SERGIYEV POSAD, Russia - Inna Kashnikova found her calling during a fourth-grade trip to a factory in this picturesque town that produces
the wooden nesting dolls that are synonymous with Russian folk art.
"I really liked it here, with the smell of the paint and all the colors," recalled Kashnikova, 40, as she sat at a workbench in the Aofis factory and used a cotton swab to dab white flowers across the apron of an unfinished matryoshka. "Ever since then, I wanted to paint the dolls."
But matryoshki - those gourd-shaped figures that can be pulled apart to reveal ever-smaller dolls - are in trouble, and so is Kashnikova's job.
Here in Sergiyev Posad, a historic town 50 miles north of Moscow that is considered the birthplace of the matryoshka, factories that have produced the dolls for decades are struggling to stay in business. Souvenir shops have slashed orders, tourists have stopped coming, and artisans such as Kashnikova are worried that their way of life - and a distinctly Russian tradition - may soon be lost.
With the country enduring its worst economic downturn in a decade, matryoshka manufacturers are pleading with the government for aid and warning that their survival could depend on it because sales have already fallen by at least a third.
The Kremlin has agreed to add the matryoshka to its bailout budget, pledging to buy nearly $30 million worth of the dolls and other souvenirs for officials to give away.
"The matryoshka is our face" to the world, said Galina Subbota, a deputy mayor of Sergiyev Posad, where the government commissioned a hot-air balloon shaped like the doll to promote tourism. "Even if it is not economically profitable, we can't allow it to disappear from our lives."
The first matryoshka is said to have been made here in the 1890s, after a local craftsman saw a set of Japanese stacking dolls in the likeness of a Buddhist deity and created a Russian version in the form of a matronly peasant woman. Today, tourists can buy dolls painted to represent anything from Simpsons characters to communist leaders and American presidents.
Built around a 14th-century monastery, Sergiyev Posad remains an important source of matryoshki, and a century-old toy museum here displays dolls from each of the last 10 decades. But the lime tree that matryoshka-makers favor for its soft wood has all but disappeared from the region. Production has shifted to the Volga River outside Nizhny Novgorod, where artisans make the dolls extra curvy, with bright red peasant dresses and yellow scarves.
Most matryoshki are made in small factories or workshops by artisans who craft them one at a time and often have spent years training on the lathe. Painting the dolls is easier, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, laid-off state employees earned a living by doing it in their homes.
A beloved children's toy in the Soviet era, the matryoshka became less popular in Russia after the economy opened up. "It's difficult to compete with the Chinese and these plastic toys," said Aleksander Kurennoy, director of the Aofis factory.