What should I bring back from Russia?
April 30, 2012 9:06 AM   Subscribe

I am visiting Russia in June - Moscow, St Petersburg and Magadan. What should I buy while I'm there? Which food items, clothing, booze or um anything-at-all are wonderful, affordable and hard to find elsewhere?

Particularly interested in specific recommendations - belts from this shop / blueberry jam from here.

(I live in Montreal.)

Thank you!
posted by Marquis to Shopping (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Unfortunately I can't tell you where, but I did grow up on and continue to eat Russian food regularly. I'm 95% sure you can find most of this stuff at markets as well as restaurants, and it'll be cheaper (and possibly better) in the former:

Engorge yourself on blinis/buttered bread with caviar, but don't get ripped off. Caviar has a reputation for being Rich People Food in North America. In fact, you shouldn't be paying more for it than you would for a particularly good cheese. I mean, there's really, genuinely-expensive-everywhere black caviar, but I suggest you stick to the moderately-priced black and the relatively-inexpensive red caviars. Keep in mind it tastes nothing like the roe you get on sushi, so expected a new flavor.

Also, if it is pickled, eat it. Especially if you don't see it pickled back home. In Russia, you can get pickled anything, and it's all delicious: cabbage (tastes absolutely nothing like sauerkraut,) tomatoes of all shapes and colors, beets, mushrooms, etc. Make sure you eat the rind of the pickled watermelon.

Moscow and Hungarian-style salami is to die for. You'll know it's the right one because the cross section has as much fat as meat. Make sure it's sliced as thin as possible.

Try a bit of salted and thinly-sliced salo on bread with butter as well. It's an acquired taste.

Don't eat borscht without Russian sour cream (smetana.) It's a little different than the North American stuff and so good.

Pelmeni and vareniki are variations on a theme (stuffed dough,) but the latter can be found stuffed with fruit preserves.

Chantarelle mushrooms (imported, like so much of Russian cuisine, from the French) are a delicacy on our side, but rather common over there. Fried potatoes with chantarelles is something you need to eat at least once.
posted by griphus at 9:27 AM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

If the on-street blini vendors are still prevalent in St. Petersburg, you should definitely purchase and immediately devour a blini with mushrooms and cheese!

It's worth it to spend some time walking up down the shops of Gostiny Dvor and seeing what you can find!

One of my favorite purchases was a small Russian gold chain with a mini-Faberge egg like pendant.

I would look into amber jewelry, as well, as that is something found in spade in quality and designs in Russia.

There are huge outside markets in various parts of the city, so just spend some time wandering around the Nevskii Prospect area and you won't be disappointed!
posted by zizzle at 9:29 AM on April 30, 2012

Oh! And drink some kvass, but bear in mind that street vendors may not be subscribing to the most stringent of food safety standards.
posted by griphus at 9:29 AM on April 30, 2012

I saw canned horse meat at the food store in GUM in Moscow. I didn't buy it but almost wished I had. Kvass you can find anywhere in North America as well as most of the other staples but not horse meat.

Otherwise it is always enjoyable to find an antique store in a non-touristy area and stock up on Lenin memorabilia or other kitschy things you will never find anywhere else. I found some cute little ceramic bears from the 1960s that were pure Russian.
posted by JJ86 at 9:56 AM on April 30, 2012

I love puishki, or however they're called. Those little fried doughnuts that you eat hot, standing up, with sweet coffee.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:07 AM on April 30, 2012

You should get yourself a bottle of Beluga vodka. Or two. Or three. It is the best vodka there is. Ask any Russian!

