The Meaning and Symbolism of the Matryoshka Nesting Dolls

Posted by Mary Stillwell on

One look at these colorful and beautifully painted wooden dolls, and you’ll suddenly feel a cosmic-like force enveloping your spiritual being. The Russian nesting dolls, which are better known as matryoshka nesting dolls in their country of origin, embody a young yet still a timeless depiction of a simple and fairytale-like early times. The traditional designs and patterns of the wooden dolls illustrate a scene that once existed in the 1800s. Each character seems to draw you into the earliest settings of a simple peasant life.

Whereas people have limited understanding of the nesting dolls, what they symbolize, and why they were made; very few have understood the tale that led to the creation of these wooden toys, as well as the reason they were named “matryoshka” in the first place. To find out the goal of the production of the Russian nesting dolls, it’s fitting to delve deeper into the story that led to their concept.

A Brief History of the Birth of the First Russian Nesting Dolls

Completed in 1890, the first set of the Russian nesting dolls were crafted by a woodworker named Vasilii Zvyozdochkin, and painted by an artist, Sergei Malyutin. It was believed that Vasilii wanted to create a wooden doll with hidden toys inside of it. They created a wooden peasant girl clothed in a traditional Russian attire complete with a headscarf. She was named “matryoshka” meaning “little matron”, also referred to as the Rooster Girl, since she is more known as the wooden doll holding a black rooster in her arm.

Inside the first matryoshka doll were seven more wooden toys, each having their own characteristic feature and attire: the second doll is of a female, the third another female holding a scythe, the fourth is yet another female holding a bowl of what people assumed is porridge, the fifth is of a boy holding a long object that is believed to be a broom or maybe a fork, another female doll is next in the set holding in her hands a sibling with no clear gender, the seventh is another young girl, and lastly, is a baby wrapped in a patchwork quilt.

In 1900, this set was then presented to the Exposition Universelle in Paris, France, where it received a bronze medal. Shortly after, the dolls gained popularity and began to be manufactured from many parts of Russia. Soon enough, matryoshka dolls not only became known nationwide but also exported worldwide.

Symbolism of the Matryoshka Dolls

When the early nesting dolls were created, all of them were presented with females as their biggest dolls. That is because a couple of the main symbols of the matryoshka dolls were of depicting a woman’s fertility and their motherhood. The shape of the big-bellied doll almost portrayed a mother’s stout figure and her significance in the family by the nesting of her “children” dolls inside.

Mothers play a big role in the traditional Russian family; being the bearer of life and her capability to multiply her seeds are just some of them. In the country, having a big family is considered as a common practice and even an important one; there are usually more than three children, as well as members of the extended family live under one roof with them. Each member of the family is believed to have their own unique role in the household, and it’s the mother who serves as the foundation of the home.

Babushka Doll vs Matryoshka Doll

Matryoshka came from the Latin word “mater” which means “mother”. So, it was more than fitting for the nesting dolls to be named “matryoshka dolls” because of who and what they symbolize. However, people of the west are calling them “babushka dolls” instead of the original matryoshka; and although the term babushka is still associated with Russia, the name behind that holds a completely different meaning.

Babushka means “grandmother” or “old woman”. With that being said, naming the nesting dolls as babushka dolls clearly give out the incorrect meaning of the Russian wooden toys. The dolls represent a mother’s fertility, so, it was not a fit for them to be called as such. However, some suggest that the dolls were erroneously called babushka dolls because of their headkerchiefs, as the piece of clothing is really called a babushka. Today, with the evolution of the appearance of the nesting dolls as they characterize modern people with modern attire, it wouldn’t make sense to keep calling them babushka.

Nevertheless, it is encouraged to refrain from identifying the nesting dolls as babushka dolls. Their original name “matryoshka” would do, or simply “Russian nesting dolls”.

A Piece of Russia in the Form of Dolls

As time constantly changes, so does the physical features of the matryoshka dolls change little by little. Each doll has evolved from uniquely different to identically the same for patterns and designs, just different in size. Modern times are beginning to demand modern characters. A set of Russian nesting dolls can represent modern national politicians, religious deities, a royal family, or a group of celebrities. If preferred, the designs can be fictional like the characters of a cartoon show or a children’s story. They don’t even have to be fictional or non-fictional as you can opt for animal designs or nature sceneries. For a truly customized wooden dolls set, one can have his or her own family as the design.

It’s not hard to believe that the matryoshka dolls are a sight to behold, and the act of breaking the doll apart only to reveal a smaller one inside is indeed a surprise for many. As they are mostly considered as decorations now and seldom as toys, people are able to relish the simple joys in the traditional times as if they were born in it. The classical style of the matryoshka brings memories of a life once appreciated, and the dolls are more than fitting to embody the significance of a mother and her role in the family as one of the backbones in society.

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