Lenin's Louis Vuitton Is Bigger Than Yours

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Suddenly, the enormous Louis Vuitton suitcase was just there, standing opposite Lenin's tomb and about the same size. Muscovites wondered why, then got angry.

Patriots were insulted because Louis Vuitton is a foreign brand. "An alien, foreign firm's chest" is "blocking the view of Savior Tower and St. Basil's cathedral," ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky complained.

Communists were mad because of its proximity to Lenin's mausoleum, whose facade is only 78 feet wide, compared to the 100 feet-long, 30 feet-wide suitcase. Communist Party legislator Sergei Obukhov called the over-sized piece of luggage an "indecent" intrusion into a "sacred place."

And liberals took offense on aesthetic grounds. "The LV suitcase in Red Square is a very honest statement, I think," actor Maxim Vitorgan wrote on Facebook. "LV has become a symbol of bad taste ... So everything is logical. Here it is, the goal, the dream ... And who cares if the view of the square is ruined and the architectural ensemble is broken up."

In the end, both the Kremlin and GUM, the upmarket department store that helped the French luxury conglomerate LVMH erect the monstrosity today demanded its removal.

Louis Vuitton has a long tradition in Russia. Czars and nobles were its clients, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev advertised it in 2007, and no self-respecting female representative of the new Russian beau monde can do without a (genuine) Vuitton bag. So why not erect a 30-foot-tall, 100-foot-long suitcase on Red Square, LVMH marketers must have thought. The company intended to hold an exhibition devoted to its famous clients inside the pavilion, which they designed in the shape of a travel chest once made for Prince Vladimir Orlov. Funds raised by selling tickets would have gone to a children's charity run by model Natalia Vodianova. None of this will now happen: The giant suitcase will be dismantled before the exhibition has had a chance to open.

When the first pictures of the Vuitton chest hit Russia's social networks, many could not believe they were real. It seemed unconscionable that someone permitted the construction in Red Square, whose status is governed by a special 1998 law banning "the construction of new edifices violating the historic view." One after the other, the Moscow mayor's office, the Kremlin's business management office and the Federal Guard Service, in charge of Kremlin security, denied ever giving their approval. Yet Mikhail Kusnirovich, the multimillionaire investor whose company, Bosco di Ciliegi, owns GUM, insisted that all the necessary permits were in order.

It seemed ironic to a number of commentators that the authorities allowed the suitcase but threatened performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky with a five-year sentence for nailing his scrotum to the pavement on Red Square. "If it is just a square where you can put up anything you like -- Louis Vuitton suitcase, a Villeroy & Bosch urinal -- why is it wrong to nail one's balls to the cobblestones?" wrote columnist Maxim Sokolov.

Defenders of the mega-suitcase were few, and some of them had a conflict of interest. "Well, it's more appropriate than the corpse in the ziggurat," wrote Mikhail Idov, editor of the Russian version of GQ, in which LVMH is a prominent advertiser.

Louis Vuitton's ultimate success in getting Russians' attention was assured when jokes about the pavilion started making the rounds. They mostly dealt with President Vladimir Putin finally packing to leave office. "Expect the suitcase to be moved to the train station soon," one went.

By the time Muscovites were tired of the controversy and magazine editor Yury Saprykin was asking on Facebook whether there was a way to filter out posts that contained the world "suitcase," the Kremlin -- and GUM management -- knew enough was enough. A Kremlin source told the state-owned agency RIA Novosti that the presidential administration had called for the pavilion's demolition, and the department store issued a statement saying it wanted the suitcase removed to respect public opinion.

The monster chest will soon be cleared away, restoring an unbroken line of sight from the Red Square entrance to St. Basil's. Some things, however, will not change. In Russia, money can buy pretty much anything -- until the Kremlin interferes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net