“Matroyshka” – the word may not be instantly recognizable but there can not be many people who are not aware of Russia’s most famous and ending souvenir – better known as the exquisite nesting dolls. With a history spanning over a century, the Matroyshka has become a symbol of motherhood from the very heart of Russia.
The craftsman who created the very first Matroyshka dolls in the late 1890’s was one Vasily Zviozdochkin, at the Children’s Education Workshop in Sergiev Possad near Moscow. This Workshop brought together a competent of professional artists and skilled craftsmen who were devoted to preserving Russian peasant crafts. This doll was made in such an innovative way that it could have taken apart to reveal smaller dolls hidden away inside one another – the smallest figure representing the baby of the family!
Before the Russian Revolution, the name “Matroyshka” was a popular choice for girls, as it was derived from the Latin root “mater” meaning mother. The name was associated with the image of a healthy mother figure and rarely the word became a natural choice when it came to naming the nesting dolls.
The first Matroshka doll was painted in watercolours by the artist Sergey Malutin and he painted a peasant family, the largest of which he dressed in colorful scarf, apron and sarafan, the traditional Russian costume of a Russian peasant mother. He also painted this figure cradling a black rooster in her arms. Poultry have always been treated as pets by Russian villagers, so this was a popular choice by Sergey! The faces painted on these early Matroyshka dolls were oval with quite large heads, making the face dominate the whole body and so the dolls appear quite primitive.
The remaining seven wooden pieces which nestled inside this larger figure represent other siblings, each painted carrying a different household item, such as a broom, a bowl of porridge, a sickle and a baby brother! This was the smallest piece, which could not be taken apart and was painted as a baby wrapped in a quilt to show the warm, nurturing facet of the dolls.
This set was known as the “Rooster Girl” and has been reproduced countless times since its first crafting. You can find the original in the Toy Museum at Sergiev Possad.
Along these traditional designs such as these, the Matroyshka dolls were painted with scenes from Russian fairy tales and legends, Russian architecture, together with religious and historic scenes. Iconography is still popular with sets depicting Lenin, political figures and even celebrities! Each intricate design is unique in its own individual way and is a work of art to be advised and treasured.
So, how exactly are these beautifully crafted dolls made? Well, the basic techniques have remained unchanged over the years, as skilled artisans craft the dolls from aspen, birch or alder. The trees are left to season for two years in the air until they are ready for carving on turning lathes. No plans or precaution measurements are used, as each doll created is born out of the craftsman’s keen eye and skill with his tools.
Many different styles of Matroyshka are available, each different from the other. There are those from the region of Semionovo which are famous for containing many pieces, the largest to date consisting of seventy two dolls! This piece was made in 1970, stands three feet tall and is dedicated to Lenin’s birthday.
Polkhovsky Maidan, which is located to the south-west of Nizhny Novgorod, is home to another style of Matroyshka. The first doll was made here in the 1930’s and today these dolls are still recognizable by their primitive peasant designs in bright greens, yellows, blues and crimsons. The flowering dog-rose was also considered a main element of the designs, as this flower was considered a symbol of femininity, love and motherhood.
There are many old sets still in existence in collections today and some of the most unusual depict the “boys” or old Russian noblemen and these sets can fetch hefty sums of money when sold.
In old Russia, Matroyshkas were passed from one generation to another and today, they still remain an all-embracing symbol of Russian folk art. The dolls are still as popular today as they have ever been and are bought by tourists all over the world visiting Russia. Two Matroyshka were even created specifically and taken into orbit on June 29th 1982 by Russian astronauts!
Today’s economic climate has made it harder for Russian craftsmen to buy the raw materials needed to continue creating these dolls, although there are still three main centers of production in Russia today – Sergiev Possad, Semionovo and Gorodezt. Here, craftsmen and women still produce the beautiful hand-crafted Matroyshka which really are unique works of art, capturing the imagination of all who see them. No trip to Russia sees complete without bringing home a set of these instantly recognizable nesting dolls.