An Outdoor Art Market
For a less official selection of modern art, visit the outdoor market along the embankment of the Moscow River next to the Central House of Artists. Year-round, regardless of weather, vendors display works ranging from naturalist landscapes to charming images of modern and not-so-modern Russia. Prices are negotiable, and you'll get a better deal if you speak Russian or have a Russian-speaking helper. There's even a stall run by a framer who can mount the work for you. Though these works are all new and shouldn't pose a problem at Customs, be sure to get a receipt with the artist's name and the year the work was created. The underground walkway between the Central House of Artists and Gorky Park is also packed with art vendors, but prices here are higher and the choices less inspiring.
China & Porcelain
The blue-and-white ceramic style known as Gzhel (pronounced "Guh-zel") carries hints of the Dutch Delft Blue, but with an outcome that's more homey and distinctly Russian. Named after the town southeast of Moscow where the style originated, Gzhel appears most often in thick ceramic teacups, figurines, or furniture tiles (especially on old palace fireplaces). Each piece is hand-painted and individually molded, finished, glazed, and fired. The more valuable ones have subtle hints of gold woven into the patterns.
You'll find Gzhel pieces and china from St. Petersburg's Lomonosov Porcelain Factory at most large souvenir stores around Moscow.
Two top spots for uniquely Russian crafts are Izmailovsky Market and Central House of Artists. Several stores on the Arbat are also good sources.
Nesting Dolls -- Matryoshka nesting dolls are so ubiquitous in today's Russia that they're almost banal, but a quality doll can be a symbol of Russian art and history. The first dolls, believed to be based on a Japanese tradition, were created in the 19th century in the Orthodox Church center of Sergiev Posad. The richest versions depict scenes from Russian fairy tales opening up to reveal the next stage in the story. The most common version is a rosy-cheeked woman in a vibrant headscarf, holding a series of sisters or daughters inside. The dolls are usually made from birch wood, and a proper set of dolls will be made from the same tree so that the wood responds uniformly to temperature and humidity changes.
Matryoshka dolls are a great, inexpensive gift. The basic versions can sell for as little as 50 rubles at open-air markets. Older kids and adults may appreciate those with more intricate designs -- or those with a theme such as all of Russia's leaders over the past century stacked inside each other (or U.S. presidents, or international pop stars . . .). Most vendors will claim the dolls are hand-painted, but a better gauge of quality is your own eye. If the colors are delicate and distinct, it's worth more than a matryoshka with crude and over-bright pictures. Sergiev Posad's Toy Museum has a small display on the history of the dolls.
Russia's climate and centuries-old traditions mean fur coats and hats are winter staples. If you're comfortable with the idea, browse the unique collections at Mekha, 13 Pyatnitskaya (tel. 495/951-9880; www.yellow-pages.ru/rus/qu10/bo1937565; metro: Lubyanka or Kuznetsky Most). You can also try Mekhovoy Salon (Fur salon) at 36/9 Novy Arbat, where several times a year they hold trading fairs that offer a larger selection and more price range (tel. 495/961-6938; www.1fursalon.ru; metro: Arbatskaya). Better deals can be found at many outdoor markets, such as Izmailovsky.
Couture a la Russe
For most of the 1980s and 1990s, Russian fashion was best characterized by a TV ad for the Wendy's fast-food chain. At a Soviet fashion show, an emcee shouted "Eveningwear!" and a stern, shapeless woman stomped down a runway in a burlap sack, carrying a flashlight. "Beachwear!" the emcee cried, and the same woman in the same sack appeared, holding a beach ball. Wendy's, the ad claimed, offered the dizzying choices so unavailable behind the Iron Curtain. Indeed, for decades Russians wore variations on the same gray suits and uncomfortable shoes made in Soviet-bloc textile factories, and the brave ones offered visiting tourists money for their Levi's jeans and leather jackets.
