The matryoshka or Russian nesting doll, one of the world’s most famous objects, was originally conceived as a children’s toy, but over time became something far greater.
“There are many versions of the origin of the matryoshka. According to the most accurate, the matryoshka appeared in 1898 in Moscow, at the children’s education workshop of the Mamontov family, who were famous Russian merchants and philanthropists”, Vera Polyakova, a curator at Moscow’s Artistic and Pedagogical Museum of Toys, told Anadolu Agency.
“For this workshop, wood craftsman Vasily Zvezdochka and artist Sergey Malyutin designed the first model of the toy. The first matryoshka had eight dolls.”
The toy was originally called Matryona, which means ‘mother’, but that sounded too serious, so people began to use its diminutive form, ‘matryoshka’, said Polyakova.
The outermost doll of the first matryoshka set portrayed a Russian girl in a sundress and kerchief, holding a rooster, with other dolls inside in the form of peasant children.
In the early 20th century the craft was transferred from Moscow to the city of Sergiyev Posad, some 75 kilometers to the northeast, where the local craftsmen continued the tradition of making dolls, said Darya Baranova, who heads the design department at the city’s Higher School of Folk Arts Institute.
In 1904, the dolls were featured in a world exhibit in Paris and they quickly grew famous. From Paris, matryoshkas began to spread around the world, where they became a symbol of Russia.
“Since at that time matryoshkas were made in Sergiyev Posad, this city is considered the birthplace of the Russian nesting doll”, said Baranova.
Toys that teach
Matryoshkas are considered to be both a learning toy and a souvenir. Even now the doll is widely used in preschools as a teaching aid, as it helps youngsters learn their colors, sizes, and shapes.
“For example, with this toy it’s easy to explain the difference between big and small, as there’s no way to put a big doll into a little one, so most children understand it very well”, says Baranova.
In the early 20th century, artists experimented with the form of matryoshkas, making them cone-shaped or helmet-shaped, and decorated the dolls to reflect literary works or famous historical events.
For example, in 1912, the 100th anniversary of the French invasion of Russia, two special dolls were made representing Napoleon and his battlefield foe, Russian Field Marshall Mikhail Kutuzov, along with their lieutenants.
And for the centenary of the birth of classic Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, dolls were made representing characters from his literary works, such as Dead Souls and The Government Inspector.
Many dolls were also made depicting various ethnic and national groups in their traditional dress.
For the anniversary of the October 1917 revolution which brought the Bolsheviks to power, a massive doll one meter high was made showing the peoples of various Soviet socialist republics in their traditional dress, two from each republic, one male and one female.
But over time, craftsmen returned to their traditional image of the matryoshka as a girl.
Making a doll
Tilia is the best wood for making matryoshkas, as it is a very clean tree, with few branches, and is also soft enough to handle, Elena Kalyonova, who teaches at the First Moscow Educational Complex’s Arts and Crafts Faculty, told Anadolu Agency.
In the Soviet era, including the Perestroika years, there were efforts to make the dolls out of birch, as there was a shortage of tilia. But birch is more rigid, and its color is warmer, so it was abandoned – many artists do not stain the face of the dolls, and the color of tilia is better than birch for representing human skin.
Once it reaches the workshop, the wood goes to the artist, who covers it with white glue or paste. This is to ensure that the paint will not soak into the wooden dolls and will not blur.
After the primer has dried, the artist applies the contour drawing. The middle of each doll is marked to match the center to all of the other figures.
After that, the artist uses a pencil to draw the shape of the face and the major pieces of clothing.
Then large color spots are filled in, usually for sundresses, kerchiefs, and shirts.
After all the color spots are filled, the drawing of the face and the decorating of the clothes begins. The painting is wrapped up by giving the image volume with the help of shades.
After all the paint is applied, the matryoshka has to be lacquered to fix the pattern and give the brightness a nice glossy look.
The classic versions of dolls are painted using red, green, blue, yellow, and orange.
How long the painting takes depends on the size of the dolls and the complexity of the design, but on average it takes one-and-a-half to three hours.
A matryoshka set can consist of any number of dolls, with as few as one or as many as a hundred. But normally matryoshkas are made using three to nine dolls.
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