What is the story behind Russian nesting dolls?
The Russian nesting doll's origin begins in the 1840s in a small village north of Moscow, Russia. The Abramtsevo estate—an intellectual and artistic center—played a significant role in the development of Russian folk arts in the early 19th century.
Abramtsevo first came to prominence in 1843, when Sergei Aksakov—a Slavophile writer—bought the estate. In 1870, Savva Mamontov, heir to a railroad fortune and one of the most significant Russian national art development figures, acquired the Abramtsevo estate from the Aksakov family.
History has it that the first Russian nesting doll was created in 1890 in the Children's Education workshop at Abramtsevo estate, north of Moscow. But how was it made?
On a fateful Saturday meeting at the Abramtsevo estate, a Russian monk brought a peculiar Japanese nested doll depicting the mythical Japanese god of joy, the Shichi-Fukujin or Seven Lucky Gods. This bizarre doll contained Seven dolls of decreasing sizes nested into one another.
Meanwhile, in Japan, some folks believe that an unknown Russian monk introduced the first nesting figurine set to the Japanese island of Honshu (where the Fukuruma doll originated). However, we can all agree that Russian nesting easter eggs and Chinese nesting boxes existed way before the Fukurama doll or the nested doll.
Sergei Vasilyevich Malyutin—a Slavophile artist and Abramtsevo resident—was intrigued by the Fukurama nesting doll and decided to create something similar. He set out to create a nesting doll with its Russian spirit representing Russian culture and people.
Malyutin sketched the first matryoshka doll's outline and contracted Vasily Petrovich Zvyozdochkin—a woodturner and Abramtsevo resident—to carve the doll's wooden husk. With a lathe and chisel, Zvyozdochkin created the first blank matryoshka dolls from soft linden wood.
Afterward, Malyutin hand-painted the unfinished Russian nesting dolls. The first Russian nesting doll set depicted a peasant family. It contained eight pieces; a mother and seven children.
You can see this original Matryoshka doll set and other early Russian nesting dolls at the Museum of Toys in Sergiev Posad near Moscow.
The art of Russian doll making remains unchanged till date, preserving all the know-hows ancient Russian craftsmen. Linden or birch timber for wood-turning is typically cut down in the early spring season and left to dry for years to stop the wood from cracking.
The wood logs are de-barked, stacked in piles, and left in the open for several years to achieve a specific condition. Only an experienced woodturner can determine when the logs are ready for carving. When they're ready, the logs are cut into smaller wooden billets for doll making.
Why are Russian nesting dolls called Matryoshka?
There is no specific information about why it is called a Matryoshka, but we know the origins of this word. Matryoshka is a pet form of the Russian name Matryona, which was popular amongst women in 1800's Russia. Matryona originates from the Latin word 'mater,' which means Mother.
The name matryoshka is well-fitting because it accurately represents the stereotypical mother figure in a big Russian peasant family with a robust stature.
Eventually, Matryoshka became the household name for Russian nesting dolls.
Russian Nesting Doll History in Regions: Sergiev Posad
Production of nesting dolls continued in the Children's education studio in Abramtsevo till of the 1990s. When this studio was shut down, nesting doll production moved to the training and demonstration workshops at Sergiev Posad—a city in Russia northeast of Moscow.
The city is part of the Golden Ring cluster of ancient towns famous for hosting the 14th-century Trinity Lavra and the St. Sergius monastery complex.
Arts and craft culture flourished in the towns and villages surrounding the monastery complex. Legend has it that wooden trinity toys became particularly popular in the city—and St. Sergius Radonezhsky himself made the first one.
Sergiev Posad was a colorful traditional Russian town, and the monastery added to its peculiarity. It had a marketplace situated just before the monastery's gates, which were always bubbling with merchants, monks, pilgrims, and artisans.
Artisans from Sergiev Posad learned about the matryoshka doll from the neighboring town of Abramtsevo and made efforts to replicate it.
The matryoshka design was changed, and the Sergiev Posad Russian nesting dolls were born.
The Sergiev Posad Russian nesting dolls were very expressive because artists paid more attention to the matryoshka faces. The clothes were not as detailed. However, these nesting dolls were beautiful and were admired by both adults and children. The Sergiev Posad nesting dolls depicted peasants, merchants, monks, and noblemen.
The early matryoshka dolls of Sergiev Posad featured oval and defined faces. The matryoshka dolls' heads were disproportionately larger than the body. As a result of the disproportion, these matryoshka dolls looked primitive but very expressive.
