It is a truth universally acknowledged that a foreign tourist in Russia, whether or not in possession of a fortune, must be in want of a matryoshka doll.
And this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding Muscovites, that it is not at all difficult to find one’s rightful aide memoire in the various souvenir shops, stalls, or by walking down the Old Arbat, albeit at a price.
But if you want more of an experience, Mama’s top tip for the best place to buy souvenirs in Moscow is to travel a bit outside the centre to Vernissage in Ismailovo, next to the idyllic Ismailovsky Park. There you will find the largest affordable souvenir market in Moscow along with arts, crafts, antiques, and a flea market. Which also has the advantage of being part of the very attractive wooden Ismailovo Kremlin complex.
Look, ‘a kremlin’ is a fortress in Russian, OK? There are quite a lot of kremlins dotted around Russia.
In fact there are two of this one alone, as it is the second replica of the Tsar Alexei Michailovich’s summer palace in Moscow. The other one is a bit closer to the original location in Kolomenskoye Park.
The Ismailovo Kremlin doesn’t really pretend to be anything other than a complete tourist trap, not that there is anything wrong with hanging out in a Slavic theme park in Mama’s opinion.
Inside you will find various small museums on crowd pleasing themes such as folk art, bread, vodka and child delinquency, many with the potential to attend master classes in… what? Matryoshka painting, bread eating, getting tiddly and the correct way to stick chewing gum on the underside of a school desk? Or something. I dunno. I wasn’t there, and Mama and Papa weren’t going to find out, having seized on Babushka’s offer to look after us at the weekend to get up at 6am and go and stand around in freezing conditions in front of tourist attractions that weren’t open yet.
Great time to get some uninterrupted photos though. Fabulous buildings, huh?
Being there so early and winter also meant that there were no brides wondering about looking photogenic – the other thing the Ismailovo Kremlin is for, aside from having a lot of entertaining space for hire, is hosting weddings. There is even a registry office inside and dedicated, suitably decorated buildings to retire to afterwards. If gawking at brides is your thing, Mama recommends coming in summer, when there will be queues of limos and big white dresses.
Mama missed out too on the live action blacksmithing and whatever else they do in the courtyard that leaves behind straw and a brightly coloured stage.
But that was OK. Mama and Papa were not really there for the Ismailovo Kremlin, not actually being tourists.
No, Mama and Papa were there to recreate their pre-children youth looking at the more pre-loved items on display in the upper sections of the market next door devoted to random second-hand tat likely to bemuse the foreign tourist, genuine antiques in the form of things like silverwork, samovars and icons, and other items of rather obsessive interest. Like stamps. Or coins. Or badges.
Or, in Mama’s case back in the day, Soviet porcelain figurines, the idle collection of which she would have been considerably less blase about had she known what eye-watering prices they go for now. Still, at least you all know what present to get her.
Mind you, her most memorable purchase was a double bass. Look, it was minus 15 that day and she felt desperately sorry for it. Yes, the joinery did all spring apart as soon as she got it inside and it warmed up. It’s more a decorative item than actually something you can play when you live in a flat with paper-thin walls anyway.
More recently, Papa bought her a toaster for her birthday here.
Love is not dead.
Anyway. This Vernissage is the authentic heart of the complex, and has its origins in the makeshift flea market and informal hobbyist swap meet on the grounds of Ismailovsky Park proper that sprang up when perestroika both ushered in a more relaxed attitude to, well, everything and also tanked what was left of the Soviet economy to the extent that selling off your prized possessions became a necessity.
Or your paintings. The name Vernissage is actually French for ‘varnishing’ and is what you call the pre-exhibition showing of artworks, presumably because you are walking around sipping champagne while the pictures are still tacky.
At this time in the morning, then, everyone knows each other and its a toss-up whether it’s all the fascinating little items on display that are the main attraction or people watching the camaraderie of the stallholders as they catch up with friends, do a bit of inter-trading and see what new acquisitions everyone has brought along this week, along with getting set up for the day.
Enjoy, too, wandering around the winding alleys which curve here, there, and down and back up over each other, surrounded by carved wooden structures such as the souvenir sellers’ huts, a windmill, galleried verandas and covered walkways.
It may have started in a very modest way, but it’s definitely not a temporary set up now. Although you’ll still find people spreading out their wares on the ground rather than specially provided tables.
Should you actually be wanting to buy a little something to remind you of your trip to Russia, however, then you want the lower sections of Vernissage in Ismailovo, where you will also surely be able to find the perfect gift from Russia for people back home.
There are, of course, fur hats with ear flaps aplenty. Every possible colour, many with a little star on the front and probably all made out of rabbit. It will still keep your head warm, of course.
Soviet kitsch is a lot less evident than it once was, which means that either visitors to Russia have finally decided that having small busts of mass murderers like Stalin and Lenin humourously perched on their mantelpiece isn’t as amusing as it was in the 90s, or they have cleaned out the former Soviet Union of such things already. Not completely disappeared though, and anything Red Army related is still quite popular, so never fear, hammer and sickle stamped items are here.
But what Vernissage really excels at is showcasing the full range of traditional Russian decorative arts, many of which are actually either practically useful or genuinely attractive in their own right beyond just being a way of remembering your trip to the Wild East.
So what are the best souvenirs from Russia?
