October 17, 2006

Matryoshka - Soul of Russia

Matryoshka set

At one time or another, most of us have been fascinated with the colorfully painted matryoshka (ma-TRYOSH-ka; plural ma-TRYOSH-kee) or nesting dolls. They come in a variety of sizes, characters and number of dolls nested one inside the other. How did the matryoshka come to be and why? First of all, the name, also spelled matriosha, was a popular name for girls. It is believed that it was derived from the Latin word, mater, which means mother or, more to the point, grandmother. A peasant mother of old Russia often tended to a large family. The largest doll is the grandmother with future generations of dolls tucked inside her. This symbolizes the hope and value of life and the family; the heart an soul of Russian people. While not known for certain, it is commonly agreed that this is the image which resulted in the matryoshka. Traditionally, a matryoshka was given to newborns to wish them a long and prosperous life.

History . . .

Matryoshka first appeared in Russia in the late 1800's. However, the concept of nested items did not originate in Russia. Nested boxes are known to have been produced in China as far back as the 11th century. In the 1700s, nested dolls appeared in China and Japan. These sets were incredible with the smallest doll being about the size of a grain of rice. The popularity of the matryoshka spread quickly. Today, it is the most sought after Russian souvenir and you can, also, find nested dolls in countries such as Poland, Germany and Italy.

The matryoshka's timing was no accident. The late 1800s was a time of both social unrest and emerging world identity for Russia. Art and new trends were of great interest and the Russian style was developed. Prominent artists were determined to create a style that was distinctively Russian but, also, represented Russia's folk heritage and traditions. Many of these artists fathered artistic and cultural centers and studios.

Early Patrons. . .

S. I. Mamontov was a wealthy industrialist who inherited his fortune and business from his merchant ancestors. He is credited with being one of Russia's first patron of the arts. A studio was established, on his estate near Moscow, where masters worked along side folk artisans, sharing their skills, techniques and traditions. The finer techniques of the Russian style were merged with old folklore to create the first Russian matryoshka.

The Mamontov family were art collectors and very interested in the preservation of folk art and peasant toys. S.I. Mamontov's brother, Anatoly, owned a shop called Children's Education where folk toys were created and sold. Anatoly's shop was best known for its ethnic dolls which wore traditional costumes of the various indigenous peoples of Russia. He was, also, a publisher and art collector who provided employment for many a talented and creative artisan. To encourage the imagination of his craftsmen, Anatoly decorated the studio with folkart and toys from all over the world. Oriental arts and crafts were very much in vogue at the time. As a result, the forerunner of the matryoshka was brought to Anatoly's workshop from the Island of Honshu, Japan's main island. This particular nested doll was in the form of Fukuruma, a kindly, old, pot bellied Buddhist monk.

Anatoly Mamontov's shop and childrens' book illustrator, Sergei Maliutin, created the first Russian matryoshka. Maliutin's first matryoshka included eight pieces. The largest was a peasant girl with a rooster. She was dressed in brightly colored and delicately detailed traditional costume. Her round endearing face was framed by a bright scarf. The second through seventh pieces were alternating peasant boys and girls. The smallest doll was an infant donning a diaper. Maliutin was an expert in Russian ancient and folk art. Like the Momontovs, his ancestors were traders and merchants.

The Process . . .

Maliutin painted with gouache, a paint similar to, but heavier than, watercolor. Gouache was used throughout Europe, in the late 1800s and was preferred for its coverage and quick drying characteristics. This paint was made by mixing dry pigment with water and gum for thickness. Today, matryoshkas are made using the same techniques developed by Maliutin. Traditionally, the wooden pieces are lime, birch aspen or alder. Trees for the matryoshka shops are cut in the spring, stripped of their bark and laid out to dry. This process takes about two years.

We often don't think about what it takes to make the matryoshka forms. Turners such as Vasiliy Zviozdochkin, who created the forms for the first Russian matryoshka, must process equal, if not greater, patience and talent as that of the painters. When the wood is adequately dried, the craftsman cuts the logs into workable sized pieces. Using a lathe and chisels of various sizes and shapes, the craftsman begins forming the desired number of matryoshka pieces doing the smallest one first. This piece is the easiest because it does not come apart.

Each of the remaining pieces are shaped to the proper size and shape, typically without the aid of measuring tools. When each shape is created, the top of the piece is cut off, a ring is carved into the bottom piece so that the top will fit securely on it. Each piece is hollowed out just enough to accommodate the nesting of the next smaller piece. Once all of the pieces of the matryoshka are carved, the exterior surfaces are primed with a glue which provides the perfect painting surface. After each piece is painted, to the artist's satisfaction, they are finished by a heavy layer of lacquer. This brings out the colors of the artwork and, also, protects it by forming a hard, transparent shell.

In addition to the finely detailed painting, many matryoshkas include poker work. This technique of burning the wood was used to outline and further define various elements of the painting, such as the face, hair or the design on the character's scarf, etc.

