Karkachev was one of Conway’s first students at the language school that had invited him to teach in St. Petersburg, Russia. The winter after Conway arrived, in 1991, was particularly hard, and food was scarce. “Roman and his wife, Olga, helped me get through my first winter there,” he says. “He would call me and tell me he found a gallon of milk that he was willing to share, or he’d call and say, ‘Meet me at the station, and I’ll give you some bread.’”
The bond between the two men strengthened during Conway’s stay, and, when he realized he was ready to return home to North Carolina in 1993, he was concerned about leaving his new friend behind. The Russian economy was in turmoil due to communism’s recent fall and, although Karkachev was slated to graduate with a university degree in physics, he had little hope of getting a government job. “Back then, the only way to make ends meet in Russia was to buy and sell something,” Conway says. The two men met at a St. Petersburg library to say goodbye on Conway’s last day in Russia, but they were also solidifying a plan. Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev had recently announced that independent businesses were allowed in Russia; Conway and Karkachev planned to utilize this freedom by promoting one of Russia’s beloved folk crafts — the matryoshka doll, also known as Russian nesting or stacking dolls.
Matryoshka dolls are slightly contoured, egg-shaped wooden toys made up of many pieces that open to reveal smaller characters hidden inside. One doll can hold 40 or more interior parts. Matryoshkas are often seen as representing mother Russia, and the snug dolls-within-dolls symbolize blessings upon blessings waiting to be discovered.
In a show of faith, Karkachev laid his life savings of $500 down on a library table that day. Conway matched his investment, dollar for dollar. After Conway and Karkachev shook hands as partners, the money was spent at the St. Petersburg craft fair where traditional artists and out-of-work professionals, desperately trying to make a living, peddled nesting dolls, Russia’s most beloved souvenir.
The next day, when Karkachev took Conway to the airport, the two men lugged a suitcase full of nesting dolls to be sold in the United States. “At that time, I was sure I’d never see Roman again,” Conway says, “but he was confident the business would succeed. He was right. I’ve talked to him almost every day since.”