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April 19, 2011

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Russian folk arts fading fast

ONCE Russian folk arts were lavishly subsized, but no longer. Now many matryoshkas dolls are made in China. And it's also bye-bye, balalaika. Mansur Mirovalev tells the story.

A squirrel tail. Wolf teeth. Sheets of gold. Flax oil. These are the things Vladimir Buldakov uses to work a feat of modern-day alchemy: transforming an ordinary papier-mache box into a gilded miniature masterpiece that will tell the story of saints or heroes, fairies or dragons.

Buldakov comes from Palekh, a 700-year-old Russian village where a church's lavender onion-domes overlook snow-clad houses, a frozen river and a distant birch forest. The town is famous for its beauty, but the rare outsiders who visit come for the varnished boxes that bear its name.

Now, the unique art form, which emerged in the 1920s, is struggling to find a reason to exist in the current society.

If it disappears entirely, Russia will lose one of its hallmark trinkets, the product of an astonishingly high-skilled process.

In Palekh, the 60-year-old Buldakov's fine brush is made from a squirrel caught in August - any later and the fur splits. He boils the papier-mache in flax oil to make it stone hard. After painting and varnishing, he applies tiny specks of gold kneaded in gum arabic, and smooths the surface with a wolf's tooth.

The box will take months to complete. For the backbreaking labor, he will be lucky to get a few thousand US dollars. Buldakov and his wife Natalya are masters of their craft; less talented artists struggle to command a couple hundred US dollars a box.

With demand falling, that's hardly enough to keep his daughter Kseniya keen on carrying on a family tradition that goes back five generations.

She was trained as a Palekh box painter but moved to St Petersburg to make dolls at a puppet theater, which is less arduous.

"It doesn't make sense to work with the boxes," the 30-year-old says, adding that most others of her generation feel the same way. "Very few of them stay. Everyone wants to get out, it's cramped and boring."

Back in earlier times, Palekh boxes were a heavily subsidized art that made their makers relatively rich. But in these days of globalization, the lure of making boxes for modest earnings that dwindle every year is fading fast.

Even young people who like Kseniya Buldakova graduated from the Palekh art college, where her father teaches, now work as software designers, cartoonists, teachers and even manicurists, astounding clients with the intricate details their studies allow them to paint on nails.

Palekh is not alone on the list of famous Russian village handicrafts - wooden toys from Bogorodsk, blue majolica ceramics from Gzhel, iron trays from Zhostovo, to name a few - that may soon become history.

The trend runs deeper because traditional ways Russians eat, dress and dance are also fading.

It's hard to find the massive wood-fired brick ovens that once dominated each household.

They were essential for steam baths and traditional cooking, and their replacement gas stoves made "a whole class of traditional Russian foods extinct," according to food historian Vilyam Pokhlyobkin.

Teenagers shun traditional valenki felt boots in favor of Chinese-made sneakers and sneer at traditional folk music and dance; aspiring musicians prefer electric guitars and synthesizers to accordions and balalaikas - decimating the ranks of their makers.

Artisans blame the decline in Russian crafts largely on an industrial recession in the country.

"Matryoshkas are now made in China and brought here," says Sophia Panfilova, the 54-year-old owner of a souvenir shop outside the Kremlin, who has also been painting these nesting dolls for more than 20 years.


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