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