Matryoshka Nesting Dolls History

 The first Russian nesting doll was born in 1890 in the workshop "Children's Education" situated in Abramtsevo estate new Moscow. The owner of Abramtsevo was Sava Mamontov - industrialist and a patron of the arts. The end of the 19 century in Russia was a time of great economic and cultural development. Mamontov was one of the first who patronized artists who were possessed by the idea of the creation of a new Russian style. Many famous Russian artists worked along with folk craftsmen in the workshops of Mamontov.

First RUssian matryoshka doll

7-piece nesting doll "Fukuruma", Japan. Late 1890s

Once at a tradition Saturday meeting somebody brought a funny Japanese figurine of a good-nature bold head old man Fukuruma. The doll consisted of some other figurines nestled one another. It had 7 figurines. That was the fist known nesting doll. On other hand there was a legend that the first doll of such type (nested wooden doll) was brought on the Japanese island Honshu (where Fukuruma was made) by unknown Russian monk. Really, this type of nesting toys was well known before - Russian crafter's turned wooden Easter eggs, apples.

One of artist of Mamontov's artistic surrounding Sergei Maliutin was intrigued by the Fururuma nesting doll and he decided to make an something similar but with Russian peculiarity, an own Russian nesting doll. The doll should have its own Russian spirit and to represent specific Russian cultural and people art traditions. So Sergei Malytunin made a sketch of such doll and asked to help him to make a wooden form for the nesting doll the crafter by name Vasiliy Zveydochin. Zveydochin turned at his lathe the first wooden nested dolls of soft linden wood.

The principle of making dolls remains unchanged until the present time, keeping all the tricks of turning skill of Russian craftsmen. Usually a turner uses such wooden materials as lime and birch. Timber that is intended for the manufacture of dolls, usually is cut down in early spring, purified from the bark, leaving in some places of the log rings of bark to prevent during drying cracking of the wood. Prepared in this way the logs are stacked in piles, between them there is a gap for air flow. Usually timber is kept in the open air for several years to bring it up to a certain condition, avoiding not proper drying. Only an experienced master can determine the readiness of the material. Ready to process the logs are sawn into billets for future dolls. The doll blank overcomes though up to 15 operations in the hands of a turner before becoming a finished doll.

Maliutin painted the dolls in accordance with his own design. The first Russian nesting doll described a peasant family - a mother with her 7 children. The nested doll consisted of 8 pieces. This set and some other ones old matryoshkas are displayed in Sergiev Posad at the Museum of Toys . There in the museum we can see many old Russian nesting dolls like "An old man", set of 8 pieces matryoshka, "Getman", 8 pieces se of nested doll, matryoshka "The tale about turnip".

First Russian matryoshka doll

The first Russian nesting doll

Why it is called "Matryoshka"

This new wooden toy was called 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 popular female name. Scholars says this name has a Latin root "mater" and means "Mother". This name was associated with the image 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.

Sergiev Posad style of Russian nesting dolls

Until the end of 90s of 19 century the nesting dolls dolls were made in Moscow studio "Children's education," and after its closure production of nested dolls have moved to the training and demonstration workshops in Sergiev Posad near Moscow.

Sergiev Posad was a place where the first matryoshka doll was made. This old Russian town is located 73 km (about 45 miles) from Moscow. It has grown up around famous Trinity-St.Sergius Monastery. In 1340 the monk Sergius founded a small temple lost in the midst of the wild thick forests. In time it was developed into the biggest monastery of Russia.

Arts and crafts were flourished in the towns and villages who surrounded the monastery. Wooden toys, which were known as "Trinity" toys, became particularly popular. According to the legend the first "Trinity" wooden toy was made by the Prior of the Monastery, Sergius Radonezhsky. Sergiev Posad was a colorful, truly Russian town. The Monastery lent a unique peculiarity to it. The huge marketplace in front of the Monastery was almost always full of different people: merchants, monks, pilgrims and craftsmen were milling around. So this is natural that when craftsmen from Sergiev Posad heard about the funny wooden toy matryoshka some of them tried to replicate it and, as we can guess, they success ed in it and the new designs of nesting dolls were developed.

Professional artist made the first painted matryoshka nesting dolls just for fun. The stacking dolls were very expressive and they won admiration of adults and children. In the initial period of matryoshka development particularly attention was paid to faces of matryoshka, clothes were not detailed painted as they are painted and decorated now. Such dolls depicted different characters and types: peasants, merchants, and noblemen.

