Souvenirs (Shannon Callinan)

Souvenirs are an integral but easily overlookable aspect of a culture, defining not just how others view a society, but how that society views itself and chooses to present itself to its citizens and the world. As a general rule, souvenirs represent the intersection of these two views – they show not just what foreign visitors are willing to buy (and, thus, how these items represent foreign opinions on a certain culture), they represent what native vendors are willing to sell (and, thus, they show how a particular culture might represent itself).

The most obvious impact on what sorts of souvenirs are sold is what a tourist is willing to buy – like all businesses, the souvenir sellers need to make money. From the buyer’s end, a souvenir is a mark of authenticity, proof that they actually visited a given place (Brown and Turley, 17). It also acts as a visual reminder – a sort of memory aid – of the trip (Belk, 32). It must therefore remind the tourist of the trip, either by having some sort of great memory attached to it or by being somehow representative of the place visited. An ordinary spoon, for example, fails to demonstrate the cultural gap between the home and the destination; it might have been bought anywhere, and so it fails to act as a reminder of the unique differences experienced while abroad (Hitchcock, 4). Suppose, however, one has a painted (or khokhloma) spoon. These are made out of light wood, rather than metal; they are often brightly colored, with golden handles and red-and-gold floral designs against a black bowl, rather than monochrome silver.  Such spoons are out of the ordinary; having one on display forces one to remember where the spoon was bought, and, by association, it brings up related memories of the journey. Further, since souvenirs are frequently given as gifts to family and friends who did not come along, they must evoke the visited culture to those who may have very little actual experience of it. This creates a level of stereotyping in souvenir buying – if, when one thinks of Russian souvenirs, one thinks of matryoshki, one is going to buy matryoshki to remind oneself and one’s friends of Russia (Graburn, xiii). This leads to the perpetuation of the matryoshka-Russia association, which then influences others to buy them as souvenirs (Brown and Turley, 18). In this way, the preconceived notions of a culture or country greatly impact what sorts of souvenirs a tourist is likely to buy when visiting.

Khokhloma spoons

Khokhloma spoons. Source: Finding Frenchie

Sellers perpetuate this cycle. Since they know that tourists expect certain kinds of souvenirs, many sellers have shaped their goods to fit tourist expectations (Belk 38). Even if similar goods are sold to both tourists and locals, the tourist items will be different (if only subtly) because of this attempt to appeal to foreign tastes (Hitchcock, 11). Further, knowing that the buyers will have certain restrictions on what sorts of goods they can bring home (for example, size limits on airplanes), goods are often modified to fit the practical needs of tourists (Graburn, xiii). As an example, Mariia Girgor’evna Chereiskaia notes that the ceramics made in the town of Skopin in the Riazan region of Russia have gotten smaller over time in order to comply with modern tastes and the requirements of traveling (Chereiskaia).

Nonetheless, souvenirs are not solely indicative of tourists’ tastes, with sellers one-sidedly kowtowing to the needs and desires of buyers. Nelson H. Graburn characterizes them as a physical pidgin language, a simplification that allows intercultural communication. Just as pidgins take input from both languages, souvenirs are shaped by the cultures of both buyer and seller. The sellers and producers draw not only on stereotypes of the tourists and what they think tourists will want, but also on their own social taboos and customs (Grabin, xiii).

St Petersburg Market

Center for the Support of the Arts of St. Petersburg. Source: Scott99

Like most major cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow are peppered with souvenir shops – most of them small, crowded stores filled with overpriced goods. These are not the most popular places for tourists to buy their souvenirs. Instead, most seem to go to the outdoor markets – the Center for the Support of the Arts of St. Petersburg (Tsentr Podderzhki Iskusstv Sankt-Peterburga) near the Church on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, or the Ismailovo souvenir market in Moscow. These markets offer an invaluable opportunity to observe the meaning of souvenirs in Russian culture. At a basic level, the interactions between vendors and tourists, and the range of goods being sold has implications for Russian nationalism. Focusing more on souvenirs, the genre of Soviet memorabilia indicates contemporary attitudes towards USSR. Finally, more specifically, the existence and style of a particular series of matryoshka dolls can shed light on modern Russian stereotyping of Jewish people.

