Some of you live in Russia and plan a trip back home or a vacation abroad for May holidays, some live abroad and plan a visit to Russia while it is finally warm and nice here. In any of these cases you may need to buy traditional Russian souvenirs.
The selection is vast, here are some ideas for you:
Inexpensive, cheerful, light (important for packing), universally recognized as the symbol of Russia. Matryoshka name comes from an old-fashioned female name Matryona (diminutive from the name). First matryoshkas were made in 1890 and brought to Paris expo in 1900 by the wife of Russian art patron Savva Mamontov. The toy got a bronze prize at the expo and went into mass production.
Each doll typically has 5+ smaller dolls inside, styles and colors vary, choose the ones you personally like most.
In addition to traditional dolls, you may find matryoshka souvenirs with faces of Russian or US politicians, members of Russian Tsar family or even matryoshkas with Michael Jackson. Unlike the traditional matryoshkas, these are usually really ugly, but since they are produced, there must be a demand.
Wooden spoons, plates and bowls, painted in Khohloma style (red and gold colors over a black background) since the second half of the 17th century make fantastic souvenirs. Also very light and easy to pack. Make sure you warn your friends that Khohloma does not stand water, so the spoons cannot be used for soup or tea or washed in a dishwasher. Choose something like a sugar bowl or a decorative plate or just buy some spoons.
If you are adventurous, you may also find unusual things, coated with Khohloma ornaments:
Staying with the wooden souvenirs, it is impossible not to mention Palekh-style painted lacquered boxes. They can be quite expensive, but make really unique gorgeous gift. Women like to use them as jewelry boxes.
Palekh miniature usually features themes from real life, fairy tales, literary works, and folk songs, painted with tempera paints of bright colors over a black background. Boxes are actually made of papier-mâché, so they are not wooden.
Some of your friends (those who like to wear handmade accessories) may really like to have a scarf or shawl from Pavlov-Posad. They come in all colors and are typically made of a very thin wool or silk.
Manufacturing started in Pavlovsky Posad, a city about 40 miles from Moscow in 1795. At first they were hand-woven, later prints were made with the set of wooden forms (one for each color), now metal forms are used, but part of the process is still hand-made. Colors are very bright, not all of them are stable, so these shawls are dry-clean only.
Orenburg shawls, knitted of goat down and silk, are extremely warm and in the same time lightweight. The down hair of Orenburg goats is the thinnest in the world – 16-18 micrometer, and that of Angora goats (mohair) is 22-24 micrometer. Real Orenburg shawl of any size can be pulled through a wedding ring. Perfect present for Grandma.
Lace was made in Vologda town since the end of the 18th century. Vologda lace ornaments are rounded and smooth. Made of firm flax or cotton threads, Vologda lace are strong, weighty and very durable.
Lace was traditionally used for scarfs, pelerines and head-dresses or for decorating collars or hems of skirts. Lace making is one of the most laborious and time-consuming handicrafts, so real Vologda lace is not cheap.
Sets of table clothes and/or napkins made of flax could make a perfect gift. Off-white flax looks especially chic and is a good alternative to flashy shawls. I especially like to buy napkins, since they fit any table (unlike the tablecloth for which you need to know exact shape and size of the table).
Valenki are traditional Russian winter footwear, felt boots: the name valenok literally means “made by felting”. Valenki are made of wool felt. They are not water-resistant, and are often worn with rubber boots (galoshes) if it is rainy or without rubber boots if it is frosty and you walk on snow. They are also perfect for wearing indoors if your house is really cold in winter. Valenki are also perfect foot ware for little kids in winter – they are 100% natural, very comfortable and very warm.
Traditional valenki are gray and quite ugly, but modern valenki are sold in a variety of designs (similar to Uggs) and colors and may have a rubber sole attached. Don’t overlook that souvenir idea – just look at the design at the photo!
A gorgeous and quite practical souvenir from Russia – metal trays, hand painted with bright flowers. This art comes from the village of Zhostovo in the Moscow region. It appeared in the early 19th century mainly under the influence of the Ural handicraft of flower painting on metal.
Zhostovo painting is a handicraft of painting on metal trays, preliminary coated with a few layers of priming and black oil varnish. Painting is done in a few consecutive energetic and firm strokes with a soft brush and oil paints, diluted with linseed oil. The edges of a tray are painted with a light golden ornament. A finished tray is then covered with three layers of light lacquer.
If you have more than enough space in your luggage and want to make a very special gift to somebody – you can choose to buy Russian samovar (literally “self-boiler”) – a heated metal container traditionally used to heat and boil water for tea. Tea kettle is usually placed at the platform on top of the samovar. Though traditionally heated with coal, modern versions of samovars use electricity to heat water in a way similar to an electric water boiler. The samovar was an important attribute of a Russian household and you can still see them in Russian villages, but not in urban apartments.
Below are some photos of antique that I made in the Samovar museum in Kasimov city (250 miles from Moscow):
If the idea of carrying a huge metal boiler with you overseas does not seem appealing, but you still want to bring something, related to Russian tea-drinking culture – metal glass-holder is the best souvenir to choose. You may have seen this genius invention if you ever took a train in Russia. It allows you to drink the hot tea from the glass without burning your fingers and the metal base makes the glass super stable (there is a reason why they are used in moving trains). Makes a wonderful gift, especially if you are stuck with ideas for gifts for men.
