the Soviet period details, the clunky original escalators and the sweltering heating system, and in their place are a six-storey glass atrium, designer brands and Europe's largest Hamleys concession, the famous British-founded toy retailer.

New is an overt patriotism, including one of the store's own-brand souvenirs - a child's T-shirt decorated with a teddy bear in a military cap with a red star and the slogan "for the Motherland".

"Everything is the biggest," said Andrei Kostin, the chief executive of VTB Bank state lender, which owns a controlling share in the store's developer, at the opening. "There aren't any other stores like this in the world."

First opened in 1957, the vast emporium - located just across the road from the headquarters of the feared KGB secret police - aimed to prove the Soviet slogan "all the best for the children".

The choicest toys available in the old Soviet Union could be obtained here, often imported from East bloc satellites such as East Germany, while the store's ice cream was considered especially delectable.

The spectacular building with huge arched windows takes up an entire block opposite the notorious looming headquarters of the state security service on Lubyanka Square. A new roof terrace gives a bird's-eye view.

As the store became increasingly outdated in comparison with Moscow's European-style malls, the owners in 2008 closed it down.

It was a controversial decision, criticised by preservationists who opposed the reconstruction of the listed building by architect Alexei Dushkin, and saw their fears confirmed.

"The building has practically been lost. All that is left from the old building is the structure of the outside walls, the lamps in the atrium and a few banisters on the stairs," Arkhnadzor group, which campaigns to save Moscow's historic buildings, concluded this week.

Many ordinary Muscovites feared developers would simply open a standard mall.

Ahead of the official opening on Monday, crowds of invited guests and curious passers-by pushed to get through the doors.

"It's the store of my childhood, the shop of my kids when they were small. We spent time here and bought goods," said Tatyana Petrovna, 67, music professor. "It's great that it's still a children's store."

The creators say the new store is the world's biggest shopping centre specialising in children's goods.

Even the store's Russian-made clock mechanism is the biggest in the world, the store's owners say, weighing five tonnes, and able to run for 100 years.

"Everything's the biggest, everything's the most expensive!" one visitor exclaimed, laughing as he read a plaque by the clock.

Children, lapping up free ice cream and snapping selfies, seemed impressed.

"I think there's a lot here that children will want," said 10-year-old Sasha. "If they finish building it, it will be paradise for children," he added, referring to the still many empty units on upper floors.

His friend Taisiya, 14, said the store is "like a fairytale and it's interactive".

"I'll come here often although I'm already not such a child now." Some parents were not so sure.

"It's all changed completely. The kids like it, of course," said Liza's 38-year-old mother, Gyulnara Ananeva, adding she missed the Soviet-era interior. "Let's hope the kids have fun here and it's not just a commercial enterprise."

A new feature is overt patriotism.

"We did this... for a great Russia, for all the people who live here. We want you to live joyfully and in comfort," said Sergei Kalinin, president of the developers Hals in a grandiloquent speech to the crowd.

Russian flags hung down the walls at the opening. The lobby is dominated by a stained-glass double-headed eagle and a stained-glass map of Russia, including Crimea annexed from Ukraine last year.

At the same time, the store is packed with Western brands, including designer ones.

"Are there toys here from all around the world?" asked Valentina Vasilyevna, a 70-year-old pensioner in a peach wool coat and fur hat, as she gazed at the Hamleys wares.

"The prices are probably steep. In the old Detsky Mir we could afford to buy things, but here we couldn't - not straight away." The new store had to be renamed for trademark reasons because a Russian store chain owns the Detsky Mir brand, so it is called the Central Children's Store on Lubyanka, a name unlikely to catch on.

Lubyanka evokes Stalin-era purges when opponents were shot in the secret police cells nearby.

Bizarrely, Hals announced an ad campaign with the slogan, "If you love your child, take him to Lubyanka". Leaked ads showed children "interrogating" their parents, but were never released after being mocked online.

Hals declined to comment on the campaign to AFP.