The first political Russian nesting doll—the famous Gorbi doll prototype—appeared in Sergiev Posad.
Matryoshkas like Getman—Getman was a political leader Governor in Ukraine during the Russian Empire—inspired artists to design more politically-themed matryoshka dolls.
A matryoshka doll set portrayed an entire family with many children and other extended family members in some cases. Other Russian nesting dolls depicted historical themes and fairytales—the boyars, bogatyrs, Ded Moroz, and so on.
Russian nesting dolls in Sergiev Posad usually consisted of two to twenty-four figurines. The most popular set of matryoshka dolls contained three, eight, and twelve pieces. In 1913, a forty-eight piece Russsian nesting doll made by N. Bulichev from Sergiev Posad was part of the Exhibition of Toys in St. Petersburg.
Early development of nesting dolls depended on the woodturners' skills. Highly skilled woodturners created matryoshka dolls with gaunt sides—considered a distinctive art of matryoshka doll making.
Unfortunately, professional artists who painted early nesting dolls did not take it seriously enough—it was more leisure and entertainment. As a result, there are many caricature-style nesting dolls on display at the Polenovo estate museum.
Folk art tradition played an essential role in the development of today's Sergiev Posad matryoshka doll style. Sergiev Posad's religious icon painters contributed to Matryoshka's visual style.
The implementation of anthropomorphism—attributing human resemblances to objects or animals—was rampant in ancient Religious art tradition. Artists concentrated on a person's face and less on their bodies. Anthropomorphism was also prevalent in the Byzantine Empire and ancient Greek culture. Nesting Dolls, painted at Sergiev Posad's icon schools, showed the connection between early icon art styles and early matryoshkas.
Russian Nesting dolls of Sergiev Posad had its characteristics:
- The top flows smoothly into the thicker lower part
- The nesting dolls were painted with gouache and coated with varnish.
As a result of Sergiev Posad's matryoshka popularity, other matryoshka-making workshops started to spring up across Russia.
Initially, the matryoshka doll's types were somewhat different: they portrayed both male and female characters. There are some ethnographic nesting dolls: Samoyed (Eskimo), Gypsy Woman, American Man, Turk, Chinese, Lithuanians, and Tartar Family, Ukrainian, and so on.
Gradually, artists began depicting more female characters on matryoshka dolls. They also worked out certain factors, such as the ratio between a doll's width and height.
Larisa Soloviova—a Russian author—classified matryoshka development into three periods:
1) 1890—the 1930s
2) the 1930s—early 1990s
3) From the early '90s till today.
The first period is attributed to the first matryoshka doll's appearance and a wide variety of dolls.
In 1918, collector N. Bartram founded the National Museum of Toys was opened in Moscow. Sergey Malyutin's first Russian nesting doll was part of the first exhibition. Sergiev Posad contributed to the appearance of Matryoshka and turned the Matryoshka doll into a favorite work of folk art.
Russian Nesting Doll History in Regions: Semionovo
Semyonov became a major matryoshka center in the Nizhny Novgorod region. The Semenov matryoshka painting is connected with the traditional craft in Merinovo village (near Semenov).
The city of Semenov is one of the main centers for the carving and painting of nesting dolls. Matryoshka dolls designed in Khokhloma style—motifs tied to Russia's vintage painting culture—first appeared in Semenov.
Khokhloma is a Russian wood painting handicraft style and national ornament, famous for its curved and vivid flower, berry, and leaf patterns.
When painted on wood, red, black, green, yellow, and orange are used over a gold background.
In 1924, Arsenty Fyodorovich Mayarov—a master woodturner— brought a Sergiev Posad unpainted wooden doll from a fair at the Nizhny Novgorod region and gave his daughter to paint. She drew the matryoshka outlines with a quill pen. She then painted them with aniline dyes, placing a bright scarlet flower in the center and decorating the Matryoshka's head kokoshnik. The Mayarovs became famous nesting doll painters and the best in the region for over 20 years.
Lyuba Mayarov's decorative Matryoshka gave birth to a new style of Russian nesting doll painting—distinguished by an abundance of decorative elements.
Semenovo artists left more unfinished wood exposed after painting the matryoshka doll with aniline dyes and then coated them with lacquer. First, they drew the matryoshka outlines, including face contours. Then they drew its eyes and applied blush to its cheeks. The next step involved drawing a scarf, skirt, and apron. The apron—which depicted a bouquet of ornate flowers—is the main element in Semenov-style nesting dolls.
