The Short Story of Matryoshka

Nesting dolls are the best known and most popular of all Russian souvenirs. The Russian word for these wooden dolls is matryoshka, but they are also called matrioshka, matreshka, matriochka, babushka or babooshka dolls, babushka’s doll, matroshka, matruska, matryushka, and stacking dolls. Whatever you want to call them, nesting dolls have a fascinating history, and they are the classic Russian gift.

The most traditional nesting doll design is one that looks like a young Russian woman dressed in Russian native costume with a scarf on her head. In the traditional nesting doll sets all of the dolls look almost identical to one another, and the number of dolls in the set ranges from 5 to 30, but some custom made matryoshkas contain many more. In other cases, the set forms a theme, such as the classic sets of nesting dolls of Russian leaders, with each earlier leader nested inside. That is a doll inside a doll inside another doll and so on.

“Matryoshka” are Russian wooden dolls with smaller dolls stacked within the bigger ones.

In provincial Russia before the revolution the name Matryona or Matriyosha was a very popular female name. It was derived from the Latin root ‘mater’ which means ‘mother’. This name was associated with the image of a mother of a big family who was very healthy and had a portly figure. Subsequently, it became a symbolic name and was used specially to describe brightly painted wooden dolls made in such a way that they could be taken apart to reveal smaller dolls fitting inside one another.

Even now nesting doll is considered to be a symbol of motherhood and fertility. A mother doll with numerous dolls-children perfectly expresses the oldest symbol of human culture.

The first Russian nesting doll turned by Vassily Zviozdochkin and painted by Sergey Maliutin contaned 8 pieces: a girl with a black rooster was followed by a boy and then by a girl again and so on. All figurines were different from each other, the last one was a figurine of a baby wrapped in diaper.

It was quite easy for Russian craftsmen who had had a considerable experience in turning wooden objects which fitted inside each other (for example, Easter eggs) to work out the nesting doll making technology.

The basic technique of nesting doll making remains unchanged. As a rule nesting dolls are made from lime, birch, alder and aspen. Lime is the most abundant material. The trees chosen to manufacture nesting dolls are cut down at the beginning of Spring, usually in April when the trees are full of sap. The felled trees are stripped of their bark leaving a few rings to prevent the wood from cracking. The logs prepared in this way with their butt-ends smeared over are arranged in piles with a clearance between them to allow aeration.

The logs are kept in the open air for two years. Only an experienced master can tell when the material is ready. Then the logs are cut into workpieces for nesting dolls. Every workpiece can be turned as many as 15 times before the nesting doll will be ready. Making a doll on a turning lathe requires high skills, an ability to work with a beguilingly small set of tools – a knife and chisels of various length and shape. The smallest figurine which cannot be taken apart is usually made first. The bottom part of the next figurine which can be taken apart is turned first. Then a workpiece is turned to reach the necessary size and the top end is removed. Then the ring is made to fit on the upper part of the nesting doll and then its lower part can be made. Then the nesting doll’s head is turned and the necessary amount of wood is removed from within the nesting doll’s head to slip on the upper ring. All these operations do not involve any measurements, and rely only on intuition and require high professional skills.

The upper part of the nesting doll is stuck on to its lower part. Then it dries and tightens the ring so it sits securely in place. When the turning work is over, a snow white doll is thoroughly cleaned, primed with starchy glue to make the surface ideally smooth and to prevent the paint making smudges and then dried. Now it is ready to be painted. The first Russian nesting doll was poked and painted with gouache and covered with varnish by S. V. Maliutin.

Various types of nesting dolls are distinguished by the way their aprons are painted. For example, some nesting dolls have architectural monuments on their aprons. Such nesting doll is a wonderful souvenir which reminds this or that historical place.

The trend of using decorative elements which are typical for Russian folk culture traditional centers becomes more and more popular in the decoration of modern nesting doll. Very often one can see a nesting doll painted a la Gzhel, Zhostovo, Khokhloma, or Palekh.

Modern nesting doll absorbs in certain ways the treasure of folk Russian art traditions. Author’s nesting dolls are very expressive and energetic – view an example of exclusive authors’ nesting dolls.

Nesting doll is a huge artistic event which requires comprehension. It is both sculpture and painting, image and soul of Russia.