Russian nesting dolls—matryoshka dolls or babushka dolls—are Russia's most sought-after keepsakes.
Although they're a valuable collector's item—its monetary value goes up with time—Russian nesting dolls are also used as Montessori toys for children. Kids often play with nesting dolls by opening every doll in a set and putting them back together in random patterns.
Click here to read our short guide on how to open a nesting doll.
However, Russian nesting dolls are more than just collectibles or Montessori toys. The matryoshka is a unique Russian heritage tying almost all Russian history—from the Russian empire, the soviet union, and present-day Russia. Hence, the Russian nesting doll is singlehandedly the most widely-acknowledged Russian ambassador and a tourist's favorite souvenir.
Before we dive further into basic Russian nesting doll facts, the history of the matryoshka, and its symbolism, we'd like to describe what nesting dolls are for our first-time readers briefly.
What is a Russian Nesting Doll?
Russian nesting dolls or matryoshkas are a set of wooden dolls of diminishing sizes that can be 'nested' into one another. They are hand-carved statuettes, usually the shape of a thick bowling pin, and originally painted as scarf-wearing Russian peasant women.
Matryoshka Dolls vs Babushka Dolls
Factually, there is no difference. All babushka dolls are matryoshka dolls, but not all matryoshka dolls are babushka dolls. Why?
Matryoshka is derived from the Russian word matryona, which means matron or mother. Babushka is the Russian word for grandmother, and Russian grandmas are stereotypically identified as short scarf-wearing old ladies.
Like the first nesting dolls ever made, many Russian nesting dolls depict scarf-wearing ladies, a.k.a babushkas. So matryoshka dolls depicting a scarf-wearing lady can be referred to as babushka dolls.
Russian Nesting Doll Styles and Designs
Russian nesting dolls are produced in different designs and styles. The most popular type being the traditional design featuring a shawl-wearing lady in traditional dress. Every nesting doll in a conventional matryoshka set is usually identical and ranges from five to thirty pieces.
Custom nesting dolls, on the other hand, are produced at the artist's discretion. Some Russian dolls have cartoonish or animal-themed designs—usually for children's Montessori play.
You can purchase a blank Russian nesting doll set and paint whatever you want. We have blank nesting doll sets of different sizes for the budding matryoshka artist. Unpainted nesting doll blanks are perfect for DIY projects because they're carved from high-grade linden wood.
Brief History of the Russian Nesting Doll
The first set of Russian nesting dolls was carved by Vasily Zvyozdochkin and handpainted by Sergey Malyutin in 1890. Both were artists from the Abramtsevo estate of Russian art patron — Savva Mamontov.
It contained eight nesting dolls: the biggest statuette is wearing a scarf and a traditional dress while carrying a black rooster. The other dolls depicted girls and boys in traditional Russian attire, while the smallest doll depicted a baby.
The concept of the nesting doll has been around for centuries. In China, the first nesting boxes appeared in 1,000 A.D and then spread to imperial Japan. In Japan, the Fukurama doll—a sacred icon in honor of Fukurokuju, the Japanese god of joy—is known as the Japanese nesting doll.
In 1900, Elizaveta Mamontova—Savva's spouse—showcased the first Russian nesting dolls at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, where the matryoshka earned a bronze medal. Thanks to such exposure, demands for Russian-made nesting dolls grew in Europe and, subsequently, worldwide.
Russian Nesting Doll Symbolism
What does the Russian nesting doll symbolize?
The Latin equivalent of the word matryoshka is 'mater,' meaning mother. The Russian nesting doll symbolizes fertility, motherhood, and family. In traditional pre-soviet Russia, it was common to encounter big, close-knit Russian families. This means that most Russian families had extended relatives, including aunties, uncles, and cousins connected to one grandmother.
Russian Nesting Doll Meaning
The painting on a Russian nesting doll can tell different stories—it all depends on what the artist wants to depict. Alice in wonderland nesting doll set can summarize the fairytale of Alice's adventure in wonderland by featuring several characters and plots of the original story.
A custom nesting doll can portray a whole family. Each doll indicates a family member in the original matryoshka fashion.
Russian Nesting Dolls of the future
While linden wood is environmentally-friendly and sustainable with reforestation efforts, we ought to look for more energy-efficient materials.
At the firebird workshop, we do our very best to support these reforestation efforts and utilize linden wood logs to the fullest measure by creating ornaments and wooden toys from the excesses.
Russian nesting dolls have been around since the 1890s, and Chinese nesting boxes even longer. In terms of design, the art of carving nesting dolls and painting them has been passed down from generation to generation. Still, we are putting a modern spin on it by creating new designs every day.
Life is short, art is infinite - Oscar Wilde. We hope to create a generation of trendy nesting doll designs in the short time we have here on planet earth.
Thank you for reading!
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