What kind of souvenir would you want from Russia?
If your preference runs more toward traditional crafts than Soviet paraphernalia, you will probably go for one of those wooden nesting dolls, or a bright babushka scarf. Almost anyone can conjure up the images of those two objects in their mind – that’s how strongly they’ve become associated with Russia. But can you think of any other traditional Russian objects? The world of Russian folk crafts is actually incredibly diverse. Here’s a rundown of 16 most notable styles and objects of Russian handicrafts, which run the gamut from functional to purely decorative.
How could I start this list with anything else?! This wooden nesting doll is as much a symbol of Russia as vodka (ugh) and red Kremlin walls. So, how far back do you think Matryoshka craftsmanship dates? A couple hundred years? 500? More? Actually, this young lady is pretty young indeed – the first one was crafted just 120 years ago!
The first set of Matryoshka dolls consisted of 8 pieces representing a Russian peasant family. Today there are literally millions of variations, from traditional, brightly painted Russian peasant girls to Soviet leaders to Disney characters. Traditional incarnations themselves have endless interpretations: one set might feature scenes from Russian folklore, another – Moscow landmarks. And the sets themselves can be as small as 3 and as big as 50-pieces large! With so much variety I think the hardest part will be picking which one you’d like to take home.
KHOKHLOMA (or HOHLOMA)
Khokhloma is a very vibrant ornamental style of painting that is used on wooden objects: mostly dishes, housewares and sometimes furnishings. Red and gold paint is applied to a black background and the piece is then covered in lacquer, giving it an almost metal-like finish. Stylized flowers, berries and phoenix birds are the most common themes. Resulting table-wares are functional – though for serving food and drink, not cooking it. The art of Khokhloma painting dates back to the 1600’s, and most of the objects produced in that style recreate traditional objects of that style, such as lad’ya – the precursor to a punch bowl, from which everyone would drink with a wooden ladle. Don’t be put off by odd-looking spoons and cups (and click on this link or the photo above for more breathtaking Khokhloma examples)!
These you might have seen before. Black lacquer boxes exquisitely painted with elaborate, highly detailed miniature scenes usually depicting scenes from Russian history and peasant life, folklore and fairy tales. Red and gold are prevalent colors. The technique is very fancy, very precise, and it grew out of the icon-painting tradition of the Palekh township in the 1800s. Proper Palekh miniatures are very expensive, from about $30 for a tiny box that would fit a couple of rings, to tens of thousands dollars for an heirloom chest. That’s right, those miniatures come in rather large sizes – for those who can afford it!
…are sometimes confused with Palekh – but only for those who think all Russian miniature-painted lacquer boxes are created equal (don’t feel bad – that includes most Russians). In contrast to Palekh, Fedoskino miniatures features a light, luminescent background, often created by using reflecting metal powder or mother-of-pearl inlays. The style is more painterly and naturalistic, more like an illustration from a book or, well, a regular painting, rather than the flatter, more icon-like renderings of Palekh. For more absolutely stunning Fedoskino paintings go HERE and HERE. Seriously, DO IT!
I think both Palekh and Fedoskino miniatures are absolutely stunning! And because they are so popular, souvenir shops offer photo-printed versions of the most popular designs – much cheaper than the read deal but almost as beautiful.
This is the famous Babushka (grandma) scarf– except it is worn by Russian girls and women of all ages. The scarf (called platok in Russian) is made of high quality wool. The shawls have been made by pretty much the same manufacturer since the late 1700s. They were exhibited at the 1927 World Fair in Paris and took gold at the 1958 World Exhibition in Brussels. Though the patterns most associated with the Pavloposadsky shawl today are very Russian bright floral garlands on equally bright backgrounds, original designs were influenced by “Eastern” or “Turkish” motifs – think paisley. I have three Pavloposadsky scarves: red (it is HUGE, more like a blanket), dark navy and cobalt. My sister has at least twice as many. Yes, we wear them. A lot.
Dymkovo toys are clay figurines that are made more for decoration that play. The exception is the very popular Dymka whistle, usually shaped like a bird. Statuettes are made of townspeople and villagers, and animals real and fantastical. The figurines are very stylized, with main elements being big ruffles and bright dots and circles painted on white backgrounds. Yes, you can have a deer with ruffles on its head and big red circles all over it. No, the deer isn’t sick – it’s just Dymka.
Gzhel ceramics is Russia’s answer to Delft pottery of the Netherlands and Ming vases of China, with its own trademark of blue-on-white painting. The area of Gzhel has been producing high-quality clay and, as a result, porcelain, for centuries. The decoration usually isn’t super-detailed, and once again embraces flowers, particularly stylized roses, as one of the most popular elements. A 41-piece dining set for 6 people will only cost you $300-$500.
