Dolls, Santas, and Shawls: A Quick-Reference Guide for the Shopaholic in Russia

So, what happens when two bargain shoppers who love a good challenge head to Russia for two weeks?

We shop.

Sort of. I mean, it’s not like my mom and I came home toting extra suitcases full of souvenirs we’ll never look at again, or that we came home saddled with bags stuffed full of cheesy tourist souvenirs made of plastic. During our two weeks on our Viking River Cruises Waterways of the Tsars trip, we shopped carefully, compared prices, kept our eyes on certain items we knew we wanted, and learned some critical Russian phrases to help us when speaking with local shopkeepers and the artisans in the open-air markets. The Viking staff recommended the best markets for bargaining, the best for getting a good price, and the best for finding unique or hard-to-find artisanal products. We took all of their recommendations, zipped up our purses, put on our good walking shoes, and hit the markets everywhere we went.

Here’s what we came home with, complete with the price we paid (roughly translated to American dollars) and where we bought it. As always, shop local, know how to spot imposters or fake products, and make sure to support ethical working conditions for the artists by finding out who made the items you’re buying. Enjoy!

1. Matroyshka Dolls – $12 (bargained down from $20)- Church of the Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg

The first set of Russian nesting dolls surfaced in the 1890s by Russian carpenter Vasily Zvyozdochkin, and since then, the matroyshka (or, “matron”) dolls and daughters have become iconic to the country of Russia.


Make sure to avoid the mass-produced ones that were painted by machine, unless you don’t care how they dolls were made. The hand-painted ones will likely be signed by the artist on the bottom of the biggest doll and will likely have imperfections, some dripped paint on the insides, and personalities all their own. Because I bought my dolls on my first day in St. Petersburg (oh, the newbie!), I’m pretty sure I bought machine-painted ones….

Live and learn 🙂

2. Faberge Egg Charm – $30 – Viking’s Gift Shop


3. Chinchilla Scarf – $32 (bargained down from $40) – Open-air market in Uglich

This was something my mom debated for a long time about buying. A chinchilla scarf isn’t something she’d normally have in her closet (who would?), but after we walked up and down the Uglich open-air market, she kept coming back to the soft, rabbit-like fur scarf on the rack outside a small clothing store’s kiosk. Though there were many markets selling chinchilla scarves around Russia, she was particularly drawn to this one because it had a sweet rose in the center and it was just long enough to be stylish but not overbearing. After a little bit of negotiating (you’re welcome, mom!), the seller agreed to sell it for 2090 rubles (about 32 USD). She’s absolutely thrilled with it and had no buyer’s remorse whatsoever, so I’d say that regardless of whether or not it’s real chincilla, a rabbit, or faux fur, this is one souvenir that’s going to get a lot of face time in the winter.


4. Father Frost Statue – $10 (bargained 2/$20 instead of 1 for $15)- Open-air market in Uglich

I love the story behind the Father Frost statues, because it demonstrates–at least for me–the resilience and power of language in the face of religious prosecution and political oppression. (And yes, they’re also really cute). In the early years of the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the Soviet regime, Christmas traditions were obliterated, arguably due to their alignment with religious, bourgeois society and Western influence. Even displays and depictions of Ded Moroz, the non-denominational Russian wizard of winter (commonly known in English as “Father Frost”), were banned, likely due to being too closely aligned with Western ideologies and the American version of Santa Claus. However, a decade later, in the 930s, Stalin reintroduced the cultural icon of Father Frost throughout the Soviet Bloc as a way to inspire nationalism and instill a sense of cultural pride in its citizens.

In terms of what to look for, it’s most common to see the Father Frosts wearing outfits of snowy scenes filled with snow maidens, angels, children, and traditional Troikas (three horses pulling the ubiquitous sleigh). Though this is somewhat controversial, some towns have even gone so far as to “Westernize” their pieces, adding in scenes of the American version of Saint Nicholas, aspen Christmas trees decorated with balls and ornaments, nicely-wrapped presents, and families sitting around a fire in a living room reading books or drinking hot chocolate.

Note: Sadly, I’ve already packed away my box of Christmas ornamentss, so in lieu of my own photo, here’s an example of what my Father Frost looks like (thanks, Ebay). My own Ded Moroz will resurface in December 🙂

father frost

5. Lacquer Box – $8 – Open-air market in Uglich

Lacquer boxes (perfect for storing jewelry or keys) is a popular Russian souvenir. Basically, they started being produced after the Revolution by unemployed artists who formally created religious art and icons to supplement their loss of income. After the fall of the Soviet Union, perspectives on religion were compromised and, quite frankly, pretty negative, so the artists began thinking about what people would like to buy and decided to start producing small colored boxes with lids displaying images of Russian life, architecture, and landscapes that could be sold to children, tourists, and women.


