But now the city’s government has replaced the old, haphazardly-built kiosks with new purpose-built units and is trying to turn the underpasses into smarter shopping arcades for busy Muscovites.
The underground renovations are part of a broader push over the past few years that authorities say is aimed at turning the sprawling metropolis into a more liveable city, with kilometres of pavements replaced and parks done up.
Every day, thousands of people walk through the underpass in the Ulitsa 1905 Goda district near central Moscow, passing its 20 kiosks, each measuring just eight square metres.
“I often pick up small practical things here for my flat, because it’s between my office and where I live,” says Marina Ryabikova, a 38-year-old lawyer who says she’s always pressed for time.
Moscow, a city of 12 million, is intersected by massive highways and the underpasses allow people to walk safely and also escape the snow and rain.
In the 1990s, after the liberalisation of the economy, almost 22,000 kiosks sprang up in Moscow’s underpasses, providing a speedy alternative to queueing up in large stores.
Elderly ladies began selling hand-knitted wool socks and mittens in underpasses, which were also hang-outs for young people wanting to drink beer or grab a pie.
But since Sergei Sobyanin took over as the city’s mayor in 2010, with the backing of the Kremlin, thousands of old-style kiosks have been destroyed, prompting the ire of many Muscovites.
After a year of major renovations, the city has installed 459 purpose-built kiosks, all of them registered with the mayor’s office, says Nikolai Tsvetkov who is in charge of the city’s underpasses.
“The working conditions [for traders] have got more comfortable,” he says, explaining that each underpass has running water, electricity and toilets and meets security and hygiene standards.
“Many of the underpasses hadn’t been repaired for a long time, they were very dilapidated because of the never-ending flow of people. The authorities needed to intervene,” he says.
Yana Chernyshenko, who spends almost eight hours a day selling lingerie at her small store in Ulitsa 1905 Goda, says her new kiosk has “bigger windows” and is “more practical for the customers.”
But the upgrade has come at a cost and not everyone is happy.
In the underpass close to Smolenskaya metro station in central Moscow, around half of the kiosks are still empty, while the others are struggling to stay open, complains a trader called Anna.
“I used to be friends with a lot of the traders, but they have left,” she says.
“Before, it was the opposite problem – there were too many of us.”
In order to market the new facilities, the mayor’s office is auctioning off the right to run a kiosk at a specific location.
But tenants must now pay rent which is least eight times higher than what they used to pay the private owners of old-style kiosks.
“This was a real loss that the city could claw back,” explains Mr Tsvetkov.
Some kiosks were put out to tender at a very high rent due to their central location and did not find any takers.
And many people who previously owned kiosks found themselves unable to take part in the new tenders.
“There are people who have been working 20 years and now they are 45 or 50, and suddenly they no longer have a store, because it’s too expensive or too complicated,” explains Olga Kosets, a municipal lawmaker and president of the Business People association, which protects the rights of small and medium-sized businesses.
“What will they do now?”
Clearly angry, she compared the changes to the 1917 Revolution: “You raze the old world to make a new one.”
Although the overhaul had “imposed some order on the chaos of the underpasses,” Ms Kosets says that ultimately, it is the shoppers who are losing out.
“The price of basic foods has gone up. Now that they have destroyed all the kiosks, there is no longer any competition. Customers can’t just pop in for a bottle of water any more,” she said.
The sight of empty kiosks is worrying, she admits.
“I’m very scared that big fast-food chains will take over our underpasses.”
“Then Moscow will lose a little of its soul.”