Chang­ing face of Rus­sia’s em­blem­atic ma­tryoshka dolls


From cheery peas­ant girls in Tsarist times to Soviet-era cos­mo­nauts to to­day’s Pussy Ri­ots, the chang­ing face of Rus­sia’s ma­tryoshka nest­ing dolls re­flects the coun­try’s tu­mul­tuous history.

For tourists the dolls in­side dolls that gen­er­ally de­pict a buxom woman in a col­ored head­scarf are a must-buy sou­venir be­lieved to date back to a cen­turiesold tra­di­tion, but a new ex­hi­bi­tion throws up some sur­prises.

For one thing, the ini­tial idea be­hind the iconic wooden dolls, with the small ones hid­den in­side larger ones, ap­pears to have orig­i­nated in Ja­pan.

In the 1890s, when the Far East was all the rage with Rus­sia’s elite, well­known in­dus­tri­al­ist Savva Ma­mon­tov brought back a set of seven deities of hap­pi­ness that inspired pain­ter Sergei Ma­lyutin to pro­duce a Rus­sian ver­sion — a peas­ant woman with all her chil­dren in­side.

The dolls caught on swiftly and were ini­tially given a typ­i­cal peas­ant name, Ma­try­ona, whose nick­name is Ma­tryoshka. At the 1900 uni­ver­sal ex­hi­bi­tion in Paris the dolls were an im­me­di­ate sen­sa­tion, win­ning a bronze medal.

“In Rus­sia, there’s a ma­tryoshka prac­ti­cally in ev­ery home,” mu­seum di­rec­tor Ye­lena Ti­tova told AFP. “You can say ma­tryoshkas re­ally re­flect the Rus­sian na­tional char­ac­ter.”

The dolls are a big part of a Rus­sian child­hood — teach­ing kids about cul­ture and tra­di­tion.

At school, at around age 12, Rus­sian chil­dren learn that ma­tryoshkas “sym­bol­ize the Rus­sian char­ac­ter, the Rus­sian soul, and the ba­sic Rus­sian val­ues: ma­ter­nity, fam­ily, col­lec­tivism, unity and warmth,” ac­cord­ing to a guide for so­cial science teach­ers.

‘No sim­ple toy’

Ti­tova cu­rated an ex­hi­bi­tion on the dolls called “No sim­ple toy” at Moscow’s Dec­o­ra­tive Art Mu­seum that ends midSeptem­ber and which cap­tures their di­verse rein­car­na­tions.

A doll dat­ing from around 1910 de­picts a portly cap­i­tal­ist French­man in a top hat, while one from the 1920s shows a bearded “Ku­lak,” a pros­per­ous peas­ant driven out by the Bol­she­viks.

Af­ter the Bol­she­vik Revo­lu­tion, the dolls in the 1920s took a po­lit­i­cal turn, de­pict­ing work­ers in dif­fer­ent trades, his­tor­i­cal fig­ures and even en­e­mies of the peo­ple.

In the 1930s the state took over their pro­duc­tion with fac­to­ries set up in dif­fer­ent cities. The ex­hi­bi­tion has some dolls from Rus­sia’s far east along with oth­ers painted as Arc­tic Eski­mos, high- light­ing the con­sid­er­able size of the Soviet em­pire.

One even has dolls in­side dolls from the Soviet Union’s many dif­fer­ent eth­nic groups. The largest is a bearded Rus­sian peas­ant, fol­lowed by his wife in yel­low head­scarf, with fig­ures from Ukraine, Be­larus and the Cau­ca­sus and Cen­tral Asian na­tions pro­gres­sively smaller.

Un­der the Sovi­ets, the ma­tryoshka de­vel­oped into a mass-pro­duced sou­venir, and by the 1950s they all looked sim­i­lar — smil­ing and round-cheeked. “The ba­sic look of the mass-mar­ket, com­mer­cial type of ma­tryoshka be­came firmly fixed,” Ti­tova said.

But in the 1960s in the hey­day of Rus­sia’s space pro­gram, sev­eral dolls paid trib­ute to Yuri Ga­garin and other he­roes of early space ex­plo­ration.

One set of 10 dolls at the ex­hi­bi­tion wear yel­low space hel­mets and come in a rocket-shaped case.

In the late Soviet era, the dolls be­came more or­nate, with brighter col­ors and out­fits fea­tur­ing large, styl­ized flow­ers. The em­pha­sis was of­ten on larger dolls with many more in­side — 25 or more.

The largest known ma­tryoshka has 100 pieces, Ti­tova said — while a stan­dard ma­tryoshka only has six to eight.

But the ex­hi­bi­tion breaks off as ma­tryoshkas en­tered the post-Soviet era. “Up­dat­ing the col­lec­tion in the 1990s was dif­fi­cult,” Ti­tova said.

Dolls in Bal­a­clavas

Mass- pro­duced dolls to­day fea­ture sports teams or Rus­sian and Soviet lead­ers or pop stars, but most are still tra­di­tional.

“Ma­tryoshkas are nearly all the same,” said Py­otr Ko­zlov, a jour­nal­ist who de­signs ma­tryoshkas, selling them online un­der brand name Dux­ov­naya Skrepa.

His first de­sign was a mous­ta­chioed “rain­bow doll” painted in the col­ors of the gay pride flag.

He went on to cre­ate dolls wear­ing bright bal­a­clavas, inspired by Pussy Riot punk group. Group mem­ber Nadezhda Tolokon­nikova posted pic­tures of Ko­zlov’s dolls on her In­sta­gram.

“My idea was to try ... to cap­ture some trend — cul­tural, po­lit­i­cal or eco­nomic — that’s ap­pear­ing now and quickly cre­ate ma­tryoshkas,” he said.

Last year he cre­ated sev­eral dolls in cam­ou­flage, hel­mets and pa­tri­otic rib­bons, rep­re­sent­ing the Rus­sian forces in un­marked uni­forms who took over Crimea.

While the dolls should be “provoca­tive,” Ko­zlov said that they were meant “to present ob­jec­tively what is hap­pen­ing in Rus­sia.” “They are nei­ther for nor against.” Nev­er­the­less, he said, some top­ics are sim­ply too sen­si­tive. “There def­i­nitely won’t be any dolls about the Donetsk Peo­ple’s Re­pub­lic,” he said of Ukraine’s war- torn eastern sep­a­ratist re­gion.

“I think that’s a topic we’ll be work­ing through for a long time.”


A pic­ture taken on July 15 shows tra­di­tional Rus­sian wooden nest­ing ma­tryoshka dolls dis­played at an ex­hi­bi­tion in Moscow.

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