There is no souvenir more synonymous with Russia than the Matryoshka doll. These cheery nested figurines scale down to the tiniest doll at the Matryoshka’s core. Not simply the stuff of curios stores, the Matryoshka doll’s history runs deep. From how they first came about in Russia to their deeper symbolic meaning, here, we take a look through the history of the Matryoshka doll.
Like many Russian legends, there are numerous theories on the Matryoshka doll’s history. It’s generally agreed that they were created in the 1890s by toy workshop Children’s Education in Abramtsevo, founded by patron of the arts Savva Mamontov. Some claim the doll was inspired by a nesting toy featuring the Seven Gods of Fortune that Mamontov’s wife brought back from a trip to Japan, while others say it was simply the ingenious result of the workshop’s ongoing innovation.
Whatever the precise source of her origins, the very first nesting doll, the Rooster Girl, has fast risen to fame as a classic folkloric item. The original was carved by Vasily Zvyozdochkin from a design by the legendary folk crafts painter Sergey Malyutin. Bearing a black cockerel and dressed in a kerchief and work apron, the farmyard-themed doll contained smaller versions, each carrying items emblematic of Russian peasant life: a basket, a sickle, a bowl of porridge, a broom, and a younger sibling in tow. Nestled in the centre was a baby swaddled in a patchwork quilt. The toy workshop named her Matryoshka, or “little mother.”
Each wooden doll is imbued with the symbolism of fertility. The largest doll is considered the matriarch of the family, while the smallest is called the ‘seed’ and represents the soul. They’re seen as a representation of a chain of mothers carrying on the family legacy through the child in their womb.
In 10 short years since its initial creation, the Matryoshka doll was already making history. In 1900, the doll charmed judges at the World Exhibition in Paris and earned a bronze medal. From there, Matryoshka mania spread like wildfire with Russian manufacturers shipping all over the world. Experimenting with the original Rooster Doll, the dolls began to take on a variety of witty nuances, from political figures and Russian fairy-tale characters to religious icons.
Russian dolls are typically crafted from linden or birch and the process starts with the smallest ‘seed’ doll, which is lathed from a solid piece of wood. The ensuing dolls should ideally be made from one single piece of wood to ensure they all fit together correctly: the expansion, contraction and moisture content of each piece of wood is unique. Once carved, the dolls are oiled to retain moisture. They are then surfaced with a glue primer before their ornamental decorations are painted on by hand.
Matryoshka dolls can be found across St Petersburg’s markets as well as in boutiques and souvenir shops. Some of the finest are sold in specialty shops such as Matreshka Tanushka. Here, you can peruse exquisitely painted historic Matryoshka dolls in traditional clothing as well as more contemporary designs adorned with cityscape scenes.