Shopping in Russia

Some 20 years after the fall of communism in the Soviet Union, I found  myself engaged in the most capitalistic of interactions: trying to figure out how many rubles equals how many dollars while negotiating the purchase of a pair of painted wooden Easter eggs in St. Petersburg. The calculations were simply for my benefit, so I’d know what i was spending: The souvenir markets of St. Petersburg. Euros, dollars, pounds sterling, rubles, and credit cards are happily accepted. It seems that a whole industry has grown up to satisfy cruise ship passengers’ and land tourists’ desire for reproduction Faberge eggs, matrushka dolls, lacquer boxes, Baltic Sea amber, and Russian icons.

Matrioshkas Dolls

Matrioshkas Dolls  

Also called babushka dolls or matryoshka dolls, these nesting dolls are made of wood with painted designs Usually, there are a minimum of five nesting dolls in a set, but sets can include a dozen or more. Interestingly, matrushka dolls were only invented at the end of the 1800s,and were a copy of  a Japanese design. Since then, designs and themes have become ever more creative and whimsical; for example, during the perestroika years, a set of dolls was created that contained Communist Soviet leaders, their sizes assigned by the length of their term of office.

Russian dolls are the quintessential Russian souvenir. Usually painted with the cute faces of a Russian girl or stylised family, you can also get them painted with dictators of the world, former US presidents or even just left plain to paint yourself. Prices will usually depend on the number of dolls and the intricacy and range of colours of the design. The very first matrioshka’s turned up in Sergiev Posad at the end of the 19th Century inspired by wooden carved nesting dolls that were popular in Japan at the time.

Faberge Eggs

Real Faberge eggs, of course, are museum pieces, originally made by the House of Faberge from 1885 through 1917. Like Matrushka dolls, they contain secrets, only these secrets are made of jewels and precious metals, not wood. Indeed, the most ornate eggs contain secrets within secrets, and art works within art works. Opening in various ways, they may contain tiny mis-en-scene renderings of palace drawing rooms, or hold a tiny (or not so tiny) jewel. Made of  gold and silver or semi-previous stones, they were  decorated with gems and enamel. Today’s reproductions are hardly inexpensive: Prices range from about $20 for a tiny very simple egg (one that could be worn as a pendant on a necklace), to several hundred dollars for a larger more complex design. These are a nice present for mom.

Lacquer Boxes

Painted with scenery from Russian folklore, pictures of palaces, or natural themes, these lovely boxes are priced from about $50 to several hundred dollars or even more, depending on the size and the complexity of the artwork. As with dolls, the one-of-a-kind art-boxes are much more expensive that those painted with stock designs. Knock-offs can be had for a few dollars, and make nice gifts for little girls who have treasures to store.

Birch wood crafts

The silver birch is the national tree of Russia, the further in to the countryside you get, the more you notice that the world’s largest country is covered in them. It comes as no surprise that Russians are experts at producing items carved out of the bark of their favourite tree. Birch wood combs are particularly popular as they are said to be very good for your hair.


         Faberge eggs                 Lacquer boxes         

Pavlovsky platok

A perfect present for any female friend or relative. These beautifully designed and colourful scarves can either spruce up the outfit of a young lady by being worn around the neck or serve to make your grandma look even cuter and keep her nice and snug by being worn around the head. Orenburgsky platok is another highly desirable type of scarf made from the down hair of goats. The real hand spun ones are very warm and yet so delicate and silk-like that the whole scarf can be pulled through a woman’s wedding ring.

Shapka ushanka

If you want to look as much a tourist as possible during your time in Russia, but cool beyond belief back home, then of course you need to get a Russian fur hat or shapka ushanka with ear flaps. Anything with red stars on earns you double spot-the-tourist points. Most of the things you can get in markets are made from fake fur, but real fur hats (which are exceedingly warm) can also be found in fur shops for a hefty price.


Valenki are a unique piece of Russian footwear that are specially designed for walking in deep snow. They usually have no firm rubber soles (just the basic shape of a boot) so if you want to wear them about town you will need to buy some rubber kaloshes to cover them with to ensure that they don’t get damaged. Made from sheep’s wool, it is said that they are so warm and well insulated that you can wear them with no socks on. In fact wearing them without socks is said to be good for you as the rough wool exfoliates the skin. The Valenki factory Gorizont in Moscow is the perfect place to shop for cheap authentic valenki with groovy designs on them and the factory museum can show you how they are made.


             Pavlovsky platok          Ushanka         Valenki

Vodka and Caviar

They compliment each other as perfectly as beer and crisps or strawberries and cream. The best vodka brands come out under the Russky standart label although Ladoga and Berozka are also good brands. For something more touristy look out for Kalashnikov or Matrioshka vodka in special shaped bottles. Black beluga caviar is still one of the most expensive foods on the planet and a small jar can set you back more than $100 if you buy it in the market. Never buy caviar from street touts, more often than not it is fake and/or illegal.


This traditional red, black and gold Russian design generally painted onto wooden household items dates back to the 18th century. If you haven’t much space in your luggage pick up a spoon and sugar pot, or if you have space for more you can find almost anything with khokhloma on from tea trays to kitchen tables. Bosco sport (the company who dress the Russian Olympic team) also do a nice line in khokhloma inspired clothing.


Gzhel is a style of pottery unique to a handful of villages southwest of Moscow. Painted in a distinctive blue and white glaze, it became very popular in the 18th century when the potters discovered how to make pure white porcelain painted with their blue designs. Now gzhel finds its way onto everything from teapots to, yes you guessed it, matrioshkas.


These traditional religious paintings of Russian saints are made on wood, often with lots of gilding. Genuine icons predate the Russian Revolution and are now expensive antiques. Look for them antique stores, not tourist markets. Contemporary reproductions and originals are made for the tourist trade. Depending on the artist, these may cost $50 and higher, again, depending on size, the artist, and the work involved. Good gifts for religious friends.


        Khokhloma    Gzhel  

Soviet memorabilia

Soviet memorabilia make excellent and unique souvenirs to make your friends at home chuckle. From glorious Soviet advertising posters (available in most bookshops) to pins and badges, vodka flasks and CCCP flags, these pieces of cultural history are irresistible. Lots of the stuff you may find in the average market are quite possibly fake, but sometimes real gems also do turn up. If you are taking something back with you that is more than 50 years old, you should be aware that you will need to get permission for it from the Cultural Security Department (Rosokhrankultura). Depending on the value of the item they may permit you to export it. Anything over 100 years old (aka pre-revolutionary) is not usually allowed to leave the country. Weekend flea markets are the best places to search for authentic Soviet junk at bargain prices.

       Russian icons       Russian icons        Russian icons