Many vendors play up the authenticity of their goods. Looking at a lacquer box, for example, will elicit a lecture from the vendor on the art form itself, the significance of Palekh, Kholuy, Fedosinko, or Mstyora (the four main centers of lacquer box production (Chereskaia)), an explanation of the fairy tale or scene painted on it, and a run down of the more popular motifs. Most vendors have magnifying glasses on hand, to show buyers the subtle differences in quality between similar boxes or their authentic handmade provenance. This sort of behavior extends beyond lacquer boxes – sellers of Soviet memorabilia often explain to potential buyers the background of a pin or medal (always with assurances that these items are real, and had been given to actual people in the USSR – that they are neither replicas nor surpluses). One vendor at Izmailovo advertised his stall by shouting, in both English and Russian, that his goods were not Chinese-made. This all makes good business sense – tourists typically look for locally produced goods from the country visited, as opposed to cheap, mass-produced goods made specifically for tourists (Bunn, 182). Thus, by specifically advertising authenticity, souvenir vendors can expect to sell more goods.

Nevertheless, there are some nationalistic undertones that cannot be explained by good salesmanship alone. Many of the historical lectures I received came after my purchase had been finalized – especially in Izmailovo. At this point, there was no real need for vendors to pitch their goods to me; I could not exactly ask for a refund at that point, and referrals, especially in Izmailovo, would be next to impossible – the whole market is so immense, so devoid of signs or real landmarks, that it would be immensely difficult for even the most satisfied of customers to direct a friend to a specific stall. Further, during their lectures on authenticity, many vendors were quick to give out potentially negative information. One used a magnifying glass to point out the difference in paint quality and materials in lacquer boxes as an explanation for price differences. There was no attempt to upsell, just a genuine explanation about why some boxes are objectively better than others. This all implies a love of the items being sold and the histories behind them beyond what would be strictly necessary to get a sale.

The discounts given also indicated Russian nationalistic pride. Generally, the souvenir markets are open to haggling. Decent discounts can be had by mentioning a lack of money, or status as a student, or even just by suggesting a lower price. Better bargains, though, are had by tying oneself to the area. Attempting to speak in Russian, for example, is one of the easiest ways to get money knocked off; saying that one is a student at a specific local university (St. Petersburg State or Moscow State, in my case) is just as good. This indicates a level of national – or perhaps local – pride. Those who identify themselves as insiders by using rubles, speaking Russian, or attending local schools are treated preferentially to the outsiders, who pay in dollars or Euros, make no attempt to speak Russian, and have often been bussed in by a travel agency. Thus, one can conclude that the vendors’ behavior indicates a general sense of national pride in modern Russia.

Beyond the behavior of the vendors themselves, the actual items for sale indicate a great deal about Russian attitudes. One of the more common ‘genres’ of Russian souvenirs is Soviet memorabilia: cups and t-shirts with the sickle and star or hammer and sickle, mugs and coasters bearing transparencies of Soviet realist paintings and propaganda, even actual Soviet-era artifacts such as military uniforms, medals, pins, etc. The vast majority of these items paint the Soviet Union in a generally positive light. The uniforms and medals, for example, call upon the image of the noble, heroic soldier, a war-hero, someone who fought for his homeland. Medals are almost exclusively positive icons – they celebrate some desirable trait, like dedication, or sacrifice for the higher good, or being particularly productive. Uniforms and associated paraphernalia likewise indicate a positive outlook – these are items meant to be used and worn (greatcoats, for example, seem more common than full uniforms; all-purpose bags were more common than highly specific military equipment). The presence of these items indicate not just that tourists are willing to buy them – vendors have to be willing to sell things that may glorify the Soviet Union. Germans, for example, would probably never stand for SS greatcoats being sold in public, right next to a building destroyed by the Nazis. Yet in St. Petersburg, Soviet greatcoats and medals are sold in the shadow of a church that had been looted and closed by that very regime.

