Matryoshka Dolls from Russia

The Symbolism of Traditional Life in Russia Seen Through Matryoshka Dolls

Whenever I close my eyes and think of Russia, I see the snow-covered ground, miles and miles of forests, and Russian nesting dolls. You are thinking right! In today’s post, we’re going to discuss the world-famous piece of art Matryoshka dolls from Russia. Though the round figurines are toys to children for playing with, the vibrant and meticulously painted wooden dolls also embody a simpler, fairy-tale-like time. The conventional patterns and designs of Matryoshka dolls represent a scene from the 1800s. Each doll draws you and throws you back to the life of a simple peasant. 

Traditional Matryoshka Dolls
Traditional Matryoshka Dolls Credit:

The wooden dolls also symbolize the significance of mothers in a family; a great deal of regard is paid to them by the Matryoshka dolls. While the dolls are considered as among the oldest traditions in the history and culture of Russia, several historians and sources state that Matryoshka dolls are not as much a groundbreaking discovery as they were thought to be. 

These invaluable parts of Eastern European culture, may not even be an invention at all. Instead, they are products of inspiration. There is factual evidence that indicates that there were nesting dolls a hundred years ago, even before a wooden doll was created in Russia. So, what is the origin of Matryoshka dolls, you might ask? Let’s dive into it!

Origin of Matryoshka Dolls

Even though Matryoshka dolls gained worldwide popularity and exposure in Russia, the concept of nesting dolls inside the decreased sizes of one another, existed since the eve of the first millennium which is around nine hundred years before a Matryoshka doll was crafted. In 1000 AD, the Chinese invented the nesting of wooden boxes for decoration and storage purposes. 

The idea of nesting boxes includes a big wooden box which consists of another similar wooden box but smaller and when opened there will be another one and so on. The concept of nesting boxes then transformed into the nesting dolls that served as the basis for creating the first nesting doll.

Traditional Japanese Nesting Dolls
Traditional Japanese Nesting Dolls Credit: Pinterest

The notion of nesting boxes then immigrated to Japan and they created their own version by making nesting dolls of their deities. The Seven Lucky Gods or the Shichi-Fukujin are believed in Japanese mythology to bring luck and they are one of the first images that the nesting dolls were made of. Fukurokuju, or the Japanese God of longevity and happiness, is formed into a large wooden doll that can be opened and will let out six gods. The dolls then attracted a woman named Elizaveta Mamontova who brought them back to Russia.

First-Ever Russian Matryoshka Doll

Elizaveta Mamontova was the wife of the prosperous entrepreneur and industrialist Savva Mamontova, who was a sponsor of the arts and a supporter of making and preserving Russian folk art and culture. Due to this ambition, he established a workshop in Moscow, Russia. The workshop was for children who would construct and design dolls that would define and represent the traditional life and culture of Russia.

Now, this is where the history of the Matryoshka dolls becomes a little tricky. There is no proof if Elizaveta brought the dolls to the workshop and inspired the first two people who are behind the first Russian Matryoshka doll, Sergey Malyutin and Vasilii Zvyozdochkin. Or, as some believed that inspiration came from Russia itself, from the detachable Easter Eggs that were crafted long before the first Matryoshka doll was created.

Vasilii Zvyozdochkin
Vasilii Zvyozdochkin Credit: Wikipedia

As depicted in a memoir, some historians believe that Zvyozdochkin was eager to make a doll that would have space inside it for other playthings. No mention of the Russian Easter eggs and Japanese Fukurokuju were found in this memoir, so, nobody can tell where the inspiration came from that made him and Malyutin create the first-ever handmade wooden nesting doll in Russia. That is the famous “Rooster Girl” known as Matryoshka dolls. 

History of the First Russian Matryoshka Doll

In 1890, the first Matryoshka doll was crafted by Vasilii Zvyozdochkin and painted and designed by the artist Sergey Malyutin. Both artists were from Savva Momontov’s Abramtsevo estate. The set of the first Russian nesting doll had eight figurines in it and the first figurine was of a wooden peasant girl who had typical Russian attire on her which was finished with a headscarf. She was named “matryoshka”, which defines “little matron”. She was also known as the Rooster girl as she had a black rooster in her hand.

Rooster Girl in Matryoshka Doll
Rooster Girl Credit:

Inside the matryoshka doll, there were seven more statuettes with diverse attires and characteristics. The second doll is a female, while the third doll is another female but holding a scythe. The fourth doll is also a female with a bowl in her hand which many presume to be a bowl of porridge. The fifth figure is of a boy holding a long fork or a broom and the sixth and seventh dolls are also female, while the sixth female doll is holding a baby in her hand without any gender noticeable. And, last but not least, the doll is a baby, wrapped up in a patched quilt. 

When it comes to the appearance of the Matryoshka dolls, there are different sources of descriptions. Some believe that the figurines are round and the hollow daruma statuettes are based on a bald old Buddhist monk, while others think that the dolls are the Seven Lucky Gods as mentioned above. In 1900, Elizaveta Mamontov exhibited the Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls at the “Exposition Universelle” in Paris, which obtained global recognition by earning a bronze medal. It wasn’t that later late when these dolls were created in various places in Russia and purchased all around the world.

The symbolism of Russian Matryoshka Dolls

When the first Matryoshka dolls were crafted, the biggest figurines were all females because they symbolized a woman’s motherhood and fertility. The big-bellied shape of the dolls portrayed the stout figure of a mother and her nesting of her children inside her. In traditional families in Russia, a mother plays a big part in their lives, not only because of her bearer and nurturer quality but also by being the head of the family. Having a big family is common in Russia, it is often important as the family consists of more than three children and other extended family members under one roof alongside them. Each family member has their own quality and role in the family and the mother serves as the foundation of the household. 