It’s a labor-intensive process, with each layer on the boxes being painted individually and requiring a lengthy drying time. This means that a single box can take months to make…and now, as the buying demographic has shifted to tourists, it also means that the boxes are incredibly expensive. A hand-carved, hand-painted lacquer box can cost upwards of $100. A counterfeit one, on the other hand, can be as cheap as $5-$10. As you can see by the price I paid above, I am quite sure I bought a counterfeit one, but I really, really needed something to hold my ring when I go the gym, so I bought one. And even though it’s not authentic, I love it.

6. Homepathic Tea – $6 – Mandrogy Market


First things first. Russians love tea. They are not a coffee-drinking culture (I didn’t know this until I got there), but rather a tea-drinking one. According to legend, more than 85% of Russians drink tea every day. I have no idea where this statistic comes from, so take it as you will, but even still: that’s a pretty hefty number of daily tea drinkers.

I bought a little bag of homeopathic tea from a sweet young girl dressed in traditional Russian clothing in a very touristy-trap kind of place, but I have to admit: the tea is spectacular. I bought it not because I had to have the tea, but rather because the girl and I had such a lovely time talking with each other that I couldn’t resist buying something. The tea is handmade in Mandrogy, and the young shopkeeper and her husband (along with their one-year-old baby) live there year-round, cultivating the tea for half the year and selling it to tourists for the other half. I’ve been drinking the tea, which has lots of lemongrass and mint in it, in the mornings when I’m writing, and it’s wonderful. I’ve been brewing three cups from the same leaves!

6. Decorative Shawl – $20 – St. Petersburg

My mom bought this shawl from an open-air kiosk in downtown St. Petersburg. I don’t know much about scarf culture in Russia, but I can tell you that shawls are pretty ubiquitous here. Nearly every city we visited was selling them, so if you’re into pretty decorative pieces for your fall and winter wear, I highly suggest one of these beauties 🙂 Thanks for the photo, mom!


7. Kremlin Vodka and Kizhi Flask – $18 (vodka) and $6 (flask) – Moscow and Kizhi Island

Now, I know I said above that it’s not like I toted home a whole extra suitcase full of souvenirs here, but when it comes to the Kremlin Vodka, I almost wish I had. For one thing, it is SO AFFORDABLE in Russia – I bought an entire bottle for my husband from a supermarket in Moscow for less than $20. Here in the States, you can find it, but if you want to buy it, the same exact bottle sells on the internet for nearly $75. Secondly, my husband Ryan absolutely LOVES it. Though he’s no real connoisseur of the stuff, he told me that this vodka is the best vodka he’s ever had, period. Talk about a successful gift!

DSC_3747Similarly, the little faux-leather flask I bought Ryan to go along with the vodka was a nice addition. I bought it in one of the gift shops on Kizhi Island, particularly because I love the word Kizhi on the front and the embossing of the Church of the Transfiguration. Ryan loves it, too, because he can now drink his vodka stealthily and in secret, no matter where he is….


Yours in travel,


A special thanks to Viking River Cruises and the staff on the Viking Truvor for hosting our stay and for making sure I knew what to buy when it came to supporting the local Russian economy!

Down the Svir and the Volga: Reflections on a Russian River Cruise, Part 2

From May 29th to June 11th, my mom, Kay Mock, and I joined Viking River Cruises on their enigmatic and incredibly special Waterways of the Tsars cruise, an experience that changed both of us in unexpected ways. Neither of us had ever been to Russia before, and what made this trip even more special was that it was my mom’s first international voyage. That, along with getting to know Russia much more deeply than I expected, are what made this trip one of the best of my life. In this special three-part series, my mom and I share our experiences as a baby boomer and a millennial—women with two very different perspectives on a country that, above all else, is full of surprises.

Kristin: After our three days in St. Petersburg, mom and I were devastated to leave our new favorite city, but we knew we also had a lot of exciting stops along the way as we sailed to Moscow. As this was my first cruise, I had no idea what to expect during “cruising days,” or, days that were spent primarily sailing down the rivers rather than docked at a port, but I assumed I’d be sleeping in, drinking a lot of coffee, and writing.


