Matryoshka, as Russian nesting dolls are known in their homeland, is derived from the Latin word mater, which means mother. The allusion to motherhood is a perfect fit for this iconic folk craft. Russian nesting dolls are wooden figurines that open in the middle to reveal a series of smaller dolls; each larger “mother” doll has a smaller “daughter” doll inside. Russian nesting dolls have the shape of squat bowling pins, with a round top that widens to form the curved base of the torso and legs. There are no three-dimensional limbs on the doll; all of the body and face details are painted on. Within a set, an infinite number of dolls are possible, but most Russian nesting dolls contain between four and twelve dolls.
The first Russian nesting doll was created combining Japanese and Russian traditions. A set of Japanese nesting dolls depicting the Buddhist figure Fukurama inspired the craftsman Sergei Maliutin in the 1890s. The Japanese nesting dolls were reminiscent of the Russian Faberge Easter eggs, which are carved nesting Easter eggs. Maliutin, a children’s book illustrator, drew the first Russian version of the doll, which was carved Vasiliy Zvezdochkin and painted Maliutin. There were eight nested dolls in the first matryoshka.
Lime wood is the most common material used to make Russian nesting dolls. Before it can be used on a lathe for carving, the wood must be dried in the air for about two years. Many people thought that the art of making dolls was carving rather than painting at first. Without the use of measuring devices or complex machinery, skilled craftsmen carve each matryoshka hand. To fit together with its match, each half of a doll must be precisely sized, and the shell of each doll must be quite thin to accommodate the volume of the many other dolls that will fit inside of it.
A peasant girl in traditional Russian dress with a headscarf and apron is the classic depiction painted onto Russian nesting dolls, dating back to Maliutin’s first matryoshka. Peasant girls frequently carry flowers in their hands that are meant to represent their home region. Often, an entire family of males and females is nested within the outer mother doll, with the smallest doll being a tiny baby. As the popularity of Russian nesting dolls grew both within and outside of Russia, a wide range of other subjects were painted on them, including political figures, authors, and literary and cultural characters.
Russian nesting dolls, like other folk art, are popular collectibles. Russian nesting dolls created top regional artisans can sell for thousands of dollars through prestigious auctioneers. Mass-produced toy versions of the dolls can be found for low prices, but Russian nesting dolls created top regional artisans can sell for thousands of dollars through prestigious auctioneers. Nesting dolls of all kinds have become cherished symbols of Russian identity, uniting its history, artistic traditions, and domestic values. They range from kitschy tourist items to priceless museum pieces.