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23 May, 2012  ▪  Anna Kalenska

Kitsch vs Authenticity

Pseudo-Ukrainian souvenirs are flooding the Euro 2012 market. Below are some tips to help tourists find authentic products instead

An army of matrioshkas, ushanka hats and gaudy head wreaths can be found everywhere from Andriyivsky Uzviz to kiosks in underground passages and tourist fairs in Carpathian villages. Finding an authentic Ukrainian gift to remind you of your trip is next to impossible. And how would a tourist know what authentic Ukrainian souvenirs really look like? Foreigners often come to Ukraine after they traveled half of the world, including Poland. Warsaw souvenir stores display painted eggs, embroidered shirts, wreaths and sopilkas (wooden flutes), covering virtually the entire range of authentic Ukrainian souvenirs. Unlike Ukraine, Poland has a clear strategy to promote the Polska brand and the impact is already showing, which is why Ukraine is the one that has to fight for its place in the competition. It’s doubtful whether football fans will take time to conduct a detailed research of Ukraine’s history and culture in guidebooks, because frankly, they have different priorities: football, beer and women. Still, they will buy a few souvenirs. The only question is what culture it will represent: Chinese, Russian, Soviet or Ukrainian?


Magnets, key rings, flags, matrioshkas and even Ukrainian dolls mostly come to Ukraine from China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the like. Volodymyr, a clerk at a souvenir kiosk, says nearly 40% of his goods are made in China. Others swear that virtually all of their goods are made in Ukraine. Natalia, a vendor at another souvenir kiosk, says that many vendors prefer to not reveal the real origin of their goods as they risk losing their clients. “Tourists have become pickier these days,” she says. “They look for what’s written on the article. They won’t necessarily buy it if it says “Made in China””. Those involved on the souvenir market, say that the share of Asian produced goods is often as high as 80%, although getting an exact figure is difficult due to the large share of no-name goods, says Natalia Voloshyna, Executive Director of the Association of Manufacturers and Importers of Advertising Souvenirs in Ukraine (AMIASU). “These items of unknown origin have quality certificates that are forged or invalid in Ukraine, if any at all,” she expands. “Worst of all, the goods can be toxic and dangerous.” According to Ms. Voloshyna, for a long time now, Europe has been calling on Ukraine to drop its uncertified products and focus on environmental and social responsibility instead. Currently, souvenirs made in Ukraine are losing out to cheaper Asian mass produced copies, but their big competitive advantages include good quality and artistic value, notes Oksana Shevchenko, Director of Souvenir, a Kyiv-based workshop. Her company has been producing souvenirs since 1968 focusing on painted and lacquered wooden plates and boxes, and inlaid straw items. She works with wholesale clients who sell her exclusive souvenirs on Andriyivsky Uzviz and in stores. But Chinese craftsmen are plaguing local souvenir makers, Oksana laments. “The Chinese take pictures of our goods on Andriyivsky Uzviz and glue the patterns onto their cups and plates.” The handful of Ukrainian artists or craftsmen cannot compete with China’s manufacturing capacity. Maryna Senchylo, the owner of Mriyi Marii (Maria’s Dreams), a workshop/store that sells exclusive ethnic souvenirs, says that this is the effect of the underdeveloped souvenir market in Ukraine and the lack of effective management. Moreover, craftsmen who work in spite of not having an official registration, add to the challenge.

