Matryoshka nesting dolls are more than just a playing toy for children who find it very exciting to discover what is next piece-by-piece. These Matryoshka dolls have become strongly associated with Russian culture and tradition. Though the bond between Russia and these nesting dolls is only a little over 100 years old, it appears that their bond is beyond time. It is a popular decorative item of an exquisite art form worldwide, and tourists visiting Russia make sure to take these nesting dolls back with them as a symbol of artistic souvenirs.
Symbolic Meaning Of The Matryoshka Dolls
The brightly colored Matryoshka nesting dolls have the capability of transferring the onlookers to a cosmic world of spiritual bliss and contentment. These dolls mean mother and accordingly symbolize motherhood and fertility. As one doll emerges out of the other, similarly in real life, mothers have children, and when the children grow up, they have their children too. Thus, these dolls depict life and its continuity.
Most Russians also perceive the outermost doll as Russia and the subsequent dolls as its citizens, cultures, and historical traditions. Some other people see the universal theory of God and soul in these nesting dolls. But most people around the globe view these dolls as a symbol of continuity and interdependence that forms the basis of society, nation, and the world at large. The best thing about these dolls is that they are open to several interpretations, which people do according to their understanding of men and matters.
Origin And History Of The Matryoshka Dolls
Though the history of these Russian nesting dolls is only over a century old, the conceptual origin of these dolls dates back to the 10th century in the Asian countries of China and Japan. It is believed that the idea of these wooden nesting dolls emerged from the wooden nesting boxes of China that were used for storage and decorative purposes. These wooden boxes were smoothly nested into each other to store important documents and materials secretively. Eight boxes were nested into each other, as the number eight was considered lucky by the Chinese people.
The Japanese soon refined the idea and prepared nested wooden figurines depicting their mythological tales and characters on them. The most popular mythological story of the Seven Lucky Gods was depicted through these wooden dolls. The image of the God of Happiness and Longevity, Fukurokuju, is drawn on the outermost piece of the doll. And subsequently, the other six gods are drawn according to their importance in decreasing size so that they fit into each other easily. These dolls were beautifully drawn and brightly painted. And it is largely believed that it was such one doll that caught the attention of Elizaveta Mamontova, whose husband, Savva Mamontov, was a renowned industrialist in Russia and was a great patron of art. When she returned to Russia, she brought the Japanese dolls as a gift for her husband.
Thus, most people believe that modern Russian nesting dolls are modeled on Japanese dolls depicting the Seven Lucky Gods. But a section of scholars believes that the concept of nesting dolls is purely Russian. The idea emerged not from Japanese dolls representing mythological characters but from the detachable Easter eggs, a popular artistic expression in Russian culture for many centuries.
The modern history of these Russian nesting dolls began with the return of Elizaveta Mamontova from her trip to Japan. When she gifted the Japanese nesting doll of Seven Lucky Gods to her husband, being an art patron, he decided to take it for observation at his toy workshop called ‘Children’s Education. Here, the doll immediately caught the interest of master Vasily Zvezdochkin who planned to carve similar dolls depicting Russian culture. He carved his design on the wood, and one of his colleagues named, Sergey Malyutin, painted and decorated the design.
The first designed Russian nesting dolls were completely handcrafted and had eight pieces of dolls in one set. These dolls depicted the Russian peasant woman wearing the traditional sarafan and holding a black rooster on the outermost piece. The other five pieces depicted peasant girls holding a sickle, wheat straw, and bread loaf in their hands. The second last piece was usually depicted as a boy. The last doll was generally a baby in swaddling clothes.
This kind of nesting doll rose to immense popularity when one of these dolls bagged a bronze medal at the World Exhibition held in Paris in 1900. And since then, these dolls have become an integral part of Russian culture and tradition.
Matryoshka vs. Babushka
Matryoshka means little mother. When these dolls were rising to prominence in Russia, many girls were named Matryona. Matryona comes from ‘mater’, which translates to mother. These dolls depicted young peasant women and girls that symbolized motherhood and continuation. And slowly, the term became popular for the Russian nesting dolls.
But people in the West call these dolls Babushka. Babushka itself finds a place in the Russian tradition. The literal meaning of Babushka means an older woman, but in Russia, it means grandmother. The dolls probably got the name because of the depiction of a woman wearing the traditional red sarafan that grandmothers usually used to wear in Russian culture. Another reason for using Babushka could be that it is comparatively easy to pronounce than matryoshka.
How Are Matryoshka Dolls Made?
Most people find it very hard to believe that these exquisite dolls are made of wood and are mostly handcrafted. Preparing such dolls require excellent carving and painting skills that take years to master. And hence, making such dolls is a gradual and challenging process. The following steps are minutely followed to prepare a set of these dolls-
Selecting The Right Wood
The doll-making process begins with the selection of the wood. Primarily, limewood and linden are used to make these dolls. The trees are marked at the beginning of the Spring and felled at the start of April after prior health inspection by the experts. The wood logs are systematically stored for one to two years, allowing air circulation between them for drying. It is the master woodworker who decides whether the wood is ready to be worked upon or not.
Stripping & Husking
The next step involves stripping and husking the wooden logs on a lathing machine that rotates on its axis. The husking is done until only the white inner wood is left. Then this wooden log is cut into cylindrical blocks that are handed over to the carving department.
