Matreshka – traditional Russian wooden nesting dolls

A piece of Russia to take with you.

Matreshka is a wooden nesting doll that opens up in half at the waist line. Inside you will find a second doll that looks the same. Inside the second doll – the third, and so on. The number of dolls is not limited, but usually it is 6-12 dolls.

The smallest doll might not open in half, to be whole, or it may open. Then you can hide some secret in it.

Matreshka Russian wooden nesting doll

by Irina Phoenix (CC, flickr)

History of an origin of matreshka

In Russia wooden dolls for children, hand-made ​​or made professionally, used to be very common among all segments of the population. Not surprisingly –there used to be no plastic dolls.

Some wooden dolls had a “secret” – they could be disassembled. You could hide something inside. As turning tools became widespread it became possible to make the dolls that were hollow inside.

According to another version, some artists brought back from Japan a wooden doll. Looking at it, the artists decided to make a doll in Russian style –wearing traditional Russian clothing. According to this version, in the end of the 19th century an artist Sergei Malyutin painted the doll. Matreshka by Malyutin opened up into 8 dolls. The dolls depicted a young woman wearing traditional Russian peasant costume. Actually, there were no other traditional costumes at the time. You can blame Peter I for that who introduced for the upper classes the European style of clothing.

After that, the Malyutin doll was sent to the World’s Fair in Paris, where it received a medal for the idea of preservation and reunification of family.

Today it is difficult to establish the truth, when the matreshka known to us in its modern form appeared. But there is no doubt, that the history of traditional wooden dolls in Russia, the epitome of which has become matreshka, has hundreds of years.

This is supported by the monumentality of matreshka. As you know, in Russia, peasants traditionally chose as their wives monumental women –able to carry their children and to perform all household chores. For example, peasant shoes for girls was specially made large to show the advantages of the future wife (the girl put on several layers of thick woolen long socks to make their feet look bigger, and so that leather shoes or straw shoes did fall off the feet).

Most likely matreshka, the same as everything that was common among simple people, was not considered necessary to be documented. That was the case with many popular traditional Russian dishes, that are now lost simply because they were cooked and eaten by everyone – and there was no need for cookbooks. And then the revolutionary upheavals of the early 20thcentury changed a lot…

Only the use of folk motifs by a professional artist and success of matreshka at the World Exhibition finally brought attention to this traditional Russian nesting doll.

Matreshka Russian wooden nesting doll

by Sebastian Dario (CC, flickr)

Origin of the name

Matrena is a very common female peasant name. Most likely the name “matreshka” (Russian) comes from the name Matrena.

Sergiev Posad matreshka

Moscow suburban town of Sergiev Posad is included in the Golden Ring of Russia.

On the walls of the Trinity-Sergius Monastery for several centuries was carved a wooden “Trinity” doll.

Among the “Trinity” dolls there were also dolls depicting a young woman in traditional Russian headdress and a sundress.

Sergiev Posad matreshka in its painting takes into account the feeling of that time and everyday scenes.

Matreshka is painted with gouache, which is then topped with varnish.

Semenov matreshka

In the vicinity of the town of Semenov near Nizhny Novgorod gathered persecuted by official church Old Believers. They managed to preserve the traditional ancient Russian ornament, the elements of which can be seen in Semyonov matreshka. For example, Khokhloma painting was born in these places.

It is believed that the prototype of Semenov matreshka were Russian wooden dolls: a bald man with a beard and mustache, and a burly man wearing a hat and a coat. In Semenov, the artists independently invented to open up a doll using the analogy of opened Easter eggs.

The basis of the composition of Semenovmatreshka is considered a girl’s apronwhich depicts a lush bouquet of flowers.

Semyonov matreshka is more “slim” than Sergiev Posad matreshka.

Vyatka matreshka

Residents of Vyatka make ​​matreshka by “clothing” it in traditional peasant festive attire. A unique feature of Vyatka matreshka is an intricate inlaid of the doll with rye straw.

A young woman portrayed on the doll is always blue-eyed. She is smilinggently, which is characteristic in these northern regions.

Tver matreshka

Tver is located not far from Moscow. In Tver a fine lathe work is typical – Tver matreshka is literally transparent. Tver matreshka is painted with gold and silver ornaments.

Novokuznetsk matreshka

In the Siberian city of Novokuznetsk there are own traditions of painting matreshka.

Novokuznetsk matreshka is not just a doll, but a doll with character. Each doll is busy with something – playing Russian folk games, doing housework, singing.

Today Novokuznetsk matreshka became more original. Each doll is like an individual, with her own aspirations and interests.

Original matreshka

In Russiatraditional matreshka is popular. But among foreign tourists who do not see differences among Russian nesting dolls, original matreshka found wide popularity. They depict famous historical figures, presidents, heroes of Russian epics, icons, cartoons and so on.

How to choose a matreshka

Do not choose crudely painted matreshka. Matreshka should be pleasing to the eye, like any other thing. Execution of matreshka should be top notch – without any noticeable defects.

Both parts of each doll should be tight fitting. The painting should move from the top to the bottom without any significant differences. The best quality matreshka is painted as a whole, not in parts.

Matreshka should feel nice in your hands.

Imagine that in the evening you put together and disassemble a matreshka. It soothes. If the matreshka that you are holding in your hands can evoke similar emotions, and not just gather dust in the attic, feel free to buy it.

A good quality nesting doll – a symbol of Russia – should evoke a feeling of admiration for owning it. 

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