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."
A visit by the U.S. president is a way off, but the Russian government is trying to ensure its native crafts will be around. Industry and Trade Minister Viktor Khristenko said the government might also offer tax incentives for the artists, along with help selling their crafts at home and abroad.
Kolesnikova said she and her husband, who have two children, used to make a decent living from the nesting dolls. "We renovated this house with proceeds from selling matryoshkas. So, you see, it's not a small business after all," she says.
She learned the craft from her parents, starting at age 6 or 7 painting the dolls. Most of the early dolls she made had only five places — each doll nested inside another is called "a place."
"Since we became a democratic nation (after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991), we've had a boost in the number of orders for the matryoshkas," she says. "Big companies order nesting dolls with portraits of the bosses, and even government offices place orders."
Prices vary; a high-quality, 10-place doll can cost as much as $1,500. Kolesnikova hopes the government can help her business stay afloat.
"If the authorities in Moscow keep their word and place orders for matryoshkas, we would only be too glad," she says. "That would at least keep us going again, and we can sell off all the stuff lying on those shelves."