One of the most quintessential examples of typical Russian peasant life is the matryoshka, or nesting doll, for non-Russians. As a remnant of quaint servant society, it appears to international eyes. However, curiously, the matryoshka is only a hundred years old.
The first matryoshka, produced in 1892, is very similar to the matryoshkas that are sold today in gift shops worldwide. It is a small wooden doll, almost perfectly cylindrical, painted in a traditional sarafan dress carrying a rooster, to resemble a peasant woman. She opens to reveal a smaller doll, which in turn opens to reveal another doll, etc. In total, in addition to the mother doll, there are seven dolls; they consist of five girls dressed in matching fashions, a boy doll and a tiny baby in the middle. Each doll wears brightly colored (although now fading with age) clothes and carries a tiny smile, pink cheeks, blond hair, and a headscarf.
This matryoshka was the result of a revival of Russian art. A decline in toy production using Russian materials was seen in Russia in the late nineteenth century, so royal figures and other upper-class members of society started promoting further production through the patronage system. As Princess Maria Tenisheva set up a system of workshops at her Talashkino estate, she was a major figure in the revival of Russian production.
The factories were more or less a utopia of happily working peasants from 1900 to 1905. One such peasant was a man called Sergei Malyutin, who, at the behest of Patron Savva Mamontov, painted the first matryoshka. On a visit to Japan, Mamontov’s brother Anatoly, the owner of a toy store, had seen similar dolls and became obsessed with the nesting idea. Toymakers swiftly started manufacturing matryoshkas in the leading toy centers of Sergiev Posad and Semyonov.
Fortunately, to buy Matryoshka dolls, you don’t need to go all the way to Russia. Several online retailers are importing Matryoshka dolls from Russia, including those produced at the Semyonov plant, a major center for traditional Russian crafts. Some dealers attend art fairs, so before you buy, you can see the dolls.
When purchasing Matryoshka dolls, care must be taken, particularly if you buy antique ones, as they can contain lead paint. You can ensure that you buy from a reliable retailer, even though you are purchasing a new collection of dolls. Due to the small components and the paint material, they may not be ideal gifts for small children.
There is no lack of themes to choose from, whether you just want a set for decoration or are beginning a collection. For more than 100 years, the popularity of Matryoshka dolls has continued, and with more and more designs being affordable, there is a lot to attract any collector.
While nesting dolls are most commonly associated with Russia, in Japanese culture they have a counterpart. These are the wooden dolls known as kokeshi, upon which the original matryoshkas were based by Anatoly Mamontov. Rather than rounded, they are tall and slender, but one is still able to find nesting kokeshi. In the same vein as the representation of the mother by the matryoshka, the kokeshi represents the infant. In reality, kokeshi dolls will often be given as gifts to parents who have lost a child.
For just over a hundred years, the Matryoshkas have occupied a peculiar room in the Russian consciousness. The matryoshkas continue to reflect to their international buyers the dream of ancient Russian peasant beliefs. To the Russians, they are nothing more than just another toy, but they represent their nation’s deep affection.
Check out my related post: What are dolls used for?