You should absolutely without a doubt do not miss at any cost go to Izmailovski Flea Market outside Russia. From Red Square it's about 4 stops on the subway. I can't remember what line..purple maybe?
posted by spicynuts at 11:00 AM on April 30, 2012

I just read this article the other day about traditional Russian Food that you may find interesting:

THE BORSCHT BELT: Rediscovering Russia’s lost culinary heritage. by Julia Ioffe
about Maksim Syrnikov and Russian Food
posted by mary8nne at 11:33 AM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by mary8nne at 11:34 AM on April 30, 2012

Thanks everyone (and I did see that New Yorker article). If I wasn't totally clear, I'm not necessarily looking for tourist or restaurant tips, so much as advice for things to buy and bring back from Russia.

Still, grateful for all your comments!
posted by Marquis at 11:38 AM on April 30, 2012

I would get some statues or posters of Baba Yaga, the Russian crone goddess. I'm half Russian and she's my favorite part of Russian folklore.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 1:39 PM on April 30, 2012

Traditional Russian gifts include amber jewelry, Gzhel ceramics, Palekh miniatures, Orenburg shawls, Khokhloma painting, matryoshka dolls, and brightly-colored shawls in the Pavlovo Posad style. You can also buy samovars, but good luck trying to ship those home. All of these things are readily available in tourist shops and local marketplaces. Be aware that they can all be produced in factories. If the hand-made thing is important to you, be prepared to pay higher prices. The amber necklace you're paying some guy in the marketplace five dollars for probably isn't actual amber. You know, the usual buyer beware stuff.

Less obvious options: Lomonosov porcelain is decidedly Russian and, in the US, extremely expensive. They have an official shop on Nevsky Prospekt, the main shopping/tourist street of St. Petersburg where you will undoubtedly spend many hours, and, at least 10 years ago, the porcelain there was ridiculously cheap. I literally bought tea sets for my entire extended family as gifts. You can also buy cup-and-saucer sets, little porcelain statues, etc., and I believe they will ship them for you.

If you travel in a train overnight, you will probably have the option of receiving tea in the morning; this tea will be served in a glass surrounded by a podstakannik. You can sometimes find these in marketplaces or antique shops.

I spent a lot of times in museums; they sell posters and art books. The Hermitage (St. Petersburg), the Russian Museum (ditto), the Tretyakov Gallery (Moscow) and many other museums have priceless collections of art, often western European art (either collected by the tsars or looted by the Soviets from the Nazis who had looted it from previous owners). If you're interested in an art book purely for the art, check to see if they're also selling a Russian-language version - it is often much, much cheaper.

As for places to shop, the Izmailovo/Vernisazh Market in Moscow is out of the way but is, or was ten years ago, a huge sprawling place full of tourist souvenirs, (sometimes fake) antiques, (sometimes fake) Soviet-era military gear, etc. I bought a few Soviet-era posters and a lot of matryoshki there.

Russian food is delicious, but your best source is probably going to be the local markets and personally I would be a little dubious about quality control. Use your best judgment. Little old ladies will happily sell you jars of delicious homemade jam, local honey, dried mushrooms, etc. (Russians are crazy about their mushrooms. I don't know how easy it will be to get them back into Canada.) There are a lot of interesting Russian chocolate brands with interesting labels, and chocolate bars are always really cheap. People in St. Petersburg will tell you that the best factory is Krupskaya.

As for liquor, traditionally it's Russian vodka, Georgian wine, and Ukrainian/Crimean champagne. I think Russia's moratorium on the import of Georgian wine still stands, unfortunately. There are lots of local vodkas which often have interesting labels/bottles - just make sure you buy them from an actual liquor store and that the seal is still intact. Moonshine (samogon) is a huge problem in Russia; for your own safety, don't drink any. I'm serious. Baltika beer is brewed in St. Petersburg; I think you can visit the brewery.
posted by posadnitsa at 3:55 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I went seven years ago, and the thing I miss most is fast food blini from Teremok.

And I totally regret not buying an awesome matryoshka doll from the Izmailovski market that had all the czars stacked inside each other followed by Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Putin. In hindsight, that would have made for an amazing coffee table decoration. :-)
posted by JannaK at 3:58 PM on April 30, 2012

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