The faces of the early matryoshka dolls of Sergiev Posad were oval and strict. The heads of many wooden Russian dolls were greatly enlarged that's why the face dominated the body. These dolls look primitive because of this disproportion but at the same time they are very expressive. The first politic matryoshka, the prototype of famous "Gorbi doll", was born in that time. Matryoshkas like "German" (German was a political leader Governor of old time Ukraine, which was a part of Russian Empire) gave a soil to artist to design modern politic dolls.

Matroyshka Old man
"An old man", 8-p. matryoshka, beginning of 20 century

Sometimes a nesting doll portrayed the whole family with numerous children and members of households. Some matryoshkas were devoted to historical themes. The described boyars (old Russia noblemen), legendary heroes bogatirs (warriors), some dolls were devoted to book character.

The nesting dolls of Sergiev Posad consisted of 2 to 24 pieces. The most popular set of matryoshka dolls consisted of 3, 8 and 12 pieces. In 1913 a 48-pieces matryoshka made by N. Bulichev was displayed at the Exhibition of Toys in St. Petersburg.

Nesting doll Getman
"Getman", 8-p. doll, beginning of 1900

Development of nested doll greatly depended on turners' skill. Highly skilled masters turned RUssian dolls with very thin sides, which was considered to be a special art of matryoshka turning. Apparently, painting was secondary. Professional artists who painted the first turned dolls did not treat it seriously enough. It was sort of entertainment. There are some nesting dolls - caricatures in the Museum Estate Polenovo. On other hand there were many independent workshops of Sergiev Posad where skilled artisans worked and they crated their own style of Russian matryoshka doll.

Matroyshka Tale about Turnip
Matryoshka "The tale about turnip", 8-p., beginning of 20 century

Folk art tradition was very important in the development of the present Sergiev Posad style. Due to widest layer of folk culture, nesed doll matryoshka continued to exist even after Russian style, developed by Russian professional artists was forgotten. Icon painters of Sergiev Posad contributed a lot to matryoshka pictorial style. Anthropomorphism, in other words, resemblance to a human being of the Russia "take apart" nesting doll turned out to be the continuation of ancient Russian art tradition. An artist focused mainly on the figure of a person, his or her face. This tradition of Russian ancient art came from Byzantine Empire, which had borrowed it from ancient Greek culture. The connection of certain early type of the matryoshkas of Sergiev Posad with the tradition of the local icon painting school is confirmed both stylistically and virtually. Along with the icons, nesyting doll were painted as well in the icon painting school of Sergiev Posad.

Burnt nesting doll
Poked (burned) nesting doll, 5-p., 1990-s.

The stacking doll of Sergiev Posad has its own peculiarities: its top part flows smoothly into thicker lower part: it is painted with gouache and has a varnish surface. In spite of, or perhaps because of the popularity of the matryoshkas of Sergiev Posad, matryoshka-making center started to spring up in Russia.

Painted nesting doll, Sergiev Posad, 1998
Painted nesting doll, Sergiev Posad, 1998

Initially matryoshka dolls  types were rather different: they portrayed both male and female characters. There are some ethnographic nested doll: Samoyed (Eskimo), Gypsy Woman, American Man, Turk, Chinese, Lithuanians, and Tartar Family, Ukrainian and so on. Gradually female character became the main type of matryoshkas. The tradition of making special Russian dolls proportion (1:2, that is ration between a doll's width and height) were worked out.

Painted nesting doll, Sergiev Posad, 2002
Painted nesting doll, Sergiev Posad, 2002

Larisa Soloviova, an author of a great book about Russian nested dolls divided development of this type of dolls into three periods:
1) 1890 -1930-s
2) 1930-s - beginning 1990s
3) Beginning of 1990-s till this time.

The first period contributed us the first matryoshka and created a wide verity of different types of dolls.

In 1918 the unique Museum of Russian and Foreign Toys was opened in Sergiev Posad. The first Russian matryoshka by S. Maliutin is a part of its exhibition. Soon afterwards the Toys Research Institute was organized there as well. The remarkable samples of toys were created in this institute including 42 pieces matryoshka. 60- pieces nesting doll is consider being the biggest one among the matryoshkas of Sergiev Posad. It was made in 1967.