There are the aforementioned matryoshka, or Russian nesting dolls, of course. Practically compulsory. But you can choose between very small sets or giant ones, between rather simply painted ones and ones decorated with infinitesimal delicacy, artistry and patience. You can get ones with your football, hockey or basketball team immortalised, or the full set of Soviet/ Russian leaders. Or, if you commission one in advance, your own family.
Whatever kind of matryoshka you want, you will be able to get it here at Vernissage in Ismailovo.
However, this is not the only handicraft available.
On the more practical end are the soft, so soft cobwebby Orenburg shawls, made from goats hair, and splendidly warm for those cold Russian winters. Mama also recommends the woolen socks and gloves, and these days they are even making highly decorated felt slippers in the style of the traditional felt boots that were once so ubiquitous on the feet of Russian babushkas.
I am pretty sure I know what Granny and Grandad are getting for next Christmas to add to their already vast collection of gifts from Russia.
Lace is still crafted by hand in parts of Russia, and can be found trimming linen tablecloths and napkins, tablecloths which Mama possess at least three sets of, but cannot bring herself to use in case someone spills red wine on them.
She does regularly bring out her sets of wooden napkin rings, painted with various scenes from Russian fairy tales though. These are riffing off the more traditional lacquer boxes, where the colourful scenes overlay a strictly black background.
More wooden tableware? Try the cheerful Khokhloma spoons, bowls and trays and so on where red and gold flowers are painted over a black background (see the theme here?). Or more delicate porcelain cup and saucer sets from the Lomonosev factory, which also makes animal figurines. And teapots.
Fancy something a bit more frivolous? You will notice necklaces, bracelets and rings made from various stones throughout Ismailovsky Market. Russia is famous for its orange amber and green malachite, but almost any colour is available, and in a variety of styles.
Is you house looking underdecorated? Then if you don’t share Mama’s taste in figurines, you could try the blue and white designs of the Gzhel factory, or the colourful, naive style of Dymkovo. Which look a lot like children’s toys made out of clay and then painted because before the advent of plastic, that’s exactly what they were.
You can, of course, get actual wooden toys, handmade fabric dolls, and outfits in a traditional Russian style for kids. Who can resist those fabulous headdresses?
And at any time of your you can find some lovely carved wooden Christmas (New Year) tree ornaments, including large Father Christmases (Ded Morozes), who are designed to sit under your tree and guard the presents. Do not be alarmed if they are not dressed head to toe in red, this is normal. Think of it as an interesting Eastern quirk.
If you go to the flea market section you might be able to find some of tree decorations from the fifties too, which have their own unique charm. Mama’s pride and joy, which is inherited rather than sourced from Vernissage, is an ornament in the shape of a pickled cucumber.
There will also be all sorts of things, including pictures, made from silver birch bark, and there is always the fine arts market at the very top of Vernissage if you want to take home an actual painted picture imitating the works of great Russian artists, countryside scenes, urban landscapes and lovingly depicted flora.
And if all of this crafting activity is inspiring (and Mama has really only given the highlights), you will also be able to buy all sorts of supplies in order to have a crack at it yourself, a hangover from the days when Vernissage was, along with the flea market, a wholesalers market where the people who sold the items more directly to the public met the artists who produced them, and the artists met the people who produced turned wooden eggs.
Whatever you decide to get, have a go at haggling. It’s expected. But do also be aware that many of the items on display are not mass-produced and take time, effort and skill to produce. So they stallholders will resist past a certain point.
A word of warning if you are thinking about buying an antique – there are rules about taking items out of Russia that have both age and cultural worth, and you need a special chitty to be able to do so. If you really want an old icon, therefore, it might actually be better to get one from the more established shops on the Old Arbat. It is also prohibited to buy or sell medals of any age.
But that’s OK as you can get a magnet instead. They are plentiful. Although you won’t find much else made of plastic. If you want a model St Basil’s it will probably have to be painstakingly hand crafted from wood and lovingly painted. Sorry.
By this point you will probably be hungry. Luckily there are any number of snack selling kiosks dotted about, who will also be sending carts around the walkways if you can’t last until you find their permanent location, as well as cafes and restaurants back in the Ismailovo Kremlin. And if you fancy trying out some street food, there are people cooking up some plov and shashlick near the entrance.
If this doesn’t sell the place to you or if you are not convinced by our recommendations about the best things to buy as gifts from Russia, or that Ismailovsky Market is the best place to shop for souvenirs in Moscow, the best place to come to relieve the pressure of high culture sightseeing, AND the best place to discover a fascinating new line of collectibles, perhaps you will be tempted by the news that the same team behind the trendy Flacon art and design complex have purchased land right next to Vernissage. They seem to be planning to turn it into the sort of up market hipster hangout that is proving popular elsewhere in the capital.
One can only hope that this doesn’t send the whole place too far into tasteful blandness.
Just make sure you get off at the right metro stop on your way in. Oddly enough, Ismailovo Kremlin and Market is not at Ismailovsky Park.
The Kremlin in Ismailovo’s website (in English. For a given value of English).
Address: 105187, Moscow, Ismailovsky Shosse, 73
Opening: Vernissage is best to visit on Saturday and Sunday after about 10am and before about 6pm. The market is much reduced during the week, especially the antique, art and flea market sections, but if you must go then go on a Wednesday.
Admission: It’s free to get into the market and wander around the Kremlin in Ismailovo territory.
Getting there: You need the metro station Partisanskaya (dark blue line) NOT the one called Ismailovsky Park. It’s a five-minute walk, tops, from this station.
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