Just about anything you can buy in Western cities can be bought in comparable-sized Russian equivalents. There are plenty of attractive souvenirs, if you know where to look (the shopping sections in each chapter of this book will help), and most regions still have some local craft specialties, even if the Soviet years have killed off others.
Few visitors leave Russia without a matryoshka, the set of wooden dolls within dolls. In recent years they’ve become a true folk art, with all manner of intricate painted designs, some witty and humorous, others more traditional. Hunt around: some of these dolls can be poorly painted caricatures of Soviet and Russian leaders, the Keystone Cops – you name it. Small, mass-produced sets can go for a couple of dollars, but the best could set you back US$100 – for this price you can take along a family photo to Moscow’s lzmaylovsky Park and come back the following week to collect your own personalized matryoshka set.
Palekh (named after the town east of Moscow where they originated) are also of variable quality, although they’re usually even more expensive. These enameled wooden boxes have intricate scenes painted in the lid, with the best costing several hundred dollars. Cheaper, but cheerful, are the gold, red and black wooden bowls, mugs and spoons from Khokhloma, a bit farther east, which are widely available.Another attractive Russian craft is Gzhel, the blue-and-white ornamental china also named after its home town cast of Moscow.
Russia’s trademark textile is the babushka scarf (officially the ‘Pavlovsky Posad ker chief’ – or pavlovoposadsky platok – once again named after a home town east of Moscow ). These fine woolen scarves with floral designs go for R300 or more in shops, but you may find cheaper ones in markets. Other Russian textiles include wool shawls so fine they look like lace.
Yantar (amber) from the Baltic coast is a jeweler specialty, but beware of fake stuff in St Petersburg and Moscow markets and shops. A good necklace or ring might be US$50 to US$200.
Russian records and cassettes – rock, jazz, classical – are a bargain at less than R100.
However, Russia is also one of the world’s largest markets for bootleg recorded music, videos and computer software, with all manner of pirated versions available for sale in kiosks, underground passageways, markets and stores. Just remember: you get what you pay for. Be especially wary of cheap software, as it’s rumored that 75% of all CD ROMs sold in Russia contain a defect or virus.
More souvenir ideas: paintings from street artists and art markets (there’s some talent amid the kitsch); art and children’s books from bookshops; posters (old Socialist exhortation and modern social commentary) from bookshops or specialist plakat (poster) shops; and little Lenin busts sold at street stands and tourist markets.