Nesting doll Ruslan and Ludmila, Sergiev Posad, 1998
Nesting doll Ruslan and Ludmila, Sergiev Posad, 1998

Semionov style nesting dolls

Semionov is a large old center of wooden handicrafts. Huge thick forests, soil that is not good for agriculture, big outlet provided development of local people crafts. Of course, many changes occurred during long history of crafts in Semionovo but even now about 200 items are produced in factories and privately in this region, 33 countries import goods from this small town.

Semionovo is famous for its wooden painted tableware, wooden toys and, of course, matryoshkas. The first mention about this settlement goes as far as 1644. There is a legend that Semionovo was founded by merchant Semion and a run-a-way monk from Solovky monastery. In 1779 in time of Catherine the Second 3000 inhabitants lived and worked in this place. As the town was surrounded by forests people used to make goods of wood for themselves and for sale. Some crafter's made for their children and just for fun wooden toys, with time it became a profitable business.

The first matryoshka in Semionovo was made by Arsenty Mayorov who was well known by his wooden utensils, rattles, balls and apples. In 1924 he brought from the fair in Nizhny Novgorod unpainted nesting doll. His elder daughter Luba painted it using ordinary goose feather and aniline dyes, which were used for painting of toys. Almost 20 years matryoshka made by Mayorov were the best in the area of Nizhny Novgorod. In 1931 an ar tel which made souvenirs including matryoshkas was established in Semionovo.

Arsenty Mayorov - who made the first Semionovo nesting doll
Arsenty Mayorov

Gradually a distinct matryoshka type of Semionovo was developed. It was more decorative and symbolic than the matryoshka from Sergiev Posad. Semionovo's tradition goes back to the traditions of ancient Russia.

The painters of Semionovo used aniline dyes; they left quite a lot of unpainted space and varnished dolls. First of all, light touches of the brush mark the outlines of the face, eyes, the lines of the lips and apply color to the cheeks. Then a skirt, an apron, a scarf on the matryoshka's head and hands are drawn.

An apron is considered to be the main thing in painting of Semionovo. A bright bouquet of flowers is painted on it. It is possible to recognize the technique of old Russian masters. The early matryoshkas of Semionovo were more in the spirit of old Russian painting traditions, the lines were more graphic and lighter. It is easy to recognize a typical Semionovo shape of wooden form of matryoshka. It is slender and has a relatively thin top, which widens sharply into a thick bottom.

Semionovo style
Semionovo style

The matryoshka of Semionovo are famous for containing many pieces. The biggest matryoshka contained 72 pieces; it was 1 m high and had a diameter 0.5 m. This unique doll was made in 1970 and was dedicated to birthday of Soviet communist leader Lenin. It cost 3000 rubles (it worth saying that a popular Soviet car cost in that time 5,000 rubles). The doll was sent to exhibition in Japan.

The biggest matryoshka
The biggest matryoshka

In the 80-s artists from Semionovo developed new types of matryoshkas Artist Serov designed new matryoshka "The Father Frost and Snegurotchka". This matryoshka was so designed that children could learn to count: inside a big "mother" 10 small was hidden.

They were in cosmic flight
They were in cosmic flight

Now Semionovo nesting dolls are made at the factory "Semionovskaya Rospis" and they continue old traditions. The artists at the factory designed many new nesting dolls painted in Semionovo style. There is a good collection of such nesting dolls at our web page with traditional nesting dolls . In present time the factory met a specific for our time problem - the copyright problem. Many individual artisans and small workshops make copies of Semionovo style nesting dolls but their quality often is not good, especially quality of finishing. Nesting dolls and other products produced at the "Semionovskaya Rospis" factory have good quality of painting and perfect lacquer finishing.

Polkholvsky Maidan Russian nesting dolls

Polkhovsky Maidan located to the south-west of Nizhny Novgorod 240 km away from it. Is a motherland of another style of matryoshkas and nesting dolls. The river Polkhovka in old times was wide and big, it was surrounded by forests- that is why people choose this place to settle a new village. Now Polkhovka became a small stream meanwhile the village turned into a center of crafts. The first nesting doll was made in Polkhovsky Maidan in 1930-s, as other goods in that time the doll was made by poker work.

