If you plan to interact with any Russian people while you’re traveling through the country, it’s almost always a good idea to bring some gifts along with you. It may be a hangover of the Communist Era, but it’s still a bit of an unspoken assumption in Russia that people in Western countries are far wealthier than people in Russia. For that reason as well as out of traditional Russian politeness, it is considered more than polite for a visitor from a Western country to bring small gifts for the Russian people they will visit.
Since it can be confusing trying to figure out what gifts to give to Russian people, below is a guide you can use to pick and choose for your appropriate situation:
If you are couch surfing or even using AirBNB, it is definitely expected that you will bring along a gift from your country. Ideally it should be something of relatively good quality that cannot be found in Russia and has some relevance to where you are coming from. For example, a nice bottle of maple syrup if you are Canadian makes an excellent gift. Any consumables like food, nice tea, and nice alcohol are very appropriate and welcome. Another option is household items such as coasters, storage jars, candles and napkin rings. Bonus points if it comes from your country, region or neighborhood. If you want to bring something more personal like accessories, just make sure that they are high-quality. Russian people have a great eye for poorly-made, low-quality stuff and although they will not express it to your face, an obviously cheap accessory will go straight to the back of the closet at best (and the garbage can at worst).
Things to avoid: Notebooks, pens, personal care items, decorative items like vases (unless you know your host’s taste very well).
Even as a Russian person visiting my Russian friends, I have to bring gifts when I see them for the reason mentioned above. Since I’m considered more well-off by virtue of living in a Western country, I’m expected to at least bring a small food item, but ideally something a little bigger and nicer.
In this case what you bring really depends on your friend; however, there are some general guidelines and standards that you can follow. In general, clothes from Western and European brands are well-received as these are much more expensive in Russia than abroad. You can also bring nice accessories like wallets and scarves, but make sure they’re good quality as stated above. Local alcohol is a good option if you will be checking your luggage or can get some at the duty-free shop. Cool mugs, candles, and other household items are also an option. Avoid make-up and cheap, meaningless junk like key chains or figurettes – these are already abundant in Russia. Also, in case you were considering it, water bottles are not really a thing there since the tap water is generally not drinkable.
For Acquaintances and Business Associates
If you’re traveling for business or will be meeting a group of people you vaguely know, your task is a lot easier. This is the group to which you can give souvenirs and local foodstuffs like stroopwafels or salt-water taffy. These gifts can be less personal, meaningful and expensive than for the other groups since you are not expecting as much from them and/or do not yet have a personal connection.
Stick to something that represents who you are and/or where you’re from. Keep it simple and at least slightly tasteful (no gaudy or “punny” t-shirts) and you’ll be in the clear. You can also stock up on these things if you’re not sure whether or not you’ll have to make acquaintance with Russian people – they can be a great ice breaker.