Another unique characteristic of the Semenov wooden doll is that the bouquet's primary color sets the entire doll's color tone. Artists mostly used red, blue, and yellow in various combinations for the Matryoshka doll's scarf, sundress, and apron.
Over time, the flower bouquet became denser, more colorful, and picturesque, as if painted with leaf and flower extracts. The bouquet is traditionally painted on the apron asymmetrically, somewhat shifted to the right.
The Semenov nesting doll form—unlike other matryoshka dolls—had exceptional symmetry. A relatively thin 'top' which sharply flows into a thickened 'bottom.'
The Semenov nesting doll sets were famous for containing multiple dolls. Its largest Matryoshka contained 72 dolls; the biggest was 1 meter high with a 0.5m diameter. This particular doll was made in 1970 and dedicated to the birthday of Soviet leader Vladimir Ilych Lenin.
In the 80s, Semenov artists developed new types of matryoshkas, including the 'Father Frost and Snegurochka.' —designed for children learning to count.
Russian Nesting Doll History in Regions: Polkholvsky Maidan
Polkhovsky-Maidan is a town south-west of Nizhny Novgorod. The first wood-burned nesting dolls were made in Polkhovsky Maidan in the 1930s.
Wooden artistry was an old tradition in Maidan—several wooden figures toys like samovars, birds, money-box, salt-cellars, and apples were produced by turning wood on a lathe.
Like their Semionovo counterparts, Maidan's artists used aniline dyes— The matryoshkas were brightly painted then coated with lacquer.
But unlike the Semionovo dolls, the colors of the Polkhovsky Maidan matryoshkas were brighter, more vivid, and featured bigger designs. Maidan's artists superimposed layers of dye—green, blue, yellow, purple, and crimson dyes—producing an expressive and bright patterning.
Polkhovsky Maidan's matryoshka dolls featured a caricature design—like a child's drawing a matryoshka face. The nesting dolls depicted beautiful village girls with knitted brows and a face framed in black locks.
Polkhovsky Maidan artists, as the artists of Semionovo, paid their special attention to the floral design on the matryoshkas body— often painting Rosa canina (Dog-rose) flowers with many petals as the main element of the doll's apron. In Maidan, the Dog-rose flower symbolizes femininity, love, and motherhood, making it a staple component of Polkhovsky Maidan's wood crafts.
Russian Nesting Doll History in Regions: Vyatka (Kirov)
Unlike other regions, Russian folk arts boomed in Vyatka (Kirov) in the early 20th century, particularly in 1937 when the first organized association of artisans— an artel called 'Progress' — was formed in the Wachrino and Ovcharnoe villages.
Vyatka nesting dolls depicted a girl with rosy cheeks, a colorful scarf, sarafan (sundress with straps), holding a bouquet of wildflowers. Early Vyatka nesting dolls were painted with oil paints.
The Vyatka Matryoshka doll was first introduced to foreign audiences in 1958 at the International Brussels exhibition. Thanks to international acclaim in the craft world, the Progress artel merged with the '19 years of October revolution' artel to form the Kirov factory of turning toys.
In 1968, Vyatka artists—like Semenov and Polkhovsky Maidan artists— incorporated the use of aniline dyes in painting the dolls, giving rise to a new range of colorful Vyatka Matryoshkas.
Besides, they improved on the traditional peasant costume—creating very detailed and decorative nesting dolls. With these changes, the matryoshka doll was no longer just a toy but an expensive souvenir and a testament to decorative art.
Aware of the dangers of losing traditions, these artists attempted to connect advanced matryoshka production methods with the Vyatka dolls' local folk tradition.
In early 1970, the toys and crafts production council started a competition for the best matryoshka designs to interest local artisans in developing the craft.
The competition resulted in the production of 14-piece and 15-piece nesting dolls.
In 1995, production technology improved as the Kirov factory introduced gouache art, designer matryoshka dolls, matryoshka tumblers. The tendency of design replication disappeared, and each doll was now of individual design.
Another important center of preservation and development of the Vyatka Matryoshka traditions is the town of Nolinsk, Kirov region.
Nolinsk nesting dolls featured red-brown hair, big blue eyes, and bright colors of aprons, mostly red.
Since the 1980s, Matryoshka factories in Nolinsk began producing both traditional and modern designer nesting dolls. New turning forms appeared, and new themes depicting Russian folktales, fictional and historical events greatly expanded the creative skill of matryoshka artists.
In 2002, the first matryoshka dolls painted with watercolor on wood appeared in Kirov. The region contributed a lot to matryoshka development—the use of gold plating, floral patterns, and Nacre elements in the shawl's design.