History and Creation of Matryoshka Nesting Dolls

Matryoshka doll, also known as babushka doll or more commonly, nesting doll, is a toy consisting of a set of wooden dolls placed one inside another. Over time, the toy became known as the symbol of Eastern European and a common souvenir, only helped with the beautiful craftsmanship and the interesting concepts surrounding the ancient traditional toy.

The term “Matryoshka”(meaning: Little Mother) came from the name “Matryona”, a common name for women in Russian villages, a name rooted in the Latin word “Mater”, meaning “Mother”. Meanwhile, “Babushka” has two meanings, one is “Grandmother”, and the other is “Matriarch”.

Most commonly, the doll is shaped like a modified egg or a peanut made of linden, birch, lime, or aspen wood, with its surface painted with the face of a beautiful young woman dressed in a loose-fitting, colorful traditional garment called sarafan. The list of colors in Russian can be seen in our article colors in Russian Language.

History of the Matryoshka Doll.

There are debates surrounding the origin of the toy, and some even claim that the Japanese invented the toy. However, in the end it can be agreed that the first version of the toy, depicting a wise man, was made by a Russian monk. This version has five dolls, the outside painted with the image of the wise man’s older appearance, and progressively getting younger as the size decreases.

The first matryoshka similar to what we know it was made by Vasily Zvyozdochkin and designed by Sergey Malyutin, sold in the 19th century on 1980, in a Moscow shop called Children’s Education Workshop. The toy depicts seven children, with the first children holding a rooster, the second to fourth dolls are girls with various colorful dresses, the fifth one is a boy, and the final doll is a baby girl.

Even though the toy was made for children, only adults could afford the toy as it was too expensive, and the toy became a gift given to one’s beloved young woman during special occasions. In the 1900, the toy won a bronze medal from the Paris World Exhibition, and the win marked the start of the toy’s wild rise to popularity, culminating in the export of a lot of these dolls in the 20th century. The doll was so popular, to the point that it prompted some German companies to start making counterfeits of the toys and market them as Russian toys.


How the Matryoshka Dolls are made

It is a known fact that the painters did not make the dolls, and as a result, the quality of a matryoshka doll will largely depend on the woodwork. First, the logs used to make the doll must be dried. The bigger the log, the more time it will need to dry, with the required time for the logs to dry varying from two to eight years of air drying. Usually, the logs are smeared with sap at both ends to keep them from cracking, and stacked to allow air circulation. A master woodworker helps to decide whether the logs are ready.

A fact about the blank dolls is that they all have to be crafted from the same wood. The reason for this is that each wood has different properties, even within the same kind. If one doll has wood from two different logs, chances are the end result of the doll would not fit properly, due to the difference of moisture and expansion-contraction levels. After that, the doll is carved using a lathing machine and chisels of different shapes and sizes. Each doll is turned in the lathing machine at least 15 times, and the process starts with the smallest doll. The bigger dolls are made by lathing the upper and lower part separately.

When the lathing process are done, the dolls are joined together and let dry, the resulting contraction process letting the upper and lower parts join together perfectly. After drying the wood is oiled, cured, and covered with glue as a primer for the painting job. The priming has to be done carefully, or smudges will taint the surface of the end result later.

After the priming, the wood is painted. There are several ways to paint the doll, with two large groups focusing on the doll face and the clothing, respectively. As for the types of paint, most use a kind of paint called tempera (similar to the poster paint), while the more expensive ones use watercolor. As the technique required to paint wood with watercolor is hard to replicate, the price goes up. Watercolor matryoshka has a more transparent look, while the tempera one has an opaque look. After the paint dries, the dolls are coated with protective wax and varnish. The matryoshkas made for collection usually has more than five protective coating.


Conclusion

The matryoshka dolls may not have a long history, but it is a fact that the dolls have been integrated deeply in the Russian culture. The value of familial relationship can be seen in the dolls if the steadily decreasing size of the dolls is likened to giving birth. Some even consider the sacrifices done by the previous generation to ensure the existence of the next generation. Although some argue that the dolls may symbolize a mise-en-abyme, also known as ‘story within a story’ theory in literature, it is undeniable that the familial relationship and matriarchy is a very deeply respected value in Russia from the ancient past to many centuries into the future.

If you are interested in this article, you may be interested in the Russian culture.The culture of Russia is vast, and one of the first steps to cultural learning is to learn the language. I recommend starting with How to Learn Russian Language for Beginners, Common Greetings in Russian, and Numbers in Russian Language.

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