The souvenirs and folk art of Russia is as colorful and ornate as the city’s famed palaces and cathedrals.
Also called babushka dolls or matryoshka dolls, these nesting dolls are made of wood with painted designs. Usually, there are a minimum of five nesting dolls in a set, but sets can include a dozen or more.
There are three levels of dolls:
- collectors’ dolls which can cost hundreds of dollars (or even in the thousands) depending on how many dolls are in the set and how complex they are, the designs are one-of-a kind;
- Russian-made sets of dolls suitable for use as toys — these are not one-of-a kind; they use stock designs, and may be made using mass production techniques, costs range depending on size and number, but are in the $30 – $100 range;
- Chinese knock-offs are available for about $20 on the street — these might seem to be the choices for young children, although lead paint might be an issue, better to reserve these gifts for children old enough not to eat their toys.
Painted with scenery from Russian folklore, pictures of palaces, or natural themes, these lovely boxes are priced from about $50 to several hundred dollars or even more, depending on the size and the complexity of the artwork. As with dolls, the one-of-a-kind art-boxes are much more expensive that those painted with stock designs. Knock-offs can be had for a few dollars, and make nice gifts for little girls who have treasures to store.
These traditional religious paintings of Russian saints are made on wood, often with lots of gilding. Genuine icons predate the Russian Revolution and are now expensive antiques. Look for them antique stores, not tourist markets. Contemporary reproductions and originals are made for the tourist trade. Depending on the artist, these may cost $50 and higher, again, depending on size, the artist, and the work involved. Good gifts for religious friends.
Real Faberge eggs, of course, are museum pieces, originally made by the House of Faberge from 1885 through 1917. Like Matrushka dolls, they contain secrets; only these secrets are made of jewels and precious metals, not wood. Indeed, the most ornate eggs contain secrets within secrets, and art works within art works. Opening in various ways, they may contain tiny mis-en-scene renderings of palace drawing rooms, or hold a tiny (or not so tiny) jewel. Made of gold and silver or semi-precious stones, they were decorated with gems and enamel. Today’s reproductions are hardly inexpensive: Prices range from about $20 for a tiny very simple egg (one that could be worn as a pendant on a necklace), to several hundred dollars for a larger more complex design. These are a nice present for mom.
As with all countries on the Baltic Sea, amber jewelry is widely available. Baltic amber comes in colors ranging from yellow and green to dark red and even purple. Passengers on Baltic cruises will find a wide selection in all Baltic ports, as well an at the on-board shops. The cost depends on many factors, but amber is available in just about any budget, and makes a unique, easy-to-carry gift.
You will undoubtedly be approached by street peddlers near the entrances to some of the major tourist venues, especially the Hermitage and the Church on the Spilled Blood. Be aware that many of the street souvenirs are knockoffs made in China. You didn’t really expect to get a set of Matrushka dolls for $10, did you?
According to tourist guides of St Petersburg, while many of the street peddlers just want to sell you a string of postcards, some work in tandem with pickpockets or work other scams. Keep an eye on your belongings! That includes your «secret» money belts. Street vendors know where to look. Credit cards are widely accepted in souvenir shops, but it’s safer to use cash than credit cards. There is a healthy industry in credit card fraud in Russia. Here’s where it’s probably not a bad idea to judge a «book by its cover» when buying with a credit card. It’s usually safe to use credit cards in shops you are taken to by guides affiliated with your cruise ship. Never buy a tin of caviar from a guide or street vendor: «good deals» are more likely to involve cat food than caviar.