It's not all just about Russian dolls and fur hats! Russia offers a wide variety of traditional souvenirs worth spending your money on.
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.
Russian lacquer boxes are some of the finest Russian handicrafts still produced here. Creating the distinctive shiny black layer using many coats of lacquer and then painting on the front minute scenes from Russian fairytales and folklore, requires skilled masters. Usually the real ones feel a lot heavier than regular painted wooden boxes and should have the signature of the artist on both sides of the lid. The area around Yaroslavl is particularly famed for the skill of its lacquer box artists.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.