For a country that is considered by many to be enigmatic, perhaps it is only fitting that one of the most widely known examples of local folk art is the nesting doll.
Aside from, perhaps, vodka, bears, and Vladimir Putin, few things are as easily identifiable as being Russian as matryoshka. Though the dolls have been around for well over a century, few people know more about them than where they actually originated. So much like the dolls themselves, it is time to peel back the layers and learn about them in-depth.
And what a better day to do that than today, on 8th of March, which marks the International Women’s Day and when Russia, along with numerous other countries, celebrates the Mother’s Day as well.
Originally, the word matryoshka, meaning “little mother,” comes from the Russified Latin noun for mother and the diminutive suffix -ka, meaning “little.”
Additionally, adding a social aspect, in Russia’s past, Matryona or Matriosha was a common peasant name. Therefore, the doll itself, with all of the smaller dolls inside, represents the mother as well as a large number of children that were typical for a Russian peasant family.
The first matryoshka was made in 1890, carved by Vasily Zvyozdochkin and designed/painted by Sergey Malyutin while working under the patronage of a wealthy Russian industrialist. While their end product was quintessentially Russian, they actually took inspiration from a Japanese nested daruma doll, modelled after the founder of Zen Buddhism and thought to bring prosperity and good luck.
As for how these matryoshka came to be associated with Russia by non-Russians, this is due to the popularity they achieved by winning a bronze medal after being introduced at the 1900 Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) in Paris.
Seemingly little trinkets and souvenirs to many, matryoshkas require a lot of time, skill, and can fetch a hefty price. Authentic wooden matryoshkas, though made of flexible woods, can take up to 2 years to properly cure. Skill in producing a set of nested dolls is shown by elaborate decoration, the number of nested dolls in a set, and the ability to produce set from a single piece of wood. Of course, with increased skill comes increased price: though a typical souvenir set is comparatively cheap, high-end collectible sets can cost as much as $5,000.
The first known use of the word matryoshka in English comes almost 6 decades after their invention, in Lesley Gordon’s 1948 book, A Pageant of Dolls, where he mentions, “Most typically Russian of all are the Matreshka, the nested dolls.” Aside from actual references to the dolls themselves, matryoshka have also been used metaphorically, such as in Henry Kissinger’s 1982 book detailing the administration of U.S. President Richard Nixon, Years of Upheaval, where he writes that, “What emerged was like a Russian matryoshka doll that has progressively smaller models nested each inside the other.”