How is Matryoshka Made?
Matryoshka is a must-buy souvenir or gift item if you’re visiting Russia. Known as Russia’s national doll, when was this handicraft made for the first time?
Made of wood, Matryoshka(Матрёшка in Russian) is a set of carved dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another that represent Russia. Like a mother embracing a baby, a larger doll holds a smaller doll inside and the tiniest doll comes out at the end.
The name Matryoshka comes from Russian vocabulary Матрёна, commonly used to call women in rural society in Russia. Also known as “Russian nesting dolls” alluding to their resemblance to nested eggs, or “Babushka dolls” meaning grandmother or old woman for their familiarity in Russian culture, Matryoshkas signify fecundity, large families, and affluence. It was in the late 1800s when Russia was undergoing a major political and economic upheaval that these wooden dolls began appearing.

Painting a Matryoshka

Blossoming of New Movement
In the eyes of young officers and soldiers returning to Russia after the Napoleonic Wars(1803-1815), their homeland seemed an archaic empire ruled by a tsar, having failed in modernization. The royal family and aristocrats were corrupt, enjoying an undeserved wealth, while peasants still led a deprived life due to serfdom. Contrary to the majority of other industrialized countries, Russia had a large portion of the population working in agriculture and thus remaining in poverty. Now to those younger generations who had witnessed and experienced the advanced system of other European countries during the war, Russia was outdated and depraved. They formed a coalition to revolt against those in power. It is known as the Decembrist uprising. Tsar Nicholas I, who had just assumed the throne, easily suppressed the rebellion but it still managed to ignite a nationwide call for a change to Russia’s autocracy. It also brought about various cultural and social ideologies and movements. After the 1870s, Russia was deeply affected by these trends, and one of them was Marxism which caused a huge sensation.

Abramtsevo Artist Village

Wooden Dolls From Artist Village
The winds of change blew in Sergiev Posad, a small city near Moscow. Russian entrepreneur Savva Mamontov who had inherited a railway business from his father had expected the change. As the son of Ivan Feodorovich Mamontov who ran the biggest trading company in Russia, Savva Mamontov grew up experiencing various arts and cultures of Europe from his childhood. Because of it, he was not interested in his father’s business. Instead, he exhibited a greater enthusiasm toward art than anybody else around him. Proclaiming himself a patron of the arts, he built an artist village called Abramtsevo in a birch grove some 20km away from Sergiev Posad in the 1870s.
Later he would amass a large fortune from his railway and shipbuilding businesses, but after age 60, he spent the rest of his life in Abramtsevo.

Matryoshka dolls placed in a row at a market

The artist village became home for many artists who dreamed of art renaissance and were inspired by the Russian folk art. Among them was Sergei Malutin, a storybook illustrator. He accidentally came across a Japanese wooden doll at a gathering of artists. It was a Fukurokuju doll symbolizing wealth among the Seven Lucky Gods in Japanese culture. The outer doll carried a smaller doll inside.
Inspired by this Fukurokuju doll, Malutin had craftsman Zvyozdochkin to carve a set of wooden dolls to draw in a lady and a man wearing traditional Russian garment called Sarafan. The set consisted of eight wooden dolls of different sizes.
That was the origin of Russian Matryoshkas. However, they weren’t called Matryoshka from the beginning. Taken from a common Russian female name of Matryona, the name became widespread when the dolls submitted for the 1900 Paris Exposition earned a bronze medal.

A view of Sergiev Posad famous for its monasteries

To Sergiev Posad to Meet Matryoshkas
The concept of nested objects such as a doll inside a wooden doll was formed during the ancient Song Dynasty in China, before Japan. A box inside a box carved by a Chinese carpenter had spread to the world through various routes, and 800 years later Matryoshka dolls were born. Traditionally, Matryoshkas are made of linden wood that has its grain preserved after three years of curing. Naturally the best-quality timber is used for the outermost doll. Russia’s traditional Khokhloma painting method is applied to paint the sanded doll with shapes of a village woman and colorful leaves and flowers.

How Matryoshkas are made

Sergiev Posad is the closest city to the artist village of Abramtsevo, and is the largest producer of Matryoshkas as of now. The Sergiev Posad State History and Art Museum that features the process of making Matryoshka dolls is also located there. The city is famous for old monasteries and classic architecture-style buildings. The Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius founded in the 15th century is a world heritage site designated by UNESCO and one of the most important monasteries of the Russian Orthodox Church.
You can find Matryoshka dolls in any souvenir shops in the city. Dolls of vibrant colors come with a cheaper price tag here than in other cities. In particular, along with mass-produced Matryoshkas, a variety of handcrafted Matryoshkas with unique images including those of animals can be purchased for a decent price.

More Matryoshkas are being made with witty designs.

Finding Matryoshkas in Moscow
If you’re searching for Matryoshka dolls in Moscow, you should go to Izmaylovsky Market. It is a traditional market selling various handicrafts or souvenirs, located in northern Moscow near the Partizanskaya metro station. It is a place where Matryoshkas of the most variety and widest range of prices can be found in the Russian capital. Starting with traditional designs, the market offers Matryoshka dolls with the faces of politicians or celebrities of Russia and even Marvel characters. One of the backgrounds for the current popularity of these nesting dolls was the making of Gorbachev Matryoshka during perestroika of the Soviet Union.
The global recognition of Matryoshka dolls resulted in the increasing circulation of cheap Chinese products across Russia. To tell apart the authentic ones from the imported, you have to make sure the quality of painting is maintained even in the tiniest doll. Russian Matryoshkas are carefully drawn so that the innermost doll has all the details.

Matryoshkas available in various designs as well as qualities

Sometimes artisans come out to the market to sell their own creations. The price ranges greatly depending on the number of dolls in a set and the quality of painting. Generally, a set has about five dolls on average, but the number goes up to 10 in some cases.
For your information, the most number of dolls in a Matryoshka set according to records is 51. The product was made by Youlia Bereznitskaia in 2003.
One Matryoshka artisan has said in an interview that Russians love Matryoshka dolls because the nesting of dolls inside symbolizes a large family with many children, namely affluence. in Russia. Matryoshka dolls are literally enriching Russia’s rural towns.
March 2020 Editor:Jung Jaewook

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  • March 2020
  • Editor: Jung Jaewook
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