From Russia with Love Part IV: The Matryoshka Dolls

I was a pampered princess when I was a little girl. Being the first child and first grandchild, I practically had everyone wrapped with my tiny fingers as soon as I was born. I was well loved and still loved, by my family, that is. As the apple of everyone’s eyes, I get everything that I wanted as a child. All I need was to ask. Well…almost. To say that I got everything that I wanted as a child was rather exaggerating. I did not exactly get everything that I want.

One of the things that I always wanted as a child was dolls. Rag dolls, Barbie dolls…all sort of dolls. My childhood wish was to own a huge dollhouse, but I never did get a dollhouse with full of dolls in it as my parents are believer of soft toys …not pretty, girlish dolls that you can play dress up with. So, instead of having a playroom that’s full of beautiful little dolls I can play house with, my playroom was filled with all sort of soft toys. My bedroom was a zoo of teddy bears.

I’m all grown up now. I may not play with toys anymore… ahem… children’s toys that is, but I still find dolls fascinating, especially those mannequins and exotic dolls from all around the world.

I’m an avid reader, and I’ve read plenty of books themed heavily around dolls. In most mystery or horror genre novels, dolls are usually object that’s used to create a mysterious background or setting. One of my all time favourite doll themed story is Kindaichi Case File- Russian Dolls Murder Case. If you are not a fan of Japanese graphic novels, you might not be familiar with the series, but I’m a huge fan of mystery genre novels so I find the story very intriguing.

In that story, there’s a few Russian Dolls and they are actually key objects to solve a plotted murder case. I’m not going to write down that story here, but if you are interested, you can search for ‘Kindaichi Shonen Jikenbo- Russian Dolls Murder Case’ on YouTube. Kindaichi Case File was animated and made into a live action series.

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As you know, I have recently acquired a set of Matryoshka Dolls, a gift from ambassador of Russia herself. You may read about it HERE.

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Also known as Russian nesting doll, Matryoshka doll refers to a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside the other. The first Russian nested doll set was carved in 1890 by Vasily Zvyozdochkin from a design by Sergey Malyutin, who was a folk crafts painter at Abramtsevo. Traditionally the outer layer is a woman, dressed in a sarafan, a long and shapeless traditional Russian peasant jumper dress. The figures inside may be of either gender; the smallest, innermost doll is typically a baby turned from a single piece of wood. Much of the artistry is in the painting of each doll, which can be very elaborate. The dolls often follow a theme; the themes vary, from fairy tale characters to Soviet leaders.

So, why is the doll called Matryoshka? It happened so that the wooden toy was Matryoshka  and there is no information who was the first to call the nesting doll by this name. Definitely the name Matryoshka goes from Russian female name Matriona. In old Russia among peasants the name Matriona or Matriosha was a very popular female name. Scholars says this name has a Latin root “mater” and means “Mother”. This name was associated with the image of of a mother of a big peasant family who was very healthy and had a portly figure. Subsequently, it became a symbolic name and was used specially to image brightly painted wooden figurines made in a such way that they could taken apart to reveal smaller dolls fitting inside one another.

 

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The dolls are constructed from one block of wood in order to create a proper fit; different pieces of wood would have unique expansion-contraction characteristics and moisture content. Production involves use of a turning lathe, along with various woodcarving knives and chisels.

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First, the smallest doll (which cannot be taken apart) is made on a turning lathe, and its size and shape will determine that of the larger dolls. Next, the bottom and top halves of the next doll are made separately, with a ring on the bottom made to fit into an inset on the top portion. The upper part is placed on the lower half and allowed to dry, which tightens the ring to its upper fitting to ensure the halves will close securely. No measurements are made during this process; sizing to fit is done by eye. After all the dolls are made, they are treated, painted, and coated, before nesting them inside one another

Some historians of Russian life argue that matryoshka dolls originated from Japanese traditional dolls. However it’s known that Russian masters would make hollow detachable Easter eggs from the wood long before the first nesting doll was made. The first Russian nesting doll set appeared in Moscow in 1890’s. It was carved by Vasily Zvyozdochkin from a design by a folk crafts painter Sergey Malyutin. The doll set consisted of eight dolls of decreasing sizes placed one inside the other. All eight dolls depicted children — the outermost was a girl holding a rooster, six inner dolls were girls, the fifth doll was a boy, and the innermost was a baby.

Despite the fact that first matryoshka dolls were intended for children, their price was so high that only adults could afford to buy them on special occasions. Matryoshka dolls were often given as a present to young women from their beloved ones. In 1900, the dolls earned a bronze medal at the World Exhibition in Paris. Soon after, Russian nesting dolls became wildly popular. The toys were being produced in several well-known manufacturing centers, the most famous of them being Sergiev Posad and Semenov. In the early twentieth century, Russian nesting dolls were being exported abroad in large quantities. The popularity of the dolls even gave rise to a few companies in Germany which produced counterfeit nesting dolls and sold them as Russian toys.