Spring semester students will get better deals by going souvenir shopping earlier in the semester (February-March), before tourist season starts in the warmer weather and vendors jack up the prices accordingly. As a fall semester student, you’re better off waiting to buy souvenirs until later in the semester (November-December), when most tourists have left.
As with any major city, there are well-stocked souvenir shops all along the main street (Nevskiy Prospekt) and the historic core, in addition to the gift shops in most museums (if you want to pay museum gift shop prices). These stores do tend to be more expensive and have fixed prices, so you can’t argue the cost down if you think it’s a bad deal. The plus side is that they usually have a good selection of high-quality folk art and classier souvenirs like jewelry—not so much the Soviet memorabilia, though.
For a more interesting experience, I would recommend one of the two more popular outdoor markets in St. Petersburg, both for their lower prices and for the fun of it. One is located across from the Church on the Spilled Blood, a major downtown tourist attraction. The target audience is tourists, so almost all of the vendors are selling tourist favorites like matryoskas, keychains, snowglobes, magnets, T-shirts, and a great selection of traditional wooden toys/decorations. Most of these are slightly cheaper than what you could find at a gift shop, or at least here it’s possible to haggle the price down. There are a few Soviet-era items available (pins, medals, hats), but the prices are inflated.
The second market is Udelnaya flea market, named for the nearest metro stop (on the blue line) and bus station (bus 40 goes right to the IMOP student dorm). It’s open pretty much every day from sunrise to sunset, as long as the weather is decent—go on a warmer, sunnier day in the early afternoon when more vendors are likely to be there. Unlike the downtown market, there is no real “target audience” at Udelnaya, and there’s no real “theme,” either. There is a good mix of locals and expats/tourists buying electronics, secondhand clothes, furniture, traditional souvenirs, car parts, books, food (questionable), Soviet memorabilia, pirated video games and DVDs…almost anything. In fact, probably anything, if you knew who to ask. The further back you go, the weirder and cheaper the selection gets (it starts out with clothing). Dress warmly and give yourself at least two hours. No AIFS student has ever had problems there, but you should keep track of your bag/wallet and bring only what you’re planning to spend, in small denominations.
In outdoor markets, some haggling is expected—you will also get a better deal if you aren’t dressed in noticeably expensive/foreign clothes and at least make an attempt to use Russian. A lot of American students seem to have paranoia about getting cheated or ripped off, but I don’t think that’s somewhat unfounded here in Russia, especially given the extremely favorable exchange rate. Even the more expensive souvenir items are much cheaper here than their equivalents would be in the States. Just have a basic idea of what the price for a given item is in dollars, and determine if you would pay that back home, or if it works with your current budget. Don’t give the vendors crap about their prices, even if you think they might be too high. They’re the ones who are standing outside all day in below-zero temperatures hawking used clothing and handicrafts, so I generally don’t feel like the victim when I pay the first price they ask for.
As the symbol of Russia and its folk traditions, the matryoshka comes in a bewildering array of designs, shapes, and sizes. The traditional dolls are everywhere, but ones featuring Russian, Soviet, or world leaders are also popular.
Soviet-era Pins, Badges, and Medals
Throughout the Soviet period, it seemed that the trend for military insignia trickled down to the non-military masses, and badges were a long-running collecting craze. If you go to any souvenir market, you can find thousands of these for sale. There are pins to commemorate major leaders, space race achievements, Olympic Games, and anniversaries of battles. You can also find most cities, even ones not historically part of Russia. There are also some really strange ones, like sets of dog breeds or models of Aeroflot planes. Keep in mind though, it is technically illegal to export Soviet military medals, so make sure the ones you buy are commemorative rather than awards for actual military achievement. Small badges cost 10-50r, medals or larger badges cost up to 150. Unless really rare or unique, anything over 200 is too much.
The birch tree is considered a symbol of Russian nature. I personally prefer birch boxes to the more expensive lacquer boxes (see below). The carved or stamped designs are beautiful, and the boxes have a nice woodsy smell (which will probably disappear when you stuff it in your luggage to take home, but whatever). Depending on the size and design on the box, expect to pay 200r to 1500r.
