MOSCOW -- Russia's economy is so bad that the government is bailing out one of its traditional souvenirs: nesting dolls.
The nation's Industry and Trade Ministry recently announced that the government will spend up to $28.4 million for the Kremlin and state agencies to purchase large quantities of nesting dolls and Russian hand-painted dishes to give as gifts.
The move is aimed to help the native craftsmen whose sales have plunged in the financial crunch.
And it comes as Russia struggles with declining oil prices, growing unemployment and the global economic crisis. A sign of the country's woes is the plummeting number of Russian billionaires on Forbes' list of the richest people — 32 from 87 a year ago.
The government handout is good news for Yulia Kolesnikova — whose family has been making nesting dolls for generations. When the economy was humming, she never wanted Russia's army of bureaucrats and tax inspectors to look at her business. After months of sagging sales, she hopes the promised bailout can salvage her business.
"Something terrible happened around September last year, and it's like all orders simply dried up. Simply no one was calling," Kolesnikova, 46, says. "And then there was all these talks about a crisis on the television. Why should a crisis affect a thing of beauty? At first we thought this was only an American problem."
In her workshop, which is little more than a car garage outside Moscow, some of her nesting dolls, or matryoshkas, are on display — adorned with colorful hand-painted portraits of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.
There are also scandal-themed dolls depicting former president Bill Clinton in a sharp suit, with Monica Lewinsky and other women linked to him, and another set with smiling former president George W. Bush.
"This is a quintessentially Russian craft, and it is unfortunate there were no tourists around as before to buy them," Kolesnikova says. "Obama's matryoshka could be a hit anytime he decides to visit us."