Woodturning & Carving
The cylindrical blocks are fixed to the lathing machine, and with the use of hand tools such as razors, these blocks are chiseled and hollowed out accordingly. The top and bottom parts of these dolls are shaped separately. Though there is no such rule, the innermost doll is usually made first, and then accordingly, the other dolls are made in increasing size. In the whole process of carving, no measurements are taken for carving the wood. Everything depends upon the skills and intuitions of the master woodworker.
Smoothening Of The Surface
Before these carved dolls are sent for painting and decoration, three layers of starch-like glue are applied to them, making these dolls non-toxic and child-friendly. At the same time, the glue works as a primer and makes the surface of these dolls smooth for painting.
Painting & Decoration
Almost all the dolls are painted by hand. The workmanship is so detailed and precise that it appears machines have painted them. Painters use gouache color that is opaquer than watercolors and gives a bold and bright look. The detailing is done at last, and the paint is left to dry well.
Coating Of Lacquer
At last, a few layers of lacquer is coated over the paint to make it resistant to the natural wear-and-tear process. Also, lacquer coating or varnish provides a glossy finish to these exquisite nesting dolls. After the coating of lacquer dries up, doll-making is complete. These dolls are packed and shipped to several toy shops worldwide to be sold.
Rare Collections Of The Matryoshka Dolls
▶ The famous Japanese set of dolls depicting the Seven Lucky Dolls that caught the attention of Elizaveta Mamontova is considered a rare piece of exquisite art. Most people believe that modern Russian nesting dolls are based on these Japanese dolls.
▶ Around 50-70 dolls were made by hand in the famous Semyonov factory in the 1960s. These dolls represented the local traditions of the Semyonov province. It is considered a rare collection because these dolls were entirely handcrafted and required exceptional woodturning, carving, and painting skills.
▶ It is widely believed that the Chinese have made the largest nesting doll for an exhibition. The doll is 1 meter ( 3.28 feet) in size and has 72 pieces that smoothly fit into each other.
▶ The smallest Matryoshka doll is made on the tip of human hair and is even painted. It is safely kept and preserved in the renowned Left-Hander Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. This masterpiece results from the exceptional skill and dedication of the renowned artist Vladimir Aniskin from the Novosibirsk province.
What Are The Uses Of Matroshka Dolls?
These dolls have got cultural and symbolic significance attached to them. These nested dolls are minutely made so that the pieces can fit into each other easily. These brightly colored dolls could be used for various purposes such as –
As Playing Toys
These exquisite nesting dolls are primarily used as playing toys around the world. Small children find it very interesting to play with them and explore them piece by piece. Playing with these dolls also helps the children develop their cognitive skills and improve hand-eye coordination. The curiosity and excitement that these dolls provide to the children make them a preferred playing toy around the globe. Most parents take the help of these nesting dolls to tell stories to their small children at bedtime.
As Gift Items
Most people use these Matryoshka dolls for gifting purposes. Its scintillating appearance, symbolic meaning, and intricate design make it an ideal gifting item. People worldwide gift matryoshka dolls on Christmas, birthdays, New Year’s eve, and other special occasions. It is an ideal gift given to a young or expecting mother.
As Decorative Items
The Matryoshka nesting dolls can completely change the ambiance of a house or a room. If these matryoshka dolls are kept as decorative items in your living area or any other place in the house, they are likely to catch the attention of your guests. People use these nesting dolls as decorative items in homes and offices that add beauty and warmth to the rooms.
As Ambassador of Russian Culture
Though it is widely believed that these dolls originated in China and Japan, it was in Russia that they rose to their present popularity and fame. Thus, these dolls are an important part of the Russian culture and tradition that connects the Russian monarchy to the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union to modern Russia. Thus, it also acts as an ambassador of Russian cultural history and is useful in acquainting people with the same knowledge.
Where Can I Buy These Matryoshka Dolls?
Initially, these dolls were only available in Russian toy shops and local markets. One had to spend a handsome amount of money to buy these dolls. It became important for the wealthy people of the West to buy these exquisite dolls as artistic souvenirs when visiting Russia.
Even today, one can buy these dolls when visiting Russia from the local toy shops, markets, and vendor shops. But with globalization and technological advancements, several online websites and other portals help you order them with just a click of the mouse.
One such online website is The Russian Treasures. It provides one with the best of these exquisite dolls at a very competitive rate. They provide these with varying varieties, such as classical nesting dolls, Russian nesting dolls with flowers, frog-themed Russian nesting dolls, and Russian nesting dolls- Winnie the pooh, fairy-tale themed nesting dolls, and Russian nesting dolls -with political characters, etc.
The Russian nesting dolls are an exquisite art form depicted in bright and bold colors. These dolls are open to varied symbolic interpretations according to one’s understanding. Unlike the conventional depiction of peasant women, nowadays, these dolls are represented in most common themes and topics. The themes of flowers, animals, cartoon characters, fairy tales, and political and sports personalities place on the modern Matryoshka dolls.
Everything from its making procedure to its symbolic significance makes these dolls special and a must in your list of collectible items. Whether using them for playing, gifting or decoration, these dolls are worth every penny.