The matryoshka is probably the most popular symbol of Russia, and the most common souvenir.
It is basically a nested doll made of wood divided in two halves that can be split apart and which contains increasingly smaller versions of itself, from a minimum of three up to 25 or even more. It is usually painted to represent a Russian peasant woman wearing traditional Russian clothes, and while each figure (from the largest doll to the smallest) resembles the others, they are not necessarily identical (colors may change, facial expressions as well). Flowers are probably the most traditional theme and are usually painted as part of the designs on the shawls and aprons of the matryoshka.
Sometimes, matryoshki may also be painted to represent other images than the traditional Russian woman, for example the are sets depicting political leaders, celebrities, pets, or scenes from Russian folk tales and fairytales.
How did it originate?
While the first matryoshka was designed and painted by Sergey Malyutin and carved by Vasily Zvyozdochkin at the Abramtsevo artistic colony in 1890, the whole concept of the nesting doll was popular in China and Japan long before that time, with nesting boxes dating back as far as 1000 AD in China.
The first matryoshki were meant for children, however their price was so high that people could only afford them on special occasions and men would usually give them as a present to their beloved.
In 1900, Russia participated in the World Exhibition in Paris with several styles of matryoshka dolls and won a medal and many admirers, so much that in the 20th century the dolls became very popular and began to be produced in big quantities in manufacturing centers (one of them in Sergiev Posad) and to be exported abroad.
Today, matryoshki are collected in Russia much like paintings or icons on the reputation of the specific artist.
How are matryoshki made?
Whereas the first nested dolls came from Japan, Russian artist, with their refined skills in woodworking, have definitely made the matryoshka a symbol of Russia, using embroidery, traditional patterns and peasant culture as sources of inspiration.
Originally, matryoshki were made from birch or linden wood, which was carved in a cylindrical form. The production process would start from the smallest doll, carved from a single piece of wood that wouldn’t separate as opposed to the larger figures. Then the dolls would be covered with special glue to fill the cracks and smooth the surface, and finally painted according to a particular theme.
What is the meaning of the matryoshka?
The woman painted on most matryoshka dolls is a mother, as the name of the object itself means “little mother/matron”, underlying the idea that the outer doll holds her babies inside like an expectant mother and that each daughter in turn becomes a mother. These dolls hence represent a strong female matriarch, a central figure in the Russian family, and can therefore be seen as symbols of fertility and motherhood.
Where to buy a matryoshka?
You can find matryoshka dolls literally in every souvenir shop in Russia, but the best place to get one is definitely in Moscow’s Izmaylovo Market, where hundreds of vendors offer tons of varieties, along with all types of souvenirs and other objects.