Wow, was I wrong. We never sat still! We attended all of the free courses Viking’s crew offered, including history lessons on the Romanovs, Russia during the Cold War, contemporary Russian society and culture, and Cyrillic language lessons. We took pelmeni cooking classes (remind you to tell you about that experience sometime), attended vodka tasting classes, and went to every cocktail hour and Russian food tastings up on the deck. It’s quite possible to drink at every hour of the day on a Viking cruise, should you want to… 🙂


Because my mom and I are both language nerds, we took serious notes during the language lessons and had the entire alphabet down by the second lesson. For me, I’ve become pretty fearless with stepping all over my tongue while practicing a new language, so I’m no longer embarrassed when my Dobraye ootro comes out a little mangled (by the way, for those of you non-Russian speakers, that’s “good morning”). My mom, on the other hand, was a little bit of a harder sell: getting her to practice took a bit of cajoling and pep talks, but by our second language lesson, I had her practicing her Russian with the staff and crew on the ship.

“Our language is so special because we even have the sound a bug makes.” –Andrey, our tour guide and language instructor on how to pronounce the letter ж

Kay: I still can’t believe I learned the Russian alphabet.


Kristin: The best part was when I got home, gave my husband the bottle of Kremlin vodka I’d bought him, and basically translated the language on the bottle for him. He was floored! (And by the way, I am not getting paid in any way to endorse this vodka, but I will tell you this: Ryan had one sip and declared it the best vodka he had ever tasted). And it is SO MUCH CHEAPER to buy in Russia…I bought a bottle at a local supermarket for 1150 rubles (about $18) that sells here in the U.S. for nearly seventy dollars.

Kay: As our itinerary continued, I was struck constantly by the number and significance of the treasures Russia has within her borders. It may sound naïve, but I was enchanted and amazed by the number of sights and the history we experienced but also by the level of artisanship in each and every site we visited. Clearly, the creators and builders of many structures we visited were masters of their trade.


One of the nicer aspects of a river cruise is the visits to places along the way between the major cities. Mandrogy, a quaint village along the Svir River, boasts a vodka museum and places to shop for handmade Russian crafts. I chose to participate in Matryoshka doll-painting while my daughter chose a Banya (traditional Russian bath house) experience. I was glad I chose the doll experience. My daughter Kristin was pleased with the Banya.



Kristin: It took me forever to convince my mom to do the painting class—but she learned so much! She told me about their origins as wooden dolls in the late 1890s, and the celebration of mothers and daughters that the dolls represent. She even told me that each doll has a story “written into” it: those who hold roosters in their arms, for example, are celebrating their happy marriages.

Here’s my mom’s gorgeous matroyshka doll, all painted, with a rooster in her arms!



As for me, I’m leaving the Banya for another story, but I’ll tell you this: Any bath house is going to test your ability to strip down in front of strangers, but in Banya, not only do you keep your bathing suit on (typically), but you even wear a huge Russian wool hat that weighs about 10 pounds. Stay tuned….

Kay: Mandrogy has a lot of boutiques and shops near the ship docks, too. After the painting class, I purchased two beautiful necklaces, one for a friend and one for me, made of Eudialyte, a rare lovely purple crystal found expressly in the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Supposedly, Eudialyte carries positive vibrations, and has an ability to assist heart based loving energy to fill your life. It has a strong ability to cause coincidence or synchronicity to occur in your life. Well, I don’t know about that….but I will take all the help I can get. Besides, it’s very pretty!

“I’ve been working on cruise ships for 17 years and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Viking is my home base now.” –Wilhelm, our Hotel Manager on the Viking Truvor


Kay: Other stops along our way were a welcome continuation of a fabulous itinerary. We took a bit of a detour up Lake Onega to the island of Kizhi. It is less than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle! There we marveled over this UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the oldest inhabited sites in Russia. The island presents the incredible Transfiguration Church, built entirely of wood without a single nail, including the 22 wooden onion domes. We learned that the only implement available to the original builders was the ax; I could not fathom how the intricately designed shingles adorning the onion domes could have possibly been created with just an ax. However, we stopped by to watch a very talented gentleman carve identical ones to be used in the current and ongoing restoration of this lovely construct using, yes, only an ax.


An interesting aside to this church is the play of light on the carefully carved and arranged shingles. While they are wooden, as is the entire structure, they shine silver in the sun.

