Traditional Russian Dolls Seek Bailout

In Russia, the traditional nesting doll, known as the matryoshka, is getting a bailout.

Like vodka, caviar and onion domes, the rosy-cheeked, often partly hand-painted dolls within dolls are a symbol of everything Russian. And they are broke.

Matryoshka makers claim sales are down as much as 90 percent as Russia continues to be ravaged by the global economic crisis.

Svetlana Pankova runs the Sergiyev Pozad toy factory, located in the scenic old monastery town of Sergiyev Pozad, the heart of Russia's matryoshka industry.

VIDEO: Makers of Russian nesting dolls are seeking financial help for slumping sales.
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She explained that with tourism on the wane and domestic consumption in the dumps, the storage room at the factory is now filled with matryoshkas that they can't sell.

"Unfortunately, at this time, there are over 1,000 matryoshkas in the stockroom," Pankova told ABC News. "And this is at the height of the tourist season. In these times, without the government's support, the matryoshka industry cannot survive."

Many of the artisans in Pankova's workshop have been making the brightly colored dolls for decades.

Vera Meryana, who has been working as a matryoshka-maker for 35 years. Both her father and mother, and now her children, also worked in the industry. She now fears that the livelihood of fellow artisans, and a valuable part of Russian tradition, may be lost forever.

"We have done this all our lives. I can remember the matryoshkas as long as I can remember myself," she told ABC News, "I grew up surrounded with them. And my children too. You can imagine after working in this all your life and watching how it is all dying out, of course it's very sad, We'd like to see a revival."

Russian Nesting Dolls Makers Struggle to Boost Sales

Matryoshka makers have long excelled at coming up with creative new ways to sell their wares. Some have traded in the traditional Russian peasant woman design for images pop stars, politicos and even terrorists.

At a crowded souvenir stand in Moscow, there are rows of dolls bearing the image of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, President Dmitry Medvedev, Elvis Presley and Osama Bin Laden.

In a recent interview with Russian television, President Obama was presented with his very own matryoshka as a gift from the presenter, perhaps an attempt to raise the president's awareness about the cultural importance of the beautiful dolls.

Now, there's even a small chance that he may be able to help the endangered dolls. The Obama matryoshka has been popular with tourists since the U.S. president was elected late in 2008, but the hope is that with his visit to Moscow beginning this week, sales of the Obama matryoshka will skyrocket.

More likely, it's the Russian government that will save the day after a recent promise to buy $30 million worth of the endangered dolls and other Russian handicrafts for officials to give out as gifts.

But some are asking: Should the government's money really be spent on preserving dolls?

"The matryoshka has been around just over 100 years," Pankova said. "It is a symbol of motherhood, of a simple Russian woman. Artisanry in Russia is part of Russia's enormous heritage. It's part of its image, and it needs advertising and support."

One British couple buying matryoshkas told ABC News, "We used to say, 'What's good for General Motors is good for America,' and General Motors had a bailout. So maybe matroyskha's the General Motors of Russia and they should get a bailout too."

While the matryoshka industry cannot rival GM in terms of its size, it certainly has a huge place in the hearts of people around the world.

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