Russian handicrafts: Matryoshka, the nesting doll

Russian nesting dolls or Matryoshkas are among the most well-known symbols of Russia and a favorite souvenir for tourists. It seems like Matryoshka has been around since prehistoric times, so it comes as a surprise to learn that she’s a rather young lady – only about 100 years old.

Another shocking fact is that Matryoshka doesn't originate from Russia: the idea for smaller dolls inside larger ones came from the Far East. Famous Russian art patron Savva Mamontov brought one to Russia from Japan in 1890. It was a doll called Fukurumu, a figure of a god with seven more inside. Mamontov asked local artists Sergei Malyutin and Vassily Zvyozdochkin to make something similar. According to Yelena Titova from the All-Russian Museum of Decorative, Applied and Folk Art, in the late 19th century a vogue for everything eastern swept over Russia: clothes, prints, statuettes; yet she says that there is no proof that the Russian Matryoshka was copied from any specific Japanese “sister”.

In 1900 the toy was exhibited at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. The colorful doll was recognized as the best take-apart toy, both from an educational and technical point of view, creating a real craze among the public and receiving a bronze medal. Before the 1920s painted toys were generally created by individual artists. The wooden figurines were painted not only by artist-craftsmen, but by members of the Russian avant-garde.

Only in 1922, in the small town of Semyonov in the Nizhny Novgorod region, was a factory launched to make Matryoshka dolls, alongside other prominent designs and crafts such as Khokhloma. It developed its own "Semyonovsky" style of decoration. Factory artist Tamara Koryeva says that initially it was just a toy for children. It was wooden, cheap and hard to break in comparison with porcelain dolls. Kids do not simply play with it, they learn about shapes and colors, and develop fine motor skills. Children adore it. Tamara says: "The shape adheres to the golden ratio, the proportions are exactly right. When a child sees it, he or she holds it and doesn’t want to give back. Matryoshkas are the best present you can give."

In souvenir shops today you can find millions of different Matryoshkas. Common themes include Christmas, Easter, floral and animal collections, portraits and caricatures of famous politicians, musicians, athletes, astronauts, robots, etc. Matryoshka dolls featuring Communist leaders became very popular in Russia in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the original Matryoshka dolls can be found only at the  Semeyonovskaya factory.

The Semyonovskaya factory receives orders from all over the world, mostly from Germany, Finland, South Korea, and, yes, Japan. What goes around comes around, you could say. Or, in this case, comes apart.

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Credit: Yutaka Seki / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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