Meaning of Matryoshka

Matryoshka Doll
Matryoshka Doll, the mother, is the foundation of the family Credit: Wikipedia

The word “matryoshka” literally defines “little matron” related to the first female name in Russia, which is “Matriosha” or “Matryona.” However, Russian Matryoshka nesting not only represents motherhood and fertility, as they have distinctive connotations as well in divergent cultures. 

To answer the question of what the nesting dolls represent, it differs from region to region where the Matryoshka dolls are created. For example, in the Soviet Union, the Russian figurines represent the political history of the nation and they also portray renowned politicians such as Josef Stalin and Mikhail Gorbachev, and so on. 

Sometimes, the wooden statuettes tell legends and stories like the life of a morning glory flower. The revealing of the dolls indicates the blossoming of a flower. In the meantime, some figures embody a person’s life where the outer doll is us and the inner dolls represent the innocence of a soul and the essence of that person.

The Distinction between Matryoshka Dolls and Babushka Dolls

From the Latin word “mater,” came the word Matryoshka or mother. Thus, it is more than appropriate to call the wooden nesting dolls Matryoshka dolls, referring to what and who they symbolize. But, the people of the west are mixing babushka dolls with Matryoshka dolls, which have totally different definitions. Although the phrase Babushka still pertained to Russia, the meaning of it is vastly different from Matryoshka dolls.

In Russian, Babushka refers to “old woman” or “grandmother.” However, it clearly depicts a wrong meaning when the dolls are called Babushka, as the wooden figurines are supposed to symbolize maternity and fertility. So, calling the dolls Babushka is somewhat incorrect. Yet, some researchers suggest that the word Babushka is actually referring to the handkerchiefs, because the piece of clothing is really known as Babushka. To this day, we cannot keep calling them Babushka dolls, with their contemporary appearance with the nesting dolls along with their modern attire. Nonetheless, it is encouraged vehemently not to call them Babushka dolls instead of the Russian nesting dolls or Matryoshka dolls. 

Making of Russian Nesting Dolls

The wood is the most vital part of beginning to create a Matryoshka doll. Quintessentially, limewood works best for these wooden figurines. There are other woods from balsa, alder, aspen, linden and birch can work too. The wood is turned into cylinders on a lathe machine before placing it into the carving department. According to several sources, the whole piece of wood is utilized to create one piece of a wooden nesting doll. 

How Nesting Dolls are Made
How Nesting Dolls are Made Credit:

It is not clear which size the artist starts to carve their piece first. Whether it is the smallest one or the bigger, the major necessity is their comfort level to begin the carving with. Typically, the first part of the wood is carved out of the cylinder and then the bottom part of the doll. The most difficult portion of carving a doll is to craft a doll from two distinctive blocks of wood as if the doll was created from one. To finish off the shaping procedure, the two parts of the wood are sanded together. The surprising fact of carving a wooden nesting doll is that the carver doesn’t measure or size it, instead of going along with their intuition and skills.

Painting Matryoshka Doll
Painting Russian Nesting Doll Credit: Viator

All Russian nesting dolls are painted by hand. The workmanship is so meticulous that the dolls always look like they have been painted using some sort of machinery. A type of paint that is more opaque than watercolor is called Gouache, which is used to paint the Matryoshka dolls to make them bold and bright. After outlining the dolls, there are blocks of colors and then the detailing on the doll. Lacquer is a special liquid that is applied to the painted dolls as the last part of the process to protect them from natural wear-and-tear. It is also responsible for the glossy and shiny finish of the product when it’s finally displayed. 

For detailed information on the process of making a Matryoshka doll, visit this post

Contemporary Twist on Matryoshka Dolls

In the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the first breakout star was not an athlete, instead, it was a giant Russian nesting doll on the slopestyle course at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. Wooden dolls are constantly created, mainly produced in Russia. Though the crafters still follow the traditional design, over time, the patterns and designs have changed. In modern times, the matryoshka dolls are made with political personalities, nature, celebrities, and cartoon characters. Sometimes, the designs can also be personalized to one’s family. Several contemporary artists create diverse styles from flowers, animal collections, portraits to robots, astronauts, Easter, and Christmas collections. 

The Giant Russian Dolls

Giant Russian Nesting Dolls
Giant Russian Nesting Dolls
Credit: Pinterest

There are giant Russian wooden nesting dolls that were exhibited in 2010 at the Russian National Exhibition in Paris. Currently, they are presented at the Afimall City Complex in Moscow. The making of these dolls remains unchanged. The trees that are chosen to be the material for the giant nesting dolls are cut down on the eve of Spring. The bark is stripped off the fallen trees except for some rings to prevent the wood from cracking. The logs remain in the open air for two years. Only a master at their craft can tell when the material is ready.

Places to Find Russian Nesting Dolls

Nesting Dolls For Sale
Matryoshka Dolls For Sale Credit: pics4learning-Tech4learning

Russian Matryoshka dolls can be bought from anywhere the sovereigns are sold in Russia. Street vendors, shops, and markets are all the places you can get your nesting dolls. Izmaylovo market in Moscow is an incredible spot to purchase Matryoshka dolls from. Russian wooden nesting dolls can also be found in other Eastern European countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, and Ukraine.

Here we are at the end again! For further information, you can visit here. Hopefully, I’ve ignited some sort of spark for this artform from Russia in you which will grow into a yearning for you to keep seeking more. Until then, travel well, be well.


2 thoughts on “The Symbolism of Traditional Life in Russia Seen Through Matryoshka Dolls

  1. You shared an interesting blog with us. This is a post that I enjoy reading. Continue to share more blogs. I also had a positive experience with The Russian Treasures, where I purchased Wooden Russian Dolls. They have a huge number of these dolls in their collection. Strongly suggested!!

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