Every corner of Russia has something different to offer. When travelling around, it’s always best to buy items from their place of origin – it’s a great way to ensure authenticity, and to support those who keep these traditional businesses alive. With that in mind, here’s your shopping list for your next trip to Russia.
Moscow is the birthplace of Russia’s most iconic souvenir – matryoshka, beautifully hand painted wooden nesting dolls that perfectly fit inside each other. What started as an idea for a child’s toy has developed through time to become a work of art. There are also souvenirs that can be brought back from the villages around the Moscow region that are famous for their handicrafts – for example, traditional Russian shawls with floral detailing come from the town of Pavlovsky Posad, just 70 km (44 miles) out of Moscow, while hand-painted metal trays come from the village of Zhostovo in the Moscow region.
In St Petersburg you can find just about any type of Russian souvenir on the market – that’s what happens when a city becomes a tourist hub. Yet for those who are in search of something uniquely from St Petersburg, the best choice would be visiting some of the shops of the Imperial Porcelain Factory. In the late 18th century, Russian scientists developed their own formula for porcelain, to supply the growing demand of the royal family for ‘white gold’. Now as it is widely available, there is something for every taste and budget.
Karelia is a region in Russia, bordering Finland, with unique and beautiful nature including lakes and pine forests. Such particular conditions mean that plants that grow here are not like those in the rest of Russia. One such plant or rather berry is cloudberry, rich in vitamin C. When they are overripe their berries make for great, slightly sweetened jam. It can be used on toast, ice cream, pancakes, basically like any other jam, or just by the spoon, because its so delicious.
Another iconic Russian handicraft is khokhloma – although the name may not ring a bell for everyone, the iconic design of red and gold patterns on a black background can be seen on any souvenir shelf or store. This iconic craft originated in the town of Nizhny Novgorod in the 17th century. The secret ingredient of the paints that bring the object their bright golden colour is the tin powder, used in its base. Now that the production of this handicraft has become more automated, travelling to its birthplace will ensure quality, but will also support the craftsmen keeping this tradition alive.
Kaliningrad is a Russian exclave wedged between Poland, Lithuania and the Baltics. This location gives the city access to a treasure of the Baltic Shore – amber, small fragments of tree sap that have been preserved for millions of years in the water or under the ground, giving a variety of colours and sometimes the inclusion of pieces of grass and leaves from the dinosaur age. Amber can be polished into jewellery pieces or left untouched as a little keepsake. It’s a souvenir that will never go down in price, and some suggest is also good for your health.
Ekaterinburg is located in the Ural mountains which are rich with various stones and minerals. One of the most beautiful minerals is the copper-rich malachite that has naturally beautiful patterns of green and black. Although it is mined in various places around the world, the Ural deposits are among the richest. You may not be able to get or afford a copy of the giant vase in the Malachite room of the Hermitage museum, but there are little keepsakes that are more affordable, such as bracelets or jewellery boxes. Beware of fake malachite though – real malachite should cold and heavy, so don’t be tricked by a plastic substitute.
The south of Russia is famous for all the things that don’t grow well in the cold north of the country. The food available here is similar to that of the Caucasus people, therefore typically southern cheeses, deserts and spices are available. If you must narrow it down to one item, a candy called churchkhela should be on the shopping list – it’s a string of nuts dipped into a paste of grape and flour then dried for several days, that comes in different colours and with various nut varieties. Even though it is Georgian, this is the part of Russia where it’s most likely to be like the original product.
The climate of Siberia may be extreme, but the nature here is untouched and clean. Honey produced in this region is ecologically clean and made to the highest standards – many bee farm owners have had the beekeeping business in their families for centuries. Buying natural honey is not as simple as getting some generic jar from the supermarket though – honey comes in different types, depending on which flower the bees have pollinated. The flower affects the colour and also the flavour of the honey, so try some varieties to find your favourite. Siberian honey can also have various herbal inclusions and nuts – a special treat is honey with Siberian pine nuts.
Since the 17th century the lace weavers of Vologda have been perfecting their technique. Here lace is made of linen thread and into intricate thin patterns. The tradition began as an imitation of the lacemaking that was flourishing in Italy and other European countries. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, it was popular for serf-owners to set up mini lacemaking factories in their estates. Later, after the revolution, Vologda once again became an authority in the lacemaking business. Although lace is not part of our everyday wardrobe anymore tablecloths, napkins and curtains made of Vologda lace be an elegant addition to an interior.
The Baikal region is renowned for the beauty of its nature, but most of all for its namesake, Lake Baikal. So the best souvenir to bring from here is something that comes from the lake itself – fish. The Baikal omul is endemic to the lake and is a primary food resource for the people living in the region. Throughout Russia the fish is considered a delicacy and can be found in shops around the lake. The fish is usually sold smoked, making it easy for transporting, but can also be eaten salted. It is used as an ingredient in a dish called stroganina, which consists of finely chopped frozen omul served with spices and onion.