From Russia with Gifts: Souvenirs

Travelling to another country is a one-of-a-kind experience; upon your return home, you’ll definitely have enough stories to tell - or maybe even to write your own version of “There and Back Again”! Still, it is always great to have some memorabilia of your journey - not to forget the exotic gifts that your friends and family will definitely expect from you! Following our article on the different foods you can bring home from Russia, we’ve decided to give you an account of the more lasting items that will remind you of your stay here.

Personally, I’ve always believed that fridge magnets, calendars and “I ♥ [insert country here]” T-shirts are just too trivial to be a treasured keepsake of your journey to a faraway place. Every country has its unique souvenirs, and Russia is no exception - so let’s take a look at the most popular options!

Matryoshka doll. This wooden doll is arguably the most recognizable Russian souvenir; basically, it is a set of wooden dolls that separate top from bottom and stack one into the other. Traditionally, they are painted to resemble a girl in a colorful dress, though nowadays you may find different designs, including sets styled after politicians, historical figures or fictional characters. Matryoshkas have no particular use except for placing one on your shelf, though many people like to store small objects in the smallest of the dolls, much like in a Chinese nesting box.

Traditional crafts. Wooden cutlery, clay pottery and toys, birch bark boxes and the like. There are several styles in which those can be painted, the most notable being Khokhloma (red, green, and gold flower patterns over a black background) and Gzhel (blue on a white background). Fun fact: in Russia, a pair of wooden spoons actually counts as a traditional musical instrument.

Ushanka hats. A truly symbolic headwear from the Soviet times, and still a popular attire in many Northern countries, the ushanka has long been seen as the attribute of a stereotypical Russian, along with vodka, balalaika, and a bear.

Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Soviet police officer in Red Heat (1988)
Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Soviet police officer in Red Heat (1988)

Jokes aside, these are really warm, comfy, and come in a wide price range, from the cheap souvenir hats to the real fur ones. By the way, the distinctive earflaps are actually a well-thought-out design solution that allows wearing an ushanka in three different manners, providing for either better cold protection or visibility. In any case, an ushanka is not just a great souvenir, but something you can wear on a regular basis, so you should definitely consider buying one!

Shawls and headscarves. These may well be the few pieces of the traditional Russian costume that are still seen as fashionable. These sizable, colorful garments are really beautiful and make great gifts for women of any age. Note that the shawls made in Pavlovsky Posad or Orenburg are considered the best.

Telnyashka. Much like the ushanka, this piece of clothing is usually associated with the Soviet times and the Russian military. These horizontally striped undershirts come in different designs and colors; you can see people wearing all kinds of them during such holidays as the Navy Day and especially the Paratrooper Day. Being exceptionally warm and relatively thin, telnyashkas make perfect versatile clothing that is very popular with hikers and just about anyone who like to spend time among the nature. There’s even a saying: "We are few in number, but we wear telnyashkas!", which means that if you have one, you are ready for almost anything!

Podstakannik. Russians are very fond of drinking tea, and have developed their own traditions for how to do it. One of the basic rules is that tea has to be as hot as possible - which is basically the sole purpose of the famed samovar, an elaborate tea kettle where water is constantly heated. Still, drinking tea from very hot cups can be a problem - which led to the invention of another unique utensil.

Tea in a glass with a podstakannik as served on Russian Railroads
Tea in a glass with a podstakannik as served on Russian Railroads

The word “podstakannik” literally means "the thing under the glass"; it is an elaborately-decorated tea-glass holder with a handle which was extremely widespread in the 20th century and is still popular for serving tea on the Russian Railways. As tea glasses are usually quite plain, the holders are finely decorated, which makes them great souvenirs; a good sip of hot tea from a glass in a podstakannik will surely bring back fond memories of Russia.

Valenki
Valenki

Valenki are traditional felt winter boots for walking on dry snow;  they are oftentimes worn with galoshes - rubber overshoes that keep them from getting wet. The set looks quite original and totally Russian; once a piece of apparel you would only see in remote villages, valenki have recently made a comeback and are now regaining their popularity, especially as children’s shoes.

Original Cheburashka doll from the animated series
Original Cheburashka doll from the animated series

Cheburashka. Picking a Russian souvenir to give to a child can be really tricky, as matryoshkas’ and traditional clay dolls aren’t really good as toys. The Cheburashka is one of the few exceptions - these stuffed toys depicting a popular Soviet cartoon character are cute and really popular with kids, though the effect won’t be complete unless they watch the original cartoon (luckily, it is available in English).

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