Matryoshka doll, babushka doll, and Russian nesting doll are all synonyms for the same thing. A matryoshka doll is distinguished the fact that it is made up of many dolls nested within one another. All of the dolls, except the smallest, have a top and bottom half that separate to reveal the next smaller doll. A matryoshka doll can have up to 20 dolls in it. They are a symbol of Russia and Russian culture, but they have gained worldwide popularity.
The matryoshka doll was originally designed as a child’s toy, but it has since evolved into an art form. The first doll is said to have been made in New Moscow in 1890. The largest doll of this type was created in 1970 and stood 3.2 feet tall (about 1 meter) with 72 nested dolls.
A woman dressed in a Russian costume is the most common design for this type of doll. Because the word “matryoshka” is derived from the Latin word “mater,” which means “mother,” the matryoshka doll is usually associated with a mother. Matryoshka dolls are considered fertility and motherhood symbols because each “mother” contains a “daughter” who, in turn, becomes a “mother.”
Matryoshka dolls are made of wood, with lime wood appearing to be the most popular. Balsa, alder, birch, and aspen are some of the other types of wood used. Because a matryoshka doll must be made from a single piece of wood, the size of the doll is generally determined the size and source of the wood. This ensures that the dolls will fit inside each other even if the wood contracts or expands.
The artisans who make these dolls must be extremely skilled. During the manufacturing process, no measurements are taken as a rule. The dolls are made turning them on a lathe with only chisels and knives as additional tools. The thickness of the matryoshka’s shells used to determine the turner’s skill; the thinner the shell, the greater his or her skill.
The dolls are oiled to prevent cracking after the turning process and then painted with a starch-based glue. The glue not only seals the wood, but it also serves as a primer for painting the dolls. The designs were originally painted with opaque, water-based paint, but today’s paint is similar to what artists use on canvas. Matryoshka dolls can depict the traditional Russian woman, characters from fairy tales, or even religious figures, and the designs vary from one artist to the next.