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Moscow's Toy Makers Fashion Political Satire : On the main shopping street, vendors hawk a variety of goods, including nesting dolls that show who's in, who's out.


MOSCOW — It used to be that Kremlin watchers had to pore over official photos of who stood where in Red Square to find out which dour Communist leader was in ascendance.

But in the post- perestroika age, one need only go down to the Arbat and check out the latest matroshka doll--the hand-painted wooden nesting dolls in descending size that fit snugly into one another.

Here on Moscow's main shopping street--a sort of pedestrian Melrose Avenue--budding capitalists hawk a variety of goods, including the dolls, which subvert traditional Russian folk art with sly political humor.

During perestroika, the Gorbachev doll always loomed largest. He fit over Brezhnev, who fit over Khrushchev, who fit over Stalin, who fit over Lenin, who fit over a tiny Karl Marx. The doll makers usually ignored the short-lived elderly leaders Konstantin Chernenko and Yuri Andropov.

After the aborted coup last August, the makers of matroshka scrambled to divine the political winds. Several new figures appeared on the Arbat and the sprawling weekend flea market at Izmailovo, a Moscow suburb. One was a two-faced doll with a triumphant Gorbachev on one side and a smug Yeltsin on the other. Other matroshka artists threw up their hands and crafted a blank doll with a big black question mark.

In September, however, the Arbat announced a new Soviet leader months before Gorbachev agreed to step down. It was a big Boris doll with red, jowly cheeks, a white pompadour and a gleam in his eyes as he fit snugly over predecessor Gorbachev.

For those who prefer blueblood matroshkas , the Arbat also has Russian monarchy dolls headed up by Czar Nicholas II, who with his family was executed by the Communists in 1918. Inspired by the Persian Gulf War, Russian humor has also produced a set of tyrant dolls headed by a green-uniformed Saddam Hussein. This rogue's gallery includes Moammar Kadafi, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin and--back in the mists of 16th-Century time--Ivan the Terrible.

Shoppers can find dolls with finely detailed, wicked caricatures as well as crudely painted, garish figures that look as if they were turned out by a factory in deepest Sverdlosk. Prices range anywhere from $15 into the hundreds of dollars for a set, depending on the quality. But in Moscow, a good rule of thumb to remember is that the asking price is meaningless. One must hunker down and barter like a good peasant.

Although nesting folk boxes date to AD 1000 in China, wooden nesting dolls didn't come into vogue until the early 1800s, according to Michele Lyons Lefkovitz, who wrote the 1990 book, "A Collector's Guide to Nesting Dolls--Histories, Identification, Values."

By the late 19th Century, the dolls had invaded Poland, Germany, all of Asia and Russia, where they were embraced by a culture that has long used children's toys for adult social commentary. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, for instance, Russian anti-clerical toys appeared that mocked the lives of some debauched village priests.

During the long winter of Communism, matroshka dolls sidestepped politics altogether in favor of safer topics, such as soldiers or peasant women with rosy cheeks and bright scarves. Perestroika ushered in the age of Soviet and other world-leader dolls. (In years past, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were among the biggest-selling dolls.)

"They're very hot items for Western visitors," says Ellen Chances, who collects matroshka dolls and is professor of Russian and Soviet literature and culture at Princeton University. "I see them as reflections of culture today. I don't think that right now any of the political ones have artistic value, but who knows what will happen? They are such a phenomenon of the glasnost era."

Are they collectible? Some of the ones crafted decades ago are in museums. The more artistic ones show a sense of humor and style, as well as an eye for telling detail. Some even reproduce the gilded painting style of Russian icons. At the very least, they are kitschy commentaries on the changing political scene that may look good on your mantelpiece.

"They vary enormously in quality. They're made by the thousands, but I've seen some very good ones for sale," says Marian Burleigh-Motley, an expert in Russian and early Soviet painting who directs curatorial studies at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

But Burleigh-Motley has a warning for people who visit the former U.S.S.R. in search of folk-art treasures:

"Don't buy them because you think they will be worth something; buy them because you like them. I have a Yeltsin set that a friend brought back for me, and I'm happy to have it as a witty comment on what's happened, not as a work of art."

And to be sure, Russian prices can't be beat. By comparison, Toys International in Century City sells a Yeltsin matroshka set for $175 and two sets of Gorby dolls for $89.95 and $129.95.

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