It is not as though there would not be a market for goods that showcased the negatives of Soviet rule – ration cards, internal passports, or other ‘negative’ memorabilia would probably sell fairly well, especially to tourists from countries on the ‘other side’ of the Cold War. Instead, the overwhelming majority of Soviet-related souvenirs were positive, or, at the very least, neutral in terms of their message. There were hundreds of Soviet-era pins, all highlighting some national achievement: performance in the Olympics, anniversaries of certain major events, even technical achievement, for example a series of pins celebrating Soviet cars throughout history. These all point to a positive picture of life in the Soviet Union, one where there was consistent and important national progress. Scholar Svetlana Boym has argued that there is a trend in Russia today towards a nostalgic sense of longing for the communist era as an era of normalcy and stability, and a general dismissal or minimalization of the regime’s flaws (Boym, 58). Thus, the Soviet items for sale perhaps convey the idea that modern Russians have positive – or at worst neutral – feelings towards the Soviet government.

Even individual souvenirs can indicate attitudes in a country or region. In this case, one particular model of matryoshka doll can indicate Russian attitudes towards Jewish people. These particular matryoshki pop up just as often as any other style of doll – that is to say, they cannot be found in every souvenir stall, but about half of them carried at least one version of the doll. They vary in size and seemed to have a few basic styles, all based heavily on anti-Semitic stereotypes. The outermost doll is a man with a large nose, ruddy cheeks, beady eyes with almost effeminate lashes, a black hat, and, of course, peyos and a beard. He either has a Star of David printed on his beard, or is playing a violin. The internal nesting dolls, although they vary in order and style between sets, are similarly stereotypical: a man engrossed in a book, or an old woman holding a loaf of challah. The innermost doll is always either a young boy with a yarmulke and peyos or a baby wrapped in the Israeli flag. While there is no overt malice present in the designs of these dolls, there is a definite air of an intensely stereotyped view of Jewish people.

Cheap Matryoshki Good Matryoshki

Cheaper matryoshki, top. Source: Reuters. More detailed matryoshki, bottom. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On their own, of course, the dolls do not indicate much about actual attitudes. The souvenir markets had numerous matryoshki meant to appeal only to tourists, decorated with American political leaders, sports teams, famous bands, even popular fictional characters. There were also numerous ‘shock-value’ matryoshki – one contained Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Adolf Hitler, among others. These dolls, however, were significantly different stylistically from the more traditional matryoshki – specifically, they were more cheaply made. The traditional dolls were painted on all sides in bright colors; the more tourist-oriented dolls tended to be painted only on one side, the other half or three-quarters of the doll was left as plain wood. The quality of painting was much higher on the traditional dolls – even the cheaper ones were more visually appealing than the non-traditional dolls. In this way, quality can be used as an indicator of whose views the matryoshki most clearly align with – higher-quality dolls tend to reflect traditional Russian attitudes and themes, while poorly made matryoshki tend to be intended solely for tourist consumption, and therefore reflect themes tourists might find interesting.

If the Jewish dolls were solely meant to appeal to tourists, one would expect that they would follow the trend of being low-quality. Instead, they are quite well-made. The dolls are painted all around, with extensive detail on all sides; the details themselves are intricate – everything is hand-painted on them, from the shine on glasses, to the wrinkle of fabric near buttons, to the seeds on challah. This strongly indicates that these dolls are aligned more with the traditional matryoshki; rather than being cheaply mass-produced with the minimal quality needed to sell, pride and care have been taken in their creation. This, in turn, implies that their design represents at least to an extent how Jewish people are viewed, or at least the prevalence of traditional stereotypes.

Souvenirs alone cannot reveal everything about a culture or its attitudes, but they provide an introduction to that culture. Russian souvenirs are no exception. By examining the behavior of the vendors in the markets themselves, one can see a strong undercurrent of nationalistic pride, as evidenced in their behavior towards the items they sell and their preferential treatment of customers who make an attempt to use the Russian language and align themselves with Russian educational institutions. Looking at the souvenir genre of Soviet memorabilia reveals contemporary attitudes towards the USSR that tend towards positive or, at the very least, ambivalent. Even examining individual goods, like the Jewish matryoshka dolls, can indicate the presence of certain attitudes – in this case, an acceptance of Jewish stereotypes. To the observant tourist, a trip down to the local souvenir market can be as culturally educational as any museum tour.


Works Cited