All that changed after 1991. The birth of Russia's nouveau riche, a class of people dripping with money made in privatizations and hungry for once-inaccessible luxuries, affected marketing departments at fashion houses around the world. Boutiques along the tony Rue de Faubourg St-Honore in Paris now keep Russian-speaking staff to handle the steady stream of Russian customers ready to drop several thousand dollars in cash at one go. Miami's Versace boutique counts Russians as its most reliable customers. Sales at the Prada boutique in Moscow rival those at its flagship store in Milan. Russian models, too, are a hot commodity on runways in Paris and Milan.
Meanwhile, Russian designers have matured fast, and are increasingly collaborating with American, Italian, and French colleagues. Perhaps as a backlash against years of dull uniformity, Russian fashion tends to be brightly colored, sparkly, sexy, and daring, something you're sure to notice on the streets of Moscow or St. Petersburg. Russians' love for showing off labels is starting to fade, but you still may see people dressed head to toe in gear covered in the names CHANEL and DIOR. To see work by Russian designers, try the Tretyakovsky Proyezd shopping zone, where many are concentrated in one place (1 Tretyakovsky Proyezd; metro: Lubyanka) or the following boutiques:
Valentin Yudashkin Trading House (Moscow). 19 Kutuzovsky Prospekt. tel. 499/240-1189. www.yudashkin.com. Metro: Kievskaya or Kutuzovskaya.
Igor Chapurin Boutique (Moscow). 6/3 Kuznetsky Most tel. 495/660-5076. www.chapurin.com. Metro: Kuznetsky Most.
The Moscow Cultural Fund and Izmailovsky Market are the best places to shop for souvenirs and gifts for family and friends back home. You can also try shops on the Arbat.
Izmailovsky Market is a good place to look for jewelry bargains, especially on semiprecious stones from Siberia. Samotsvety, is a strongly recommended spot, and I've included two high-end options as well.
Linen tablecloths, curtains, bed coverings, and clothing from the textile towns along the Volga River bear distinctly Russian patterns. Because few people have heard of Russian linen, these items make for great and unexpected gifts. Even the handmade items are much cheaper than goods of pure linen you find in the West. Some crafts stores, as well as the Izmailovsky Market.
In addition to Tretyakov Gallery, Central House of Artists is a highly recommended stop for any museum or art-related shopping.
Moscow's biggest bookstore, Dom Knigi, has an extensive selection of Russian and international sheet music, and a decent selection of CDs as well.
See Detsky Mir for the biggest source of toys in Moscow, from baby rattles to high-tech video games. For more original Russian toys, check out the Izmailovsky Market (described under "Great Shopping Areas") for carved wooden musical toys and chess sets, among other finds, at reasonable and negotiable prices. All the stores on the Arbat have good toy selections, including remarkable dolls in traditional Russian garments.
Vodka & Wine
See also Sedmoi Kontinent and other food stores, which have a large and reasonably priced selection of vodkas for all tastes as well as wines from places like Moldova and Bulgaria.
Russian Orthodox Icons
The haunting, gold-flaked biblical images on Orthodox icons hold a magnetic appeal for many visitors to Russia, regardless of their faith. The angular, distorted faces and figures may seem jarring if compared to western Renaissance art, but that's because Russian icon painters were not aiming at three-dimensional realism. Russian Orthodox icons are rich in symbolism but lacking in light or shadow; they do not aim to render beauty but to honor and inspire spirituality. Modern icons strictly follow the traditions and images established centuries ago, and all must be blessed by an Orthodox priest. The design is carved into a wood panel, then hand-painted. Gold leaf and silver crowns can make the icon more valuable, but they don't make it any more authentic. The vendor should be able to explain what era of icon-painting is represented or what artist is being emulated. Most of the icons for sale today are safe for export, but any made before the Soviet era require permission. Be sure to get a receipt even for the new ones, preferably with the date of production (data izgotovleniya) printed on it. The larger icons are more likely to arouse the suspicion of Customs officers.
Icons are best purchased at Orthodox monasteries or cathedrals, though they are also available in kiosks around town. Novodevichy Convent is known for an extensive collection.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.