Matryoshka, as Russian nesting dolls are called in their native country, is a name that has its roots in the Latin word for mother—mater. The allusion to motherhood well befits this emblematic folk craft. Russian nesting dolls are figurines carved of wood that open in the middle to bear a series of similar, smaller figurines; each larger ‘mother’ doll contains a smaller ‘daughter’ doll inside. In shape, Russian nesting dolls resemble squat bowling pins—a round head at the top that widens to form the curved base of its torso and legs. There are no three-dimensional limbs—all the details of its body and face are painted on the doll. There are a potentially infinite number of dolls possible within a set, but generally Russian nesting dolls contain between four and twelve dolls.
The creation of the first Russian nesting doll was a union of Japanese and Russian traditions. In the 1890s, the craftsman Sergei Maliutin was inspired by a set of Japanese nesting dolls which depicted the Buddhist figure Fukurama. The Japanese nesting dolls were reminiscent of the Russian tradition of carved nesting Easter eggs, also known as Faberge eggs. Maliutin, an illustrator of children’s books, sketched the first Russian variant on the doll; Vasiliy Zvezdochkin carved it and Maliutin painted it. The first matryoshka contained eight nested dolls.
Craftsmen most frequently employ lime wood to create Russian nesting dolls. The wood must be dried in the air for approximately two years before it is suitable to be put on a lathe for carving. Early on, many considered the carving rather than the painting to be the art of the dolls’ creation. Skilled craftsmen carve each matryoshka by hand without the aid of measurement devices or complex machinery. Each half of a doll must be sized precisely in order to fit together with its match and the shell of each doll must be quite thin in order to accommodate the volume of the many other dolls that will fit inside of it.
Following from Maliutin’s first matryoshka, a peasant girl in traditional Russian dress with a headscarf and apron is the classic depiction painted onto Russian nesting dolls. The peasant girls frequently hold flowers in their hands that are meant to symbolize the region of their origin. Often, nested within the outer mother doll is an entire family of males and females with a tiny baby as the smallest doll. As Russian nesting dolls have gained popularity both in and out of Russia, a vast array of other subjects have been painted onto them, including political figures, authors and characters from literature and culture.
As with other forms of folk art, Russian nesting dolls are popular collectibles. Mass-produced toy versions of the dolls can be found for low prices, but Russian nesting dolls created by top regional artisans can sell for thousands of dollars through prestigious auctioneers. Nesting dolls of all kinds—from kitschy tourist items to priceless museum pieces—have become cherished symbols of Russian identity, uniting its history, artistic traditions and domestic values.