A cultural icon, a vibrant folk art tradition and one of the most classic Russian gifts, the colorfully painted Matryoshka has fascinated people for ages. Many are familiar with the iconic image, but few know the true story of how the dolls originated. Recognized worldwide as a symbol of Russia, the traditional Matryoshka features a pear-shaped woman dressed in traditional Russian clothing with a head scarf and an apron that often depicts a Russian fable, flowers, a city or landscape. The doll can be separated into two pieces to reveal another doll, which is also hollow and nests another inside and so on. The number of dolls usually ranges from 3 to twelve, and the smaller dolls represent future generations, symbolizing hope and the value of the family.
The Unlikely Origins
Though firmly rooted in Russian culture, nesting dolls appeared in China and Japan long before Russia, depicting mythological and religious figures like the Seven Lucky Gods in Japanese mythology. These are usually linked to the even earlier Chinese nesting boxes dating all the way back to 1000 AD. How did the dolls make their way to Russia? According to some, these first dolls were carved and painted by a Russian monk on Honshu. Either way, a wealthy Russian patron of arts, Savva Mamontov, discovered a set of nesting dolls in the 1890s and had a desire to revive Russian folk art. Working with one of his artists, Sergei Maliutin, and a craftsman, Vassily Zviozdochkin, they created the very first Russian set of Matryoshkas. These dolls portrayed a colorful life, depicting Russian girls in sarafans (peasant dresses) with baskets, scythes, bouquets of flowers, or dressed in short winter fur coats and scarves. Eventually the dolls were made at the Children’s Education Workshop in the Abramtsevo estate near Moscow, founded by Mamontov in order to continue to produce and preserve peasant folk art.
How Did the Name Originate?
Throughout provincial Russia before the revolution, the name Matryoshka (also spelled Matriosha or Matryona) was a very popular name for girls. It comes from the Latin mater, which means mother, and likewise was linked with the image of a mother of a big family who was healthy and robust. This evolved into a symbolic name that came represent the wooden nesting dolls. Matryoshka were often given as gifts to young women, and the wooden dolls have come to represent Russian culture and history – they’re about motherhood, fertility and infinity.
The Spread of Matryoshka
In 1900, the wooden nesting dolls won a bronze medal at the World Exhibition in Paris. Soon after, the Matryoshka skyrocketed in popularity. Over time, the Matryoshka has evolved, depicting fairy tales, animals, musicians and even Russian czars and modern politicians. A famous Matryoshka couple, “Russian Lad” and “Russian Beauty,” was taken to the International Space Station Spaceship by Russian astronauts and given as a gift to its international crew.
The legacy continues to live on today with collectors spanning the globe. You’ll see an abundance of Matryoshkas throughout Russia, especially in the busy markets of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Moscow even features the Museum of Matryoshka, showcasing the history of this favorite and storied Russian souvenir.