These items are heavy and breakable, but with right packing – you can easily transport them inside suitcase
Gzhel is a style of ceramics which takes its name from the village of Gzhel and surrounding area, where it has been produced since 1802. It is white porcelain painted with distinctive blue designs.
In the 1830s, the Gzhel potters developed a faience of a quality that rivaled the creamware being produced in England at the time. They followed the development of faience with the acquisition of porcelain.
These traditional hand-painted clay toys are very festive and make a great authentic present. It is one of the old Russian folk art handicrafts, which still exists in a village of Dymkovo near Kirov. Traditionally, the Dymkovo toys are made by women.
The tradition of making pennywhistles in the form of a horse, a horserider, and a bird goes back to the ancient magic ritual images and has to do with the agricultural calendar holidays. Later on, little figures lost their magic meaning and turned into toys for children
The Dymkovo toys are moulded from a mixture of local potter’s clay and river sand. The parts of a toy are then fastened together with watery clay. After the toys are dried and tempered in a furnace, they are whitewashed with chalk diluted in milk, then painted with tempera and decorated with gold leafs.
Filimonovo toys are a type of Russian pottery craft produced in Tula region of Russia. The toys derive its name from the village of its origin, Filimonovo, and are moulded by hand from the bluish-grey local clay that fires into a pure white ceramic. The artists paint the figures with aniline dyes with motifs of brightly colored strips and spots.
Filimonovo toys figurines often consists of clay whistles in the forms of women, horsemen, and assorted animals such as bears, cattle, and roosters. Figurine motifs of people or other animals hold chickens or roosters is also quite common.
Amber is not a real stone, it is a fossilized tree resin, which hardened to become stone-like. Rich warm orange color, unique texture and variety of jewelry designs make souvenirs made of amber among the most popular to bring from Russia. It is very easy though to buy fake amber, so make sure you only buy it at legitimate stores or art salons and ask for certificates of authenticity.
And while you are in Russia, try to visit the famous Amber Room at Tsarskoe Selo near St’Petersburg. Amber room is a complete chamber decoration of amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors. Created in the 18th century, it disappeared during World War II, and was recreated in 2003. It is insanely beautiful!
Russia is a huge country, extremely rich with natural resources. No wonder there is a long list of semi-precious (and precious) stones, which are mined in Russia. That topic deserves a dedicated post, so for now – I will just mention Ural malachite. This amazing bright green semi-precious stone is mined in many countries, but the Ural mountains malachite is considered to be the best. You can find anything made from malachite – from necklaces and cufflinks to malachite boxes. And in Hermitage and other palaces you will see the entire tables or columns made of malachite.
It is very difficult to find something unique for kids here in Russia, since all toy stores are flooded with Western style toys. Matryoshkas may do for small kids, who will like to assemble and disassemble them.
Or you may look for Cheburashka – the most bizarre Russian cartoon character. It is not easy to find Cheburashka in stores though, so please let me know if you find her anywhere in Moscow!
Hockey jerseys were traditionally the best Russian souvenirs for foreign sport fans. Now, in addition to that, you can bring your friends some Sochi Olympics souvenirs. The Winter Olympics is over, but is still not the old news, so these souvenirs will still be relevant.
Bosco store at GUM has a large selection of stuffed Olympic mascots, keychains, fridge magnets, T-shirts etc. All items are quite pricey though.
Not everybody likes souvenirs or has space for them at home. Local food is a good solution and is always welcome.
Caviar would be #1 on the list of desired food from Russia. Black caviar is exorbitant, but red caviar is very affordable. Do not wait until you get to the Duty Free, their selection may be limited and prices higher than in local stores. Go to any grocery store, buy several jars of caviar and put them in the fridge until the time you get out of the door to go to the airport (I usually put a post it on the door, so that I do not leave the caviar in the fridge)). Caviar survives even trans-atlantic flights, proven many times. I prefer to buy caviar in glass jars, so that I can see the product, good brand is Северная Компания. Try to choose caviar that looks light orange and not dark red, it will be more tender (different colors are due to different types of fish)
Although chocolate is usually something you bring from Switzerland, not from Russia, some Russian chocolate bars and chocolate candies are very tasty and make a good present.
The other absolutely unique sweets, which exist only in Russia are Zefir (зефир) – These are marshmallows, made of apples. What is so authentic about them – the jelly is based on real agar-agar (sea algae) and not gelatin. They are very light, do not contain dairy and are low on calories. The only disadvantage is that the packaging is fragile, so they are not easy to transport in suitcases. If you choose to buy them – I highly recommend to choose only the brand that is shown on the photo.
That’s a good question and I wish I could suggest one good store that has all that selection. The best option would be to go to Old Arbat, there are several large official souvenir stores there. Do not buy souvenirs from the street vendors, you will usually pay more, but will not be sure that products are authentic. I would also look at online stores – no guarantees there as well, but at least you can enjoy the comfort of shopping from your home. And since most stores do not need pre-payment, you can check the souvenirs, brought to you by a courier, before paying for them.
I hope that this post was useful! Please feel free to add ideas and share information on places to buy in comments! Enjoy the Holidays!
© 2016 Tatiana Golubeva. All rights reserved.