The Origins of The Russian Nesting Doll

Posted by Mary Stillwell on


You’ve probably seen them in antique shops and in some toy stores. If you’re a local Russian, then these should be undoubtedly familiar to you. With their recognizable corpulent figure and brightly colored patterns and designs, the Russian nesting dolls serve as many things: home decorations, house-warming presents, novelty collectibles, gifts for mothers and newborns, and even children’s toys. A set of Russian nesting dolls are created in a way that consists of a big hollow doll, inside is a small doll, and inside of that doll is another smaller doll, and so on.

The nesting dolls or originally called “matryoshka dolls” can vary from the classical family to modern politicians, to cartoon characters, and some are customized to the liking. Russian nesting dolls (traditionally called matryoshka dolls) can vary in design; from a classic family to cartoon characters, to politicians, to completely custom designs. The original setup symbolizes the Russian matriarch, associating the order of the dolls to a mother’s fertility and her family. This is why the early matryoshka dolls were mostly created in a way that the biggest dolls of each set are women or the “mothers”, followed by smaller dolls inside of her, which symbolize her “children”.

Creating the Nesting Dolls

The dolls are usually made up of wood from lime, birch, alder, and aspen. In most cases, lime is widely used. The process of creating the dolls has never changed. The smallest doll in the set is usually carved out first, then it is followed by another doll bigger than the last. The number of dolls in each set can vary from five to thirty, the most recorded number of dolls in a set has 51 dolls in total. Today, machinery is used to carve and sculpt the wood into hollow pieces turning them into the stackable dolls. Back in the early years, each doll was individually made and sculpted by the hand of a master craftsman with only the use of small tools to carve and shape them.

Before each doll is painted, they are first individually coated with a thin layer of starch to prevent the paint from drying out on the surface. They are then painted by hand by skilled workers. The designs may consist of classical Russian attire: women with scarves and animals, the men are sometimes drawn carrying tools. The designs often consist of classical Russian attire, such as women with scarves and animals or men carrying tools. Every detail, pattern, and color on each doll are so identical to each other that you would think it was painted by machinery. After painting, they are again coated with another layer of the layer of starch which results to their glossy finish.

False Origin of The Babushka Nesting Doll

The nesting dolls origin dates back to 1890 when it was first made by a craftsman named Vasily Zvyozdochkin at the Children’s Education Workshop-Salon in Abramtsevo. The nesting dolls came from the idea of an unknown type of doll in Japan. Long before the first matryoshka dolls were created, the nesting of dolls was already common and popular in the Asian countries, Japan and China (though China nested wooden boxes, not dolls). Sources believe that Vasily wanted to create a wooden doll with hidden toys inside of it. His resulting creation was the first set of Russian nesting dolls. In this first set of eight dolls, each doll was uniquely different from one another, unlike many modern sets. the biggest doll was that of a girl holding a black rooster in her hand, followed by another, then another girl, and so on until the smallest doll, a swaddled baby. There was only one boy in the set. They were painted by the Russian painter and architect, Sergey Malyutin. Upon completion, they were named the “Matryoshka dolls”, matryoshka meaning “little matron”.

The “nesting” part of the doll is associated with the Russian matriarch, with the woman being the central figure of the family. In Russia, having a large family is a common culture, with each individual having their own specific role in the family, included are their extended family members, relatives, and elders. The term “babushka doll” which is more commonly used in the west is considered an incorrect term due to the origin that “babushka” means “grandmother” or “old woman”, giving away the idea that the term babushka dolls mean “little grandmother doll” which to the locals—is considered as false analogy.

In Russian culture, it is very common to have a large family which includes not only your close relatives but also extended family members. Each member of the large family unit has their own roles to fulfill, with the matriarch being the central figure. This is why the name Matryoshka dolls was chosen, as the smaller dolls nest inside their matriarch. Often people in western countries mistakenly refer to them as Babushka dolls, which when translated means grandmother doll and is a slight misinterpretation on the real cultural significance of these dolls.

The Widespread Fame of the Matryoshka Dolls

Both artists of the matryoshka dolls, Zvyozdochkin and Malyutin, were under the support of the wealthy industrialist, Savva Mamontov, who owned the Abramtsevo estate where they created the dolls. The original matryoshka dolls were then presented to the Exposition Universelle in Paris by Mamontov’s wife, where the dolls earned a bronze medal. Shortly after their initial presentation, matryoshka dolls became very popular throughout Russia, before being mass produced for a global audience.

Today, the matryoshka dolls are still being made in Russia. The designs and patterns of each set still follow the characters with their traditional attire. Some are designed with images of politicians, others display nature with flowers and mountains. Whichever design is used, these dolls remain as symbols of respect and honor to the matriarch, as the mothers serve as the pillar and foundation of her family.

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