For my birthday, one of my friends gave me a set of Russian Matryoshka dolls. They are absolutely beautiful, and I love opening them one by one to take out the smaller doll from inside the bigger doll – there is something so satisfying about the smoothness with which the dolls come apart and reveal their secret – I’m not surprised they are so loved by Russians and everyone else.
The Matryoshka dolls, also called babushka dolls or nesting dolls, are made of lime, birch, alder or linden wood. Once the logs are cut, they are left to aerate for two years before the wood is ready to be carved. Highly skilled artisans carve the doll, starting with the smallest doll that cannot be taken apart and working their way to the biggest doll in the set. Once the carving is complete, the doll is covered in glue to smooth out the surface and get it ready for painting
The dolls are mostly painted in Russian folk art form and depict a delightful village life. In one popular version, the dolls look like Russian peasant girls with colorful scarves (or babushkas hence the name), and are wearing sarafans (pinafore dresses) and carrying baskets, flowers, or a scythe. Sometimes the set is a complete family with children, sometimes they depict Russian nobility, sometimes they are painted to represent the time period or some newsworthy event – for example in 1909 to celebrate the anniversary of Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol, the dolls were painted like characters from his books.
The first Russian dolls were carved in 1890 by craftsman Vasily Zvyozdochkin and painted by Sergey Malyutin. They were both folk artists who worked under the patronage of Savva Mamontov, a wealthy industrialist. The dolls gained global exposure when Mamontov’s wife presented the dolls at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris where they won the bronze medal.
The dolls were named after the Russian name “Matryona,” which was a very popular name in Russia in the late 1800s. The name is derived from the Latin word “mater” for mother, and since the motherly name fit the dolls perfectly and the name stuck. The most number of dolls in one set is 48, and it was made in 1913 in the city of Semyonov. My set has 10, as does my sister’s set which is actually Czech not Russian.
Though considered quintessentially Russian, the first nesting dolls are from Song Dynasty in China (1000 CE) where the smallest doll would be holding a grain of rice. From here they went to Japan where the seven luck Gods were made as seven nesting dolls, with Fukurokuju the Japanese god of happiness as the biggest and the other six nesting inside. It is speculated that it was these Japanese dolls which served as the inspiration for the first Russian dolls.