What You Ought to Know about Russian Nesting Dolls

Posted by Mary Stillwell on

Russian nesting dolls, otherwise known as matryoshka dolls, are Russia’s most popular souvenirs. These round figurines are used as a toy for children. Players need to get all the statuettes on each model by opening them. Indeed, this game requires patience because the smallest figures are the most difficult to open.

However, Russian nesting dolls are more than toys. It has been part of the culture of Eastern Europe for many years. That is why tourists from Russia have always bought these figurines as their souvenirs.

So, what is the history of matryoshka and the meaning behind its name? We will discuss these things later, but first, you need to know what these dolls are.

What Are Russian Nesting Dolls?

Russian nesting or matryoshka dolls are sets of wooden figurines of decreasing size placed in each other. They are round statuettes and painted as happy, kerchief-wearing women. However, these famous Russian souvenirs may also represent global leaders, fairytales, and pop culture icons.

Many people think that babushka and matryoshka have the same meaning. That is why some people call these dolls as babushka dolls. However, babushka and matryoshka are two different things. Babushka, in Russian, refers to an old woman, while matryoshka means mother.

Matryoshka models come in various styles. The popular type is the traditional design that looks like a young Russian wearing a national costume and a headscarf. In the traditional type of nesting doll, all the figurines are identical and the number of models in set ranges between five and 30.

Custom-made nesting figurines, on the other hand, have more dolls and designs. This type of matryoshka statuettes can be used for teaching children, depending on the design of each model.

Last is the blank Russian nesting doll set. This one is perfect for DIY projects, allowing you to use your creative juices in designing the statuettes. 

Russian Nesting Doll History

The first matryoshka nesting doll was created in 1890. It was engraved by Vasily Zvyozdochkin and designed and painted by Sergey Malyutin. Both artists were from the Abramtsevo estate of Savva Mamontov.

The first Russian doll set had eight figures: the biggest figurine was a girl wearing a traditional dress and carrying a rooster. The smaller statuettes were girls and a boy, while the smallest model was a baby.

But the first Russian doll is not the first nesting concept because it has been around for centuries. The first nesting boxes were made in China in 1,000 A.D and then spread to Japan in a shape of the Fukuruma, a sacred icon in honor of Fukurokuju, the god of joy in Japanese mythology. This is where Zvyozdochkin and Malyutin got their inspiration for creating the matryoshka statuettes.

Thus, sources have different descriptions when it comes to the appearance of the doll. Some people describe it as a round, hollow daruma figurine modeled after a bald old Buddhist monk. Others define these dolls as a Seven Lucky Gods nesting doll.

In 1900, Mamontov’s spouse exhibited the Russian nesting models at the Exposition Universelle in Paris and received global exposure where the toy earned a bronze medal. Soon enough, several places in Russia produced and sent these dolls around the world.

Russian Nesting Doll Origin

We have already discussed the matryoshka meaning, but do you know the nesting doll origin?

Many academic and literary theorists believe that the word, matryoshka, comes from a Russian name, Matriosha. This name was common to the female peasantry of old Russia.

Matryoshka comes from the Latin word, “mater,” which means mother in English. Fertility, family, and maternity all influence the matryoshka doll meaning and significance. Having a big, close-knit family in Russia is typical and vital to their culture. This means that most Russian families have extended relatives, including grandparents, aunties, uncles, and cousins.

The Russian nesting doll is a symbol of a babushka, a powerful female matriarch and the primary figure in the family.

Russian Nesting Doll Meaning

Russian nesting figurines do not only indicate maternity and fertility, though these are the representational connotations of the doll. It now has different meanings in various cultures.

So, what do Russian dolls represent? It depends on where the wooden stacking dolls are made. For instance, the matryoshka figurines in the Soviet Union represent the country’s political history and vie with well-known Soviet communist politicians, such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Josef Stalin. Other dolls tell stories and legends like the life of the morning glory flower, in which the opening of the figurines represent the blooming of the floral.

Meanwhile, some statuettes embody the person’s life. The biggest doll is us, while the inner figures epitomize our soul’s innocence and the essence of ourselves.

Russian nesting dolls are now available in different European countries, such as Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Poland. Nonetheless, Russia is the center of the nesting doll industry, and the most massive variety is found here.

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