A COCKTAIL OF CULTURES: The army of matrioshkas with Cossack batons and USSR caps chases tourists everywhere


According to the estimates of the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, the inflow of tourists for Euro 2012 will boost Ukraine’s real GDP by 0.8%. The souvenir market is looking forward to the tournament as well. Based on AMIASU estimates, the advertising souvenir segment of the entire souvenir market earned nearly USD 50m per year in 2010-2011 with a projected 10-15% increase in 2012. This is not simply because of the championship, but due to companies increasing their budgets for the purchase of promotional and business souvenirs.  On the whole, European companies see good prospects on the Ukrainian market for promotional souvenirs, although kickbacks and price dumping are currently fueling competition therein. Still, Europeans claim this is just a stage that will end sooner or later. Local businesses were earlier tempted by the prospect to earn a pretty penny on the production of souvenirs depicting official Euro 2012 logos. Today, Warner Bros., UEFA’s exclusive license holder, has all the rights. Oksana Shevchenko says that it is doubtful that Ukrainian firms would buy the license. Some thought of buying one jointly but that also carries many risks. “The license to produce goods with Euro 2012 logos is very expensive,” the expert explains. “So it only makes sense for big players that own extensive retail chains to get one.” Based on experience with nation-wide events, souvenirs with national symbols will be the most popular, no matter what. This offers good prospects for the producer of the unofficial symbol of the upcoming championship – the “zozulytsia”(a clay whistle, also known as an ocarina). Souvenir designers believe that it is next to impossible to make a fake “zozulytsia” because it is always made by hand. It is already available online at around UAH 60 or USD 7.5. The Souvenir workshop does not intend to buy any licenses though, because all producers will make souvenirs with Euro 2012 logos anyway without them. “I reckon that 70% of all souvenirs will come from China,” Ms. Shevchenko claims. “And the fans will mostly be young people opting for cheap souvenirs rather than wealthy tourists.”


According to Maryna Senchylo, the “zozulytsia” is not the best symbol for the tournament, since a national souvenir should be light and portable, not merely symbolic. The best options are textile and print souvenirs. “Why does nobody care about people wanting to carry something light in their luggage,” Ms. Senchylo wonders. “Can’t it be an article of clothing? Why does it have to be clay?” As an alternative to the African vuvuzela, Maryna proposes the derkach, the Ukrainian folk version of a ratchet or a rattle. The wooden toy, consisting of two boards and a gearwheel makes a loud and pleasant sound. Hoping for the motanka dolls, ethnic fabric dolls often used for ritual purposes, to sell well is less promising, the expert warns, although they appear in stores and displays more and more often these days.  “Foreigners don’t like them, seeing them as a sort of voodoo doll,” she claims, proposing Cossack Mamay, painted eggs and Maria Prymachenko’s images as an alternative option. Oksana Tseatsura, the owner of the Ukrainian Renaissance art workshop, believes that the sun, the moon and floral designs are the most apt images for national souvenirs, particularly sunflowers, painted eggs and the cross. “I give the Euro 2012 symbol, using a sunflower, having transformed it into a football with torn petals, a low grade in terms of composition, colours and detailing,” she says offering the easiest solution to the ethnic souvenir dilemma. “The government should offer a tender,” she claims. “The artists will come running. The best one will be selected and there won’t be any more failures like this one.”


As long as the government fails to conduct tenders to design and promote the “Ukraine” brand, the market will continue to spontaneously churn out its own priorities. The newest products seem to have a nuclear Chornobyl face. Souvenir vendors sell Moroccan-made T-shirts with the Hard Rock Café Chornobyl slogan and a menu printed on the back that includes cesium, radium and plutonium. Vendors claim that there is great demand for them among both foreign and Ukrainian buyers. Ms. Shevchenko is concerned about this approach. “Tourists buy souvenirs which are supposed to remind them how beautiful Ukraine is,” she laments. “Taking home a card with a burning nuclear reactor is hardly the best option.” Ms. Voloshyna couldn’t agree more on that. “It’s not the case where you could ethically earn a penny on it,” she says. At the same time, she assumes that such things could be made of environmentally friendly recycled materials. This could inspire an exciting project on an international scale, if promoted effectively. So far though, few are concerned with this issue, since government authorities are busy with other things, as always. The only hope is for the righteousness and socially responsibility of business. But who cares about Ukraine’s image somewhere in a Chinese or Moroccan factory? 

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