Matryoshka Dolls: It’s Not the Form, but the Meaning. History, Tradition and Modernity 

Matryoshka is an unusual wooden toy loved by many. Besides being a symbol of Russian culture, it also has certain spiritual symbolism. What is the secret of its lasting popularity? How did the idea of creating such a toy come about? What painting traditions is it associated with? Why do its modern copies lose their essence? Interesting facts about Russia’s most popular souvenir in our article. 

The Origin of Nesting Dolls 

The origin of the Russian nesting dolls remains uncertain. According to popular belief, they originated from the Japanese nesting wooden dolls with images of the pagan god Fukurumi. One of these dolls was brought in 1890 to an estate near Moscow belonging to Anatoly Mamontov, owner of a children’s store and a workshop called Children’s Education. Inspired by the Japanese prototype, Mamontov immediately commissioned his craftsmen to make a similar toy in the Russian style. It is also known that folding eggs had already existed in Russia at that time.

First Nesting Dolls

The first Russian nesting doll was carved in 1890 by Vasily Zvezdochkin and then painted by Sergey Malyutin. It consisted of 8 dolls: the largest was a girl in a traditional folk costume with a headscarf and holding a black rooster in her hand. Inside was a boy, then a girl and so on. The smallest toy was a baby in a diaper. All the figures were different from one another, both in size and in painting.

Malyutin’s nesting dolls

Name and Symbolism

Matryoshka dolls, representing simple pious girls, acquired their name from the Russian name Matryona, popular at that time. They quickly became a symbol of motherhood and a large family, and their trademark rosy cheeks and ample curves represented good health.

Matryoshka also expresses a certain spiritual truth about man and God (all in One, and One in all). Each matryoshka in a set seems to be complete, but loses its meaning if separated from the others.

Popularity

Matryoshka dolls gained their worldwide fame after the 1900 exhibition in Paris. Only 10 years later, the toy was already being ordered by 14 countries. Due to the crisis in 1900, their production was transferred to the workshop in Sergiyev Posad. The dolls’ growing popularity resulted in the appearance of more and more workshops and painting techniques associated with their manufacture. 

Different Painting Traditions

The styles of painting matryoshka dolls are associated with the names of areas where they originated. Today’s most popular painting technique comes from Sergiyev Posad. It preserves the style introduced by the artist Malyutin. Its characteristic feature is the focus on the elements of clothing and everyday life, combined with small and low-detail facial features.

Semenovo painting is distinguished by large simplistic eyes, pure colors and details clearly outlined with a black contour.

Nesting dolls coming from the Vyatka region are traditionally made using the inlay technique, with patterns made of straw, and decorated in yellow and red shades.

Matryoshkas from Tver are characterized by a particular liveliness of their eyes, painted as realistically as possible. These dolls are generally painted in complex colors, with great attention to detail. 

And finally, the dolls from Krutets can be recognized by the technique of “Chinese painting”, when several shades are applied at once with one stroke of a wide flat brush, creating a volumetric detail. 

Variety of Characters and Shapes

Painting traditional nesting dolls became more complicated over time. The growing popularity of matryoshkas quickly led to the fact that, besides the traditional girls in headscarves, their imagery was enriched by characters from fairy tales and literary works, famous historical figures and representatives of different strata of society.

Characters from N. Gogol’s comedy “The Government Inspector”

The number of dolls in the set could increase or decrease, depending on its idea. The largest doll in a set, kept in one of the Moscow museums, is as tall as a grown man, and the smallest is about the size of a fingernail.

With the development of technology, the shape of nesting wooden toys began to vary, and new designs, such as nesting Christmas trees, Santa Clauses and wooden balls, appeared. However, the original form of nesting dolls is still the most popular.

Nesting Christmas Tree
Festive Wooden Bauble

Modern Nesting Dolls

Nesting dolls continue to enjoy worldwide popularity in our time. The mass market is trying to adapt them to modern trends. Such products lose their traditional pious appearance, which deprives them of their unique spirit and turns them into ordinary folding toys. 

It is not surprising that the classic Russian-style nesting dolls are still in demand, as they were a hundred years ago. Workshops specializing in matryoshka dolls continue to exist. Many of them introduce their own styles to the painting process, combining the traditional and new imagery and techniques. One such workshop, called the Good Works Center, is located at St Elisabeth Convent.

The most popular matryoshkas in our catalog are the dolls featuring the church hierarchy: bishop, priest, deacon, subdeacon and acolyte. Besides making a great gift to a priest, such a nesting doll can serve as an educational toy for a young Christian.

Church Clergy Nesting Doll

Our craftsmen also make classic nesting dolls to suit any taste. These pious Matryonas are painted in a variety of themes, (including Christmas and Easter) and reflect many different sides of everyday life.

Nesting dolls in our Catalog

In their relatively short lifetime, matryoshka dolls have come a long way in reflecting realities and interests of a particular era. Interestingly, matryoshka dolls do not go out of fashion. They continue to improve and carry an imprint of the present day.

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About the author

Anastasia Parkhomchik,
Literary editor and Orthodox journalist, member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team.

Comments

  1. So sad to hear about Japan paganism reffering to the dolls, but more terrible to hear that “all in One, and One in all” is Orthodoxish…In fact it’s about pantheism and panatheism heresies…

    1. Dear Nikodim,
      I am sorry if our article upset you.
      Even if Matryoshka dolls were really inspired by a Japanese pagan toy (although this is only a popular belief), is this really anything new? Does this present any danger to Christianity, which has always transformed pagan holidays and symbols, filling them with pure, God-pleasing meaning (for example, the Cheesefare Week).
      With the quote “all in One, and One in all” we did not seek to appeal to any heretical creeds. Our idea is that the Lord is present among the believers (Matt. 18:20) and unites them in the Eucharist; allowing them to abide in Him, He Himself abides in them (John 6:56).
      This idea is also reflected in the prayer of St Basil the Great, read in the canon before Communion: “…But trusting in thy loving-kindness I come unto thee who has said: He that eateth my Body and drinketh my Blood shall dwell in me and I in him…” Thus, we all live only by One God, by His will and His great humility, making Him present through Eucharist even in the smallest of us.
      Peace of Christ be with you!

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