Kristin: I seriously cannot imagine what life was like up there in the 17th century. It must have been really, really cold.

Even though we had to take a bit of a detour to get all the way up there, traveling north to Kizhi Island—and walking around inside the magnificent Church of the Transfiguration—was one of the most magical experiences we had in Russia. Not only is there something, well, hauntingly wonderful about being so close to the Arctic Circle in the summertime, but Kizhi has a kind of aura that I’ve never really felt anywhere. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a “new age” spiritist, but I do believe that there’s something really special up there on that island. Go there, walk around, feel the wind as it winds through the long yellow grasses, watch the water lap up onto the shore, and listen to the sounds of the gulls as they perch on the balconies of the churches….and I guarantee you you’ll feel it, too.


Kay: We then proceeded on to Kirillo-Belozersky along the Volga-Baltic Waterway and cruised on to Yaroslavl, a Golden Ring city, many of these figuring prominently in the history and establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church. Founded in the early 11th century, it is picturesque and architecturally significant. A highlight here was a visit to a local food market where many of the vendors wanted a picture with us, tours of the incredibly intricate cathedral interiors, and a visit to the Governor’s Mansion, where we were treated to a chamber group who performed for us in the ballroom. I was too nervous to get up and dance, but some people did!

Kristin: I definitely did not get up and dance. Those poor Russians would not have wanted to see this awkward girl try to ballroom dance.

By the way, did we mention the monastery was founded in the early 11th century?



Kay: Then on to Uglich, where the oldest records of the town date to 1148. Some of the most beautiful churches and monasteries are here and the history of them is fascinating. A small group of us were invited to the home of a lovely resident, Elizabeta, who served us vodka, the requisite pickle chaser, tea and cake while showing us family pictures and her considerable kitchen garden. And by the way, the pickles and vodka were homemade by Elizabeta.




Kristin: Let me say this: Andrey had to talk me and my mom into the excursion at Elizabeta’s house, and I am so, so, so glad he did. Before we went, I worried that the excursion would be like this: a horde of tourists traipsing through a local family’s home, taking photos of everything the family holds dear and exoticizing everything about the way they live their simple lives, while the local family tries to act gracious and await their tips.

I don’t know why I thought it’d be like that—Viking doesn’t do cheesy, invasive, or disrespectful. Everything they do is integrated and immersive, but in a highly respectful way. Our trip to Elizabeta’s was up there with my absolute favorite activities of the trip.



First, there were only 12 of us (by no means a horde!), and we took a local bus to her house instead of driving up in the huge tour bus. We got off at a stop near her house and went up as a group to her front door, where she was waiting with her two grandkids. Though she didn’t speak any English, she took us on a tour of her home, showed us her outdoor garden (cabbage, kale, and carrot lovers take note—her garden puts any other summer vegetable garden I’ve seen to shame!), introduced us to some homemade vodka she’d made by pouring us really liberal shots (extremely liberal pours are kind of commonplace in Russia!) and talked to us a little bit about life in Uglich. A math teacher by trade, she showed us pictures of her and her students, and with the help of Andrey’s excellent translation skills, talked to each one of us about our lives, our jobs, and our families. Because I’d been practicing my Russian so diligently, I’m proud to say that we had an entire conversation in Russian (albeit a short one!), and I told her how delicious her moonshine was. Delighted by my burgeoning Russian skills, she poured me another. Keep in mind, it was still before noon, and I was three shots of homemade moonshine in….



“A Russian won’t lie to you—instead, she’ll ‘hang noodles on your ears.’ –Elizabeta, our host form our home visit in Uglich, on the character of Russian people

It’s also interesting how Viking has found hosts for these special, intimate host visits. I asked Andrey about it after our trip as we headed back to the Truvor, and he told me that they hold interviews every summer before the summer cruises start and hire a few families every year who agree to open up their homes to the visitors from Viking. As the ship only goes back and forth a few times throughout the summer, the families don’t tire of the work: and they often have just as much fun as the tourists do.

Kay: Those pickles and tea cakes: delicious! I could really get used to this. Thanks for the treats, Elizabeta!

Up next: Next week, Mom and I will be dishing about our journey to Russia’s capital, the gorgeous city of Moscow.

A very special thanks to Viking River Cruises and the team on the Viking Truvor for hosting my mom and me on our unforgettable first river cruise. If you’d like to see the full itinerary, you can see it on Viking’s site or in my previous blog post!