Miniature-painting on papier-mâché originated in the late 18th century. Although they often depict age-old images of Russian life—scenes from folktales, galloping troikas, ancient rulers—Palekh boxes (named from their village of origin) did not really flourish until the 20th century, when Soviet law banned the creation of the once-dominant religious art (icon painting), and encouraged folk art as a benign alternative. Some of the boxes are really impressive, with details you need a magnifying glass to really appreciate. Depending on the skill of the craftsman, level of detail, and the size of the box, expect to pay anywhere from 700r to as much as 2000r or more.
Faberge eggs were first commissioned by the Czar in 1885, as an Easter gift for the Czarina. They became a court tradition for the next thirty years, and are emblematic of the late imperial period. There are only fifty-something authentic eggs made in the Faberge family’s workshop, but modern craftsmen in Russia continue the tradition. Even the smallest eggs made today (charms that could be used for earrings, bracelets, or necklaces) are at least 600r, often much more.
These wooden toys are very creative, colorfully painted, and often have moving parts. They usually feature animals in a circle; the most common one has chickens with moveable heads that peck at seeds when you move the toy around. You shouldn’t pay more than 500r.
Unlike in the U.S., there is little to no taboo on wearing real animal fur in Russia. Many people have full-length all-fur coats, and almost all non-fur coats at least have some lining the hood. It’s hard to give a price range, because there can be so much variation when you consider the article of clothing and the animal from which the fur was taken (mink and arctic fox being at the expensive end: 3500-6000r). You can find secondhand items at Udelnaya for very cheap (maybe 1500r for a beaver or red fox hat), but even if in good condition I wouldn’t wear it until you get home and find a good dry cleaner. If you’re from a more liberal state back home, be careful about wearing it as you may generate animal-rights backlash.
These are unique, fairly inexpensive gifts for your friends back home, and can also make great authentic Halloween costumes. I strongly recommend Udelnaya for all things Soviet; items are cheap and plentiful. One of my friends (who was also here last semester) is now a connoisseur of Soviet military headgear, and recommends that the best deals are when you find a vendor who just has one hat among all their other items—they are more likely to give you a low price than a guy who specializes in selling old military accoutrements. A good deal on an officer’s hat is about 250-500r, and a coat 800-1000r.
More affordable (and useful) than most souvenirs, brightly-painted red, black, and gold bowls are purchased by locals as well as tourists. They have a strong enough lacquer coating that you can use them as decorative serving bowls, as long as the food isn’t steaming-hot. You can get a good size bowl and spoon set for about 500r.
The traditional “babushka” woolen shawl is very warm and colorful. Mass-produced polyester versions are everywhere and are typically pretty cheap (400-600r). A real embroidered woolen one is around 700-3000r.
These shawls are elaborately crocheted from very soft, cashmere-type wool. They are usually white, cream-colored, or grey, and resemble giant doilies. Many Russian women, particularly babushkas, are fond of them. Although tissue-thin (they were sometimes known as “ring scarves” because the finest ones could pass through a wedding ring), they are surprisingly warm and comfortable. You can find some (possibly secondhand, or possibly not real cashmere) at Udelnaya for under 500r, but real ones tend to be between 1000-3500r.
Bird of Happiness
According to northern Russian tradition, hanging this bird in your house will bring joy and good luck. They are very beautiful and come in sizes ranging from Christmas ornament size to unreasonably enormous (like a kite). Most are unpainted, but some souvenir shops have more expensive ones with painted designs or even gold leaf. Their shape and delicate wings make them difficult to get home in one piece, so I’d recommend the smallest ones (about 250-300r).
Baltic amber is a big Russian luxury item. You’re not likely to find it at an outdoor market. Most souvenir stores and jewelry stores have amber jewelry and often-bizarre knick-knacks, but they are very expensive (1000r and up). I guess nothing one-ups your neighbor like a giant amber toad though, eh?
A final note: Russia has strict rules and regulations on exporting items of significant “cultural heritage value,” unless you have a permit. These rules are usually applicable to antique items, but they are kind of arbitrary about what constitutes “antique.” A book is only antique if it was printed before Soviet rule, but a samovar is considered antique if it’s pre-1945. If you’re Orthodox and would like to buy an icon, keep in mind that you cannot take it home with you unless it was made very recently. Unless you have a permit, anything you bought can be confiscated and you will not get a refund. If you’re buying something old, get it from a proper dealer and ask about an export permit.
Vodka (and caviar, if you’re into that) is perfectly legal to export, but in limited quantities. The limit is technically two liters, but several students last semester got away with two liter-size bottles and another smaller one.