Lessons I Learnt From Buying Russian Dolls


Some things you should know about the Kancheong Spider

Amongst the many things my boss has told me since I started work (including “Rachel, why are you wearing a trash bag?” in reference to my chic black shoulder-cutout top) was this: Rachel, can you not be so kancheong? Do you know the whole office thinks that you’re very kancheong?

Firstly,  I’m not sure if a quarter of the office even knows that this lowly minion has joined the stable. And secondly, I generally don’t think of myself as a kancheong (a combination of ‘nervous’, ‘flustered’, ‘antsy’ in dialect) person — excitable, yes. In possession of a slightly shrill voice, yes. But kancheong? I’m not so sure.

Nevertheless, this debatable trait of mine was put to the test when confronted with the task of buying matryoshka, or Russian nesting dolls.


You see, apart from the occasional postcard and snacks, I don’t really buy souvenirs when I travel. But matryoshka are different. Ever since I was a little kid, I loved playing with this red-and-white set my parents kept in their Glass Cabinet of Treasures and Pretty Stuff.

I used to spend hours taking each doll out, pretending that they were all human versions of Kangaroo Inception. (The idea of being cozy and nested in somebody’s bosom/body has always been comforting to me. Not sexual, like some of you pervs are probably thinking right now.)

And so I told myself, if there was only one thing I could take out of Russia, it would be my very own set of Russian nesting dolls, which I could pass on to my future daughter (interestingly enough, matroyshka stems from the Russian word for ‘mother’!).

In St Petersburg, I looked everywhere for them

Many of the cheap ones (like US$10 each) looked like demonic versions of a colorblind child’s homemade doll. And there were gorgeous ones that cost hundreds of dollars — I wasn’t sure if the shop owners were ripping me off, or they were really that expensive in general.

This ‘neither-here-nor-there’ climate drove me to desperation, such that within three days in Russia, I frantically laid down US$40 for my first doll(s). It would be one of my biggest regrets on the trip.

Meet Sasha, Maria, Jubjub, Peta and six other sub-children I haven’t thought of names for


I bought Sasha and her daughter-friends at an outdoor souvenirs fair behind the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, along the canal Griboedov. Haggling is encouraged but evidently I did not do enough research about the going rate. Some vendors opened with 2,300 rubles (US$70) only to slash the price by half in the next offer. It was all very confusing.

So when I finally found a set of dolls that I kind-of-but-not-super-really liked, I latched onto it in the fear that I would never find something better. I whined a feeble “I’m a student”, got quoted US$40 for the doll, did not put up much resistance, and shelled out the money.

I was kancheong, and so I settled

A few days later, Alan and I found the mecca of all matroyshkas — Izmailovsky Market in Moscow. Here was an abundance of dolls, winter caps, vodka flasks, ivory boxes, all ready to be purchased after firm (but polite) negotiation with the vendors.


I metaphorically slapped my forehead as soon as I stepped in. It wasn’t difficult to find a cheap set of dolls that didn’t cost you more than US$5-6. And there were plenty of intricate designs, way more than we encountered at the Souvenirs Fair in St Petersburg. You had Russian doll families holding chickens, laughing/crying, playing instruments, looking like Lenin and other famous political leaders…

And the best/worse part? My favouritest set by far (yes, we bought quite a few between us — we must be nuts) still cost $10 less than Sasha & co. And they were painstakingly painted and crafted by this lady (well, actually her assistant — the ones she actually painted cost double but looked the same to me lol).


The dolls had these adorable chubby cheeks (well, not actually because they were made of wood). The lady artisan refused to budge despite my intense, one-way attempts at bargaining. I didn’t really want to spend another US$30 on dolls, but after I walked around the entire market, I realized I had to go back to her table with my tail in between my legs.

She smiled when she saw me returning: “You couldn’t find anything nicer in here, right?” It wasn’t a bitchy, smug question. Just the tone of someone who knows what she gots, y’know? #LessonsInLife

I bought the dolls, a Christmas tree set for my grampies and a mobile phone keychain for my sister. Bottomline: BELIEVE IN YOUR PRODUCT IF YOU KNOW IT’S GOOD. And if you don’t think it’s good, either take some classes to improve or go see a counsellor for your confidence issues.

But the real bottomline is…

DON’T BE SO KANCHEONG LOR. If I had just waited a couple of days — as Alan repeatedly told me to do — I would have been better able to channel the US$40 spent on Sasha on something prettier. Instead I spent the money on some metaphorical lesson about Patience and whatever.

The thing is, my friend Darren was a couple of days ahead of us on the Trans-Siberian. Even though he told us not to buy any dolls in St Petersburg as they were (1) more expensive and (2) uglier, in the end, I just wrote off his comments as by a fool with little artistic sensibilities.

Sorry, Darren. I take it all back.

Anyway, Alan and I went all out at the market and these are all the tiny friends we brought back:

20130531-IMG_4793Also don’t know why we bought so many. Like we never see these things before. Anyway, this adorable set now sits on my desk’s ledge!

20130531-IMG_4799Okay, enough about dolls

Here’s the rest of the stuff we did in Moscow.

At Izmailovsky Market, there was a yummy kebab man (as in, the kebabs were yummy, not the man) who was the friendliest Russian (?) we met on the trip. Alan said the kebabs were super juicy, and savoured every last bite!

20130530-IMG_4659We also spent time in Victory Park, site of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (otherwise known as WW2 to the rest of us). It was an extremely peaceful place to contemplate the devastation of the war, and the sheer number of lives forever lost in the Russian realm.

20130530-IMG_4696As Alan put it:

Wonderful memorial park to walk and rent a bicycle through. A series of terraces (one for each year of the war), lined with hundreds of mini-fountains (one for each day of the war), lead up to a giant obelisk of St George slaying the dragon (exactly 141.8 meters, or 10cm for each day of WW2). There isn’t much in the way of sights, but the sombre tone of the park imposes onto one the extent of human sacrifice the Soviet Union undertook on its bittersweet road to victory.

There are also old tanks and other war vehicles on display on one end of the park. A little ironic that these weapons of war sit alongside a memorial dedicated to preserving peace? Or a stark reminder that these two inevitably go hand-in-hand whether we like it or not? Either way, it didn’t stop Alan from posing with this tank, one of his favourite “toy cars” he liked to play with as a child.


We also headed down to touristy Arbat Street — good for an evening stroll but don’t expect things to be cheap. It did tickle me that for the first time we could understand Cyrillic, though that’s mainly cos they came in the Russian iterations of familiar brands 😉

russianLast words on Moscow

Moscow is supposedly the more authentically Soviet city (between her and St Petersburg), and while I found St Petersburg’s architecture easier to fall in love with, both had their own charm and history. After all, the seat of Russian power has shifted between these two quite a few times!  I suppose Moscow made less of an visual impact on my memory because there are less ‘pretty’ things to see, but it definitely got me thinking quite a bit, especially after our visits to the Kremlin and Victory Park.

Alan and I had deeper conversations here too, maybe there’s something about stark “Stalinist” architecture that brings out sober honesty?

Anyway, speaking of Alan, the love of my life has gone back to the States. And so embarks long-distance dating. Woowee.

If this is your first post, catch up on my Trans-Siberian adventures here!
St Petersburg Part 1 & Part 2.
How to Get Your Russian Visa & Survive It.
Moscow Part 1.


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