Lace from Russia’s Vologda region up north rivals that of the famous Flemmish weavers. And because this is the extent of my knowledge and I don’t understand anything about hooks and needles, here is Wiki to the rescue: “The tape is made with bobbins at the same time as the rest of the lace, curving back on itself, and joined using a crochet hook. The designs of Russian lace are of abstract form. The narrow tapes or trails follow a maze-like path through deep scallops to merge again and wander into the next.” My takeaway: it’s super-special.
Today this urn-shaped “self-boiler” metal tea pot isn’t frequently found in Russian kitchens, but it is nevertheless an iconic part of a Russian tea-drinking ceremony. Russians love their tea! My British friend actually told me that though Brits drink a lot of tea, they don’t actually know tea – but Russians do, and savor it, enjoy it. Anyway. Old versions of samovar would be heated up with coals or pine cones; new ones are electric. If you’d like to have a samovar as a decorative (though still functioning!) object, you could combine this traditional Russian item with a handicraft style of choice: samovars painted a-la Khokhloma, Gzel or Zhostovo can easily be found at crafts markets or made to order, especially for a customer willing to pony up upwards of $10,000. Of course the classic metal versions are much more affordable – and the best ones come from the Tula region. Now you just have to think about how to fit that thing into your luggage…
Finift’ is a technique used to create beautiful jewelry pieces and small decorative objects. The colors in Finift’ painting are particularly bright and translucent because the manufacturing process uses some sort of glass powder that is a total game-changer. This powder is applied to enamel-covered metal, and painted with flowers, and sometimes birds and landscapes. The resulting vintage-looking pieces are totally something your grandma would love. #NoDisrespectToGrandma
This is a fun one! Russians LOOOOOOVE crafting stuff from beresta, or birch tree bark. It is light, flexible and durable, so it’s great for many different house wares. And because it’s easy to carve and paint, it’s also great for decorating. For centuries Russians even wove shoes out of birch bark – they are called lapti and are also sold as souvenirs. A birch bark box, bread dish or flask is one of the most attractive, practical, and inexpensive Russian handicrafts you can take home with you. Shemogod birch crafts are especially famous, for their lace-like designs.
Bring on MORE flower painting! This time it’s bright bouquets on black metal trays. This style of craftsmanship is about two hundred years old. The flowers are painted in a very particular way: with visible brush strokes, multitude of colors and depths of shading. The prevalence of garden varieties over wildflowers in the bouquets make them look like they belong on an oil painting of that era, perhaps accenting a portrait of one of the court ladies. This style of painting is now applied on some objects other than trays, including brooches for the ladies.
MALACHITE and AMBER
These two stones hail from two very different corners of Russia: Ural Mountains far to the east of Moscow, and the Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea. Both are VERY popular in jewelry making in Russia. If you are of a more masculine persuasion and baubles aren’t your thing, a carved malachite stationary set or a paper weight would look respectable on a heavy mahogany desk in the most serious of studies. Or you can make like a Russian Emperor and commission a whole room decorated with malachite – it’s your call, really.
Now here’s an object with absolutely fascinating story. Orenburg shawls are white, off-white or light gray, and are knit from the down-hair of very special Orenburg goats, whose fur is very special because of cold Siberian winters (Orenburg region is in Siberia), and silk. Orenburg yarn is the finest (thinnest) in the world and as a result the shawls are incredibly delicate, gossamer creations that are nevertheless very strong and warm. Large shawls can take up to a month for a single knitter to create. Orenburg platok is sometimes called a “ring shawl” because of a knit to fine that even a large (1.5 x 1.5 meters) can be pulled through a wedding ring. Another test of Orenburg craftsmanship is to check whether the scarf fits inside a goose egg. I am guessing they use a replica egg that can be opened and re-opened?
Gorodets painting originally was applied to distaff and spinning wheels in the Gorodets region; today it decorates larger household objects and furnishings, such as cutting boards, sleds and storage chests. Color combinations are almost blindingly bright and the style of painting is two-dimensional. Genre scenes – think, a family dinner or a stroll through town – are popular subjects, along with birds, horses and flowers. A Gorodets item would be a great addition to a kitchen or a kid’s room.
And finally, valenki. These literally “rolled felt” boots are what I like to call “the original Uggs.” Valenki have been traditional Russian winter footwear of peasants for ages and have recently seen a revival, with beautifully painted, bedazzled or fur-trim valenki gaining favor with the fashionable lot. Paired with rubber galoshes, valenki might be the most practical thing one can wear to endure a Russian winter!