By the end of the 19th century, the matryoshka was so popular that the tradition was assumed by the workshops in and around Sergiev Posad, Russia's center for toy making. Matryoshka production flourished in the villages surrounding this town and home to the Trinity-Sergius Lavra .

Sergiev Posad is situated about 50 miles outside of Moscow. Monk, now saint, Sergius built a small chapel in the forest back in the mid-1300s. This chapel grew to become Russia's largest monastery with thriving villages around it. Art and folk craft was promoted by the monastery which produced wooden toys, known as Trinity toys, to sell in the large, open-air market in front of the monastery. The first such toy, according to legend, was made by the Prior, Sergious Radonezhsky, who enjoyed giving these toys to the children of the community. Legend, also, claims that the Tsar's children enjoyed playing with Trinity toys, too. Often, these toys were purchased when the tsar and his family went to the monastery to pray. Typically, Trinity toys included such things as a wooden horse with a tiny leather bridle or hand painted, wooden character dolls dressed in traditional costume.

The Sergiev Posad matryoshka are known for their realistic characters. The early Sergiev Posad matryoshka were painted by students and artists from the local icon painting school and portrayed peasant girls in colorful costume and often with baskets or bunches of flowers. Other characters, such as a shepherd, girl with a goose and old man with a long beard, were popular as well. The style developed at Sergiev Posad was steeped in tradition and folk culture. It was bold and expressive in contrast to the more refined work of professional artists and the Russian style.

The iconographers of Sergiev Posad contributed heavily to this unique style. Russian iconography has its roots in the Byzantine tradition where the focus of the work is on the face of the subject with its well defined features. This ancient art form was applied to the Sergiev Posad matryoshkas. In fact, matryoshkas were painted in the icon painting school of Sergiev Posad. Conversely, many of the area's toy makers were involved with the production of icons. The icon painters welcomed the opportunity to do paintings of the people and characters around them in everyday life. This was something that was not allowed in iconography. By painting matryoshkas, these artists were able to explore their creative instincts without the more confining rules involved with icon painting.

It was common for these matryoshkas, with their many pieces, to represent an entire family of characters. Historical figures, folklore and fictional characters and scenes from popular stories were developed. For example, two special matryoshkas were created in 1912 for the 100th anniversary of Napoleon's fateful march on Moscow. One was of the Russian general, Kutuzov and the other of Napoleon. Each contained smaller pieces representing their respective commanders.

The Artisan-Artist artel was established in 1910, in Sergiev Posad. Under the Soviets, this group was renamed The Workers' and Peasants' Red Army Artel and, in 1928, became Toy Factory #1. By 1911, the list of matryoshka characters numbered 21. The Sergiev Posad matryoshkas included as few as two pieces and as many as 24 with the most popular including 3, 8 or 12 pieces. A huge matryoshka was created for the Exhibition of Toys, in St. Petersburg (1913) and included 48 pieces. The largest known Sergiev Posad matryoshka was created in 1967 and included an amazing 60 pieces!

During the Soviet era, art in general, as well as the painting style of the matryoshka, was very stylized and factory produced. In 1995, Sergievskay Igrushka (Sergiev Toy Factory) was established and tasked with reviving the style and tradition of Sergiev Posad during the early part of the 20th century. Its products include the old matryoshka, wooden toys and other traditional, wooden, turned items.

Semyonov and Polkhovsky Maidan Matryoshka . . .

Another major matryoshka center was in Semyonov and a unique style was created. The Semyonov works were more symbolic and less realistic than Sergiev Posad. The Semyonov artists concentrated more on the ornate floral adornment of ancient Russian art. Unlike the Sergiev Posad artists, this group used aniline dyes; synthetic dyes which come from coal tars. Another noticeable difference between the Sergiev Posad and Semyonov styles was the latter left more blank space on the matryoshkas. The matryoshkas of Semionov were slender in shape with a wide bottom. This differed from the Sergiev Posad form which featured a larger, more rounded top or head and slightly larger bottom.

The Semyonov painters used a lighter brush stroke and the focal point of the figure was the apron. This served as the place for a bright, detailed floral bouquet reminiscent of the floral still life art of the old Russian masters. To give the bouquet further definition, grass sap was applied. The dominate color of the bouquet set the stage for the rest of the matryoshka. The primary colors used were yellow, red and blue.

Semyonov matryoshkas are known for having many pieces; 15 to 18 was typical. The largest Semyonov matryoshka included 72 pieced, stood three feet tall and roughly 1.5 feet in diameter. Some of the most famous Semyonov subjects are Russian Lad and Russian Lass.

