Alexandra Shwarzstein wasn't shopping for anything in particular on a recent trip to the Century City Shopping Center, until her eyes--and hands--came to rest on the matroshka dolls at From Russia With Love, a kiosk hawking a variety of colorful Russian-made goods.
"They're pretty and there's lots of them," Alexandra, 9, said while fidgeting with the hand-painted wooden dolls that stack inside one another. "You can make a family out of them."
The dolls were such a hit with Alexandra and her younger sister, Hayley, that Meyer Shwarzstein selected them as birthday gifts for his daughters. "This is something you wouldn't have seen a few years ago," he said, pointing out a Mickey Mouse matroshka. "It's the perfect marriage of American and Russian culture."
As handicraft stores, kiosks and carts continue to appear in local malls, industry officials say a growing number of shoppers nationwide are attracted to the wares of the former Soviet Union. Moreover, many say that while some items clearly are novelty kitsch, others are becoming valued collectibles.
Debra Gold, whose Los Angeles marketing and public relations firm Gold & Co. tracks trends in the gift industry, said she has seen the "red influence" grow steadily in recent years, fueled by an increasing American interest in other cultures.
"There is a trend toward hand-made items," she said. "People are realizing a lot of things are collectible. We live in such a mass-produced society that the difference between the '80s and '90s will be a celebration of the artist. There's a real longing to see the artist's hand in the work."
Imports from Russia and the other countries of the former Soviet Union totaled $845 million in 1992, 5.4% more than in 1991, according to the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration. A figure for gift items was unavailable.
Gold said these imports made a strong showing at the California Gift Show, a trade event held at the Los Angeles Convention Center in late January.
"Russian products and Russian-inspired designs are much more noticeable than they were even a year ago," she said.
Jack Chalden, general manager of AMC Trade Shows, said: " Multiculturalism is more than a breezy byword, it's a fact of business life. In my view, the emergence of products being produced over there is increasing."
While sales dip and surge among trendy items such as Russian military pins and watches, vendors say amber jewelry from the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and Russian matroshka dolls, lacquer boxes, scarves and embroidered clothing are being collected by Americans unable to get such items even a decade ago.
"It was the hidden society," Gold said of Russia. "It's perceived as exotic. I know a lot of people who collect them that aren't particularly into Russian merchandise."
At the Century City kiosk, there were more lookers than buyers. But many were drawn by the jewelry made of amber--a smooth, yellowish substance made of fossilized tree sap. Most pieces are set in sterling silver and priced between $10 and $250.
"After the movie 'Jurassic Park,' people started to understand what (amber) is," said Gennadiy, a vendor who asked that his last name not be used. "Now they love to buy it."
Helen Raven, of Culver City, bought several pieces. "I love the color," she said. "You get the real thing and it's not very expensive."
Vendors say matroshkas are also extremely popular. The dolls, which come in sets as small as three and as large as 20, were originally created as toys. The first matroshkas were made in the 1890s and many of today's designs are patterned after the original images.
Other modern designs, however, range from artful religious renderings to cartoon characterizations of political leaders. Most range in price from about $20 to $400.
Peter and Zhanna Brodetsky began selling their collection of lacquer boxes shortly after emigrating from Ukraine five years ago. The couple owns Russian Souvenirs, the company that operates the From Russia With Love kiosks.
"We started at the flea market," Zhanna said in a thick Ukrainian accent. "And the time was right. Russia was closed for many years and people hadn't seen the art before. After the openness, nobody in Russia needed (the artwork), but tourists came and started buying it. Now, they do beautiful work--every shipment gets better and better.
"A lot of people collect matroshka dolls because they are not expensive right now. They switch from porcelain dolls and lacquer boxes."
Peter said competition has increased a great deal. "I survive by working directly with the artists," he said.
But Zhanna said prices have gone up since official systems were set up to export the items from Russia. Before that, importers got their wares from people who brought goods out without paying duties.
Although many say high-end products are in vogue, there is still an interest in novelty items.