Russia has always been known for its rich culture and handicraft tradition. Throughout history handmade goods have been used for various purposes and by people of different social status. Some of them were exclusive property of Russian tsars that adorned their feasts or served as unique room interiors. Other items, such as traditional clothes or handmade children toys, were just a part of life for ordinary people. Even today, many of these goods, are passed down from generation to generation, and along with Russian traditional gastronomic products and beverages, become a perfect souvenir for tourists.
Below are a few tips on what you can bring home from Russia and what stories may be hidden behind these peculiar things.
Russian Folk Ornaments
Icon painting remained the main art form in Russia until the 17th century, while secular decorative art has been developing since the ancient times. Nowadays, these various colorful ornament patterns are well known all over the world and are frequently associated with Russia. The painting tradition emerged in several small cities and villages as a way to decorate furniture, household utensils and clothes, and has been preserved for generations by local craftsmen. There is a vast variety of ornamental techniques and each of them has its own name, often the same as the name of the area where craftsmen lived. Few people know that the choice of colors and patterns in some of the ornaments is not random but has a particular symbolic sense.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the beginning of anti-religious propaganda many icon painters were gradually forced to alter their occupation. For example, a small Russian town Palekh was historically known by its great masters of iconography; however, after the Revolution the painters founded an artistic workshop and started to produce painted items for sale. Thus Palekh design appeared, in which craftsmen depicted stories from Russian folk fairytales using icon-painting techniques. Here, black color serves as a background and symbolizes chaos giving birth to living being, whereas gold tones signify the sun and red tints depict beauty (following this logic you can also understand the initial meaning of the Red Square’s name:)).
Another style, Khokhloma, is also quite recognizable due to its floral motives on various wooden items. Here, the craftsmen are inspired by the beauty of nature and used black, gold, green and red colors to celebrate nature’s power and generosity.
Similarly, the dark floral theme was adorned by Zhostovo masters who traditionally worked with trays. On the contrary, Gzhel porcelain factory design is famous for its light white and blue palette.
These are only a few examples of numerous types of folk ornamental designs. If you travel to Moscow you can easily find these beautiful handmade things (or even try to make them yourself!) at the gorgeous Izmailovo flea market.
Dymkovo or Vyatka figurine tradition dates back to the 15th century. The toy was originally made of clay, and often could be made by children themselves. Both children and parents enjoyed the creation process as well as the finished items. The toys were often designed as whistles and used for this purpose on the pagan spring festival.
Matryoshka doll (nested doll) is one of the main symbols of Russia. The wooden doll contains several dolls of different size, hidden one into another fascinating people both by its simplicity and mysteriousness. Despite common misconception, the toy is a relatively new “invention” and gained prominence only in late 19th century. The first doll was hand painted by the artist Sergey Malutin from Sergiev Posad and later presented to the world by the famous patron of the arts - Savva Mamontov. Today Sergiev Posad remains the oldest still functioning manufacturing center of Matryoshka dolls. To visit the birthplace of the traditional toy and admire the architectural ensemble of the Trinity Lavra check out our tour to the city!
Another mysterious character – Cheburashka - keeps winning the hearts of both Russian and foreign folks since the famous tale and cartoon appeared in the Soviet Russia. The story is about the friendship of Gena the crocodile and Cheburashka, the charming animal with big eyes and round ears, who is often confused with a hare or a bear. Cheburashka gained world prominence when he became the official symbol of the Russian Olympic Team.
Kaliningrad region, the westernmost part of Russia, has 90% of the world's amber reserves. Amber is a mineral gemstone formed from tree resin. During the imperial era amber jewelry was one of the most prestigious gifts, yet today thanks to the industry development - amber items have become much more affordable compared to other gems.
The most sophisticated travelers could imagine themselves as royals by purchasing souvenirs stylized as world-famous Faberge products. Apart from other precious items, from the moment of its foundation the Fabergé company produced about 70 splendid eggs. Some of them were used by the last Russian emperor Nicholas II as gifts to his wife Alexandra on Easter. The modern souvenir shops are full of Fabergé replicas of various sizes, designs and prices.
The original collection of royal amber artifacts and Fabergé production is displayed in the Armory Chamber museum.
Clothes and food
Even if you have never been to Russia during winter time you have probably heard about how severe this season can be. That’s right! Historically harsh climate played an important role during wars and considerably affected our lifestyle, eating habits and the way we dress. Thus, up to the recent times people could not imagine their life without felted boots called Valenki.
Although today this footwear might seem a bit old-fashioned, in older times it served as a good protection from the cold. Another essential attribute is “Ushanka” – a fur hat with ear flaps. Colorful female scarves from Pavlovo Posad or cozy knitted shawls from Orenburg will probably bring your thoughts to a warm and hospitable image of a Russian “babushka” (grandmother). Indeed, many families inherit these things from their grandparents but it seems like they will never go out of fashion.
Finally, here in Russia you will find a great variety of dishes and beverages to try and lots of products to bring home as a souvenir.
Caviar has always been a favorite delicacy on festive tables whether on New Year’s Eve or Maslenitsa (when we celebrate the end of winter and eat pancakes with various dressings including red caviar). Compared to black caviar, the red one is more affordable and can easily be found in most stores.
There is no doubt that vodka tops the list of the most famous Russian drinks and so perfectly serves as a souvenir. Another non-alcoholic but more specific beverage is Kwas (made from rye bread).
The less exotic but no less beloved taste of Russia are the sweets and chocolates of different types and brands. Rot Front, Red October, Babayevsky are the most recognizable confectionary brands in Russia. Not a single sweet tooth can resist pastila or zefir, “soft siblings” of marshmallow made mainly of fruit puree.
Souvenir shopping can be much easier and fun with a local expert. Together with our guides you can visit flea markets to buy the souvenirs, attend a craft master-class and savor typical national dishes and drinks.