Yet another wood working center, which became known for its matryoshka is Polkhovsky Maidan, located south-west of Nizhny Novgorod. Early production was in the style of Sergiev Posad, but soon the craftsmen of Polkhovsky Maidan began using aniline dyes like the craftsmen of Semyonov. The Polkhovsky Maidan dolls featured even brighter colors and bolder ornamentation than the Semionov creations. The principle colors used together and in contrast were crimson, yellow, green, violet and blue. The style of Polkhovsky Maidan is almost cartoonish, resembling the less refined style of a child's rendering. Like Semyonov, special attention was paid to the floral bouquet painted on the matryoshka's apron with less detail afforded the rest of the character's costume. Dog rose was the floral adornment of choice as it stood for motherhood and love.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, religion and art began to flourish anew. Iconography, once banned, gained renewed interest. Creative freedom has been reflected in the contemporary matryoshkas, as well. Many craftsmen are reviving the style of Sergiev Posad and the influence of the old icon painters. Still others are painting characters and views of their native villages, drawing together the past and present and hope for the future. Many modern matryoshka artists refer to photos and other descriptions of the original matryoshkas in order to incorporate many of the old decorative styles. The face is, again, the focal point of the dolls as the artist endeavors to recapture the culture of his ancestors.

Iconography tells the story of faith and history of the Church. Matryoshka, similarly, tells the story of a people. Peasants, saints, national heros, tsars, composers, politicians; none have escaped the artist's hand. Modern matryoshka painters borrow from the Semionov style by using the doll's apron as a canvas for various themes. Most commonly, Russia's wonderful architectural monuments; monasteries, cathedrals, etc.; are found on matryoshka's apron. This is also a place for depicting popular Russian folk tales or articles of daily life, such as a samovar. Such matryoshka make very appealing souvenirs.

Today's matryoshka are bright and full of energy. Different styles are used, ranging from the traditional to palekh, khokhloma and zhostovo. They represent the treasures of the past and are certain to continue to be treasures of Russian life and culture in the future. Matryoshka is much more than wood working and painting. These dolls are a reflection of the soul of Russia.

Variations on a theme . . .

Another popular form of matryoshka is the Babushka doll. Babushka means grandmother, in Russian. The outer most doll is opened to reveal three more dolls of equal size. Each of these dolls typically holds three more dolls and so on. The Babushka represents the grandmother's generations to come.

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

The Best of Russian Life

The Best of Russian Life

We culled through 15 years of Russian Life to select readers’ and editors’ favorite stories and biographies for inclusion in a special two-volume collection. Totalling over 1100 pages, these two volumes encompass some of the best writing we have published over the last two decades, and include the most timeless stories and biographies – those that can be read again and again.
A Taste of Russia

A Taste of Russia

The definitive modern cookbook on Russian cuisine has been totally updated and redesigned in a 30th Anniversary Edition. Layering superbly researched recipes with informative essays on the dishes' rich historical and cultural context, A Taste of Russia includes over 200 recipes on everything from borshch to blini, from Salmon Coulibiac to Beef Stew with Rum, from Marinated Mushrooms to Walnut-honey Filled Pies. A Taste of Russia shows off the best that Russian cooking has to offer. Full of great quotes from Russian literature about Russian food and designed in a convenient wide format that stays open during use.
At the Circus

At the Circus

This wonderful novella by Alexander Kuprin tells the story of the wrestler Arbuzov and his battle against a renowned American wrestler. Rich in detail and characterization, At the Circus brims with excitement and life. You can smell the sawdust in the big top, see the vivid and colorful characters, sense the tension build as Arbuzov readies to face off against the American.
White Magic

White Magic

The thirteen tales in this volume – all written by Russian émigrés, writers who fled their native country in the early twentieth century – contain a fair dose of magic and mysticism, of terror and the supernatural. There are Petersburg revenants, grief-stricken avengers, Lithuanian vampires, flying skeletons, murders and duels, and even a ghostly Edgar Allen Poe.
Driving Down Russia's Spine

Driving Down Russia's Spine

The story of the epic Spine of Russia trip, intertwining fascinating subject profiles with digressions into historical and cultural themes relevant to understanding modern Russia. 
Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.
Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod is a mid-sized provincial city that exists only in Russian metaphorical space. It has its roots in Gogol, and Ilf and Petrov, and is a place far from Moscow, but close to Russian hearts. It is a place of mystery and normality, of provincial innocence and Black Earth wisdom. Strange, inexplicable things happen in Stargorod. So do good things. And bad things. A lot like life everywhere, one might say. Only with a heavy dose of vodka, longing and mystery.
Murder at the Dacha

Murder at the Dacha

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin has a problem. Several, actually. Not the least of them is the fact that a powerful Soviet boss has been murdered, and Matyushkin's surly commander has given him an unreasonably short time frame to close the case.
The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar

The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar

The fables of Ivan Krylov are rich fonts of Russian cultural wisdom and experience – reading and understanding them is vital to grasping the Russian worldview. This new edition of 62 of Krylov’s tales presents them side-by-side in English and Russian. The wonderfully lyrical translations by Lydia Razran Stone are accompanied by original, whimsical color illustrations by Katya Korobkina.
The Samovar Murders

The Samovar Murders

The murder of a poet is always more than a murder. When a famous writer is brutally stabbed on the campus of Moscow’s Lumumba University, the son of a recently deposed African president confesses, and the case assumes political implications that no one wants any part of.
Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

This astonishingly gripping autobiography by the founder of the Russian Women’s Death Battallion in World War I is an eye-opening documentary of life before, during and after the Bolshevik Revolution.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567