Typical Maidan woodwork

Typical Maidan woodwork

Wooden workmanship was an old tradition in Maidan. Any toys were made on turning lather: samovars, birds, money-box, salt-cellars and apples. . The craftsmen of Polkhovsky Maidan like the craftsmen of Semionovo use aniline dyes. The matryoshkas were pasted over, brightly painted before being coated with varnish. The colors of the matryoshkas of Polkhovsky Maidan are brighter and more expressive than the colors of the matryoshkas of Semionovo, their ornaments are bigger as well. Green, blue, yellow, violet and crimson colors are used to contrast each other, to make an expressive and bright ornament. Richness of color is achieved by superim-posing one layer of dye on another.

Painting in Maidan
Maidan style

The matryoshkas of Polkhovsky Maidan are manufactured in the peasant primitive style which resembles children's drawings. It is a typical village beauty with knitted brows and a face framed in black locks. The ringlets of hair are a genuine element of local women's headdress.

Older women covered their hair with kokoshniks, young girls used ribbons. Black drake's feathers were stuck in their headdresses. The painters of Polkhovsky Maidan as the painters of Semionovo paid their special attention to floral ornament of matryoshkas' aprons. They ignored other details of a matryoshka's costume. Dog-rose with many petals is the main element of apron painting. This flower is always considered to be the symbol of femininity, love and motherhood.

Polkhov Maidan matryoshka
Polkhov Maidan matryoshka

This flower is a part of each composition of the craftsmen of Polkhovsky Maidan. Sometimes this theme is developed and a painter adds to the main rose its buds on the branches.

Russian matryoshka nesting dolls in Soviet time

History of matryoshka can be divided into tree periods:

1) 1890 -1930-s
2) 1930-s -beginning 1990s
3) Beginning of 1990-s till this time.

The first period gave us the first Russian matryoshka and developed a lot of new types which were put onto base of modern matryoshkas. Blossom of matryoshkas' types was interrupted by construction of socialism in the USSR. Why? The Soviet Government paid much attention to construction of factories, which produced goods of people crafts! Yes, this is right. The main problem is in it. Hand-made goods can not be made in factories – they are not mass production items. A few matryoshka’s types were developed for factory production: Semionovo type, Sergiev Posad type, Kirov (Viatka) type and some other.

Private making of matryoshkas and production of other hand crafted things was forbidden in the USSR – craftsmen had to work at the factories where was no possibility neither to earn enough money for their labor (rates were quite low as at other state enterprises) nor to show their art abilities (goods had to be simple enough for mass production).

I remember a story of old crafter from Polkhovsky Maidan about work in Soviet time. Those who did not work at the factory were not allowed to use home lathes for turning, electricity was "cut down". Militia and representatives of power controlled road and railway stations to prevent possibility to carry to other regions of the country ready handicrafts to sell . Nevertheless people produced their own goods and brought them to different regions of the Soviet Union: Far East, North regions, South and Central Asia Republics.

It was easier to work at the factories of Semionovo where many new types of wooden toys were created. These toys (and matryoshkas among them) were exported to many countries of the world. In spite of that all things are too similar, they look like each other and they lack worm of hand made goods.

The same happened with Sergiev Posad matryoshkas. In 1920s the matryoshka makers artel "Artisan Artel" was rename "The Workers and Peasants Red Army Artel" that in 1928 became toy factory #1. The period of free work has finished. Some simple types of dolls were produced at the factory. It is necessary to say that there were some people who created and painted original matryoshkas but it was not typical. Such matryoshka were bought by private collectors and now are quite rare.

In the beginning of 1990s when old economic system was destroying artists and talented artisans gained a freedom for creation of new type of matryoshkas and other crafts.

During the Soviet time many factories all over the country made nesting dolls. In time of planning economy when some wise guys from Gosplan (it would mean The State Planning Comity) decided that it would be nice to make as many matryoshkas as possible in order each person on the Earth could get his/her own matryoshkas That is why nesting dolls were made in Moldavia (South part of the USSR), in the Ukraine, in Caucuses republics (???), in Bashkiria, Karelia and many other places. Nobody was interested that it was impossible to bring together with tools and wood mastery of people and their skill. Without native traditions matryoshka lost its charm and became an ordinary wooden toy, very primitive and simple.

The only place where matryoshka found its new home was Kirov -the old city with deep root and traditions of wooden making. Now Kirov matryoshka has its own style and still is made at the factory.