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Matryoshka – is it really a Russian doll?

a group of colorful balloons

Matryoshka is the most favorite Slavic gift and souvenir from Russia, but not everyone knows the history of this toy.  It is not only a decoration or a souvenir. Keep reading to learn more about the history of these Russian gifts. 

What is Matryoshka? 

It is a set of seven wooden dolls of decreasing size, which are placed in each other, one after another.  Each is split in half in the middle and opens to reveal another smaller one embedded inside.  The traditional one is usually round and decoratively painted to resemble a pretty peasant woman with a young face, dressed in an extravagant costume, traditional Russian clothes.  As a rule, there is a painted scarf or kokoshnik and a floral ornament. Sometimes an artist “dresses” a nesting doll in a winter outfit – a short fur coat, a warm scarf, and even felt boots, possibly in order to protect it from the cold weather, characteristic of the well-known harsh and long winters of Russia. 

a group of colorful balloons

What are the origins of Russian nesting dolls?

It seems that this colorful toy has a rich history. In fact, the toy was made for the first time at the end of the XIX century in one of the Moscow workshops. The creator was an artist Sergey Malyutin.  Did you know that the Japanese doll was the prototype of the nesting doll? An outlandish little thing, inside of which there were six smaller dolls, was brought from Japan by the wife of Savva Mamontov – Elizabeth.  This complicated toy symbolized the “seven gods of happiness.”  Malyutin, having seen this overseas souvenir, decided to process it in a domestic way. The first set of nesting dolls consisted of eight items.  All the dolls were painted in different ways: among them, there were both girls and boys, and the smallest personified a baby in diapers.  The elder “sister” was holding a black rooster in her hands.  This set, painted by Malyutin, is now stored in the Toy Museum in Sergiev Posad.

a group of people standing in front of a cake

What do Russian nesting dolls symbolize?

The name Matrena was very popular previously in Russia.  When we hear this name, we usually imagine a mother of many children. This woman has a stout figure and wears the usual traditional clothes. The first handicraft of Sergey Malyutin became the embodiment of the most ancient symbol of Russian culture.
 In the Russian language, the word “matryoshka” is co-root with the word “mother.”  This means that the biggest toy represents the mother of a large family. It is a symbol of motherhood and bonds of several generations.  In fact, the largest one is a kind of protector, the shore of the whole family, a symbol of home, family comfort.  It is beautiful and elegant, bright, brilliant, radiating wealth and prosperity. It symbolizes not only prosperity, but it is also a symbol of life, procreation, family unity.

a group of colorful balloons

Where can you find the largest Russian doll? 

Despite the fact that Russia is considered the homeland of the nesting dolls, the largest is located in the Chinese city of Manchuria.  There’s a real center of traditional Russian art. In the center of the park, there is the nesting doll, whose height is more than 30m.  It depicts Chinese, Mongolian, and Russian girls.  This place symbolizes Sino-Mongolian-Russian friendship.  After all, the Chinese city of Manchuria is located at the intersection of Russia and Mongolia. This building is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest nesting doll.  

a group of people flying kites in the sky

Many tourists certainly want to buy this wooden colorful toy as a gift, because it is certainly associated with Russian folk art. However, today in souvenir shops you can find many types of this toys.

What are the types of Matryoshkas?

 Vyatskaya matryoshka

It is the most northern of those that exist at the moment.  In the sixties of the 20th century, this matryoshka was one of the most popular. A distinctive feature of Vyatka painting is the use of special techniques.  One of these can be called painting with boiled rye straw.

a group of toy figurines

Sergievo- Posadskaya matryoshka

  A distinctive feature of this type of nesting doll is that the technology of wood burning is used, and after that, the matryoshka is covered with gold paint.

a close up of food

Semyonovskaya Matryoshka 

One of the main modern industries, where all products are painted by hand, is located in the Nizhny Novgorod region in the city of Semenov.

The most beautiful nesting dolls are made here. A distinctive feature is the Khokhloma painting.  The use of floral patterns, a combination of gold, black and red colors allows you to create small masterpieces from each nesting doll.

a group of kids posing for a photo

Now painted wooden doll is not just a folk toy, it has become a traditional present and the keeper of the original culture. It is a Russian beauty, a gift well-known throughout the world. 

Where to buy Matryoshka in Moscow?

You can find matryoshka in souvenir markets that are usually located near Red Square and during various city festivals on Moscow boulevards. Matryoshkas are also sold in souvenir shops in museums of Moscow. If you are looking for antiques, matryoshka with a history we recommend you to visit Izmailovo Flea Market. It’s a bit far from the center of Moscow, but you may find there all kinds of souvenirs from ushankas (special Russian fur hat with “ears”) to balalaikas.  Read our article about shopping for antiques and flea markets in Moscow.