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Nesting Dolls (Matryoshkas)

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Nesting Dolls

When one thinks of Russia, the images that usually come to mind are bears, vodka, and the iconic yellow hammer and sickle on blood-red background motif. However, it is Russian nesting dolls, also known as matryoshka dolls or nesting dolls that have become one of the most recognizable symbols of Russia.

The very first Russian matryoshka doll set was carved in 1890 by Vasily Zvyozdochkin and hand painted by Sergey Malutin in the workshop, called "Children's Education," located in the Abramtsevo estate, outside Moscow. The owner of Abramtsevo was Savva Mamontov – an industrialist who was a notable patron of the arts. During the end of the 19th century, Russia experienced a zenith in the arts that was backed by the nobility, rich businessmen, and landowners. Mr. Mamontov was no exception. Savva Mamontov's wife presented the dolls at the 1900 Exposition Universalle in France, where the nesting doll earned the bronze medal. This promptly made the world fall in love with these cute, bubbly doll stacks, turning them into the archetype of THE Russian gift. Nobody knows exactly how the nesting doll came to be, but there exist many legends and myths that surround its conception. Some say that the artist and designer were inspired by the Furuma Japanese doll of a bald Buddhist monk that was brought from the island of Hoshu, Japan. Other legends contend that it is in fact based on the Japanese Daruma nesting doll. Some babushkas tell their children that both men (Zvyozdochkin and Malutin) were divinely inspired to create such an ecclesiastic and refined work of art. Zvyozdochkin and Malutin decided to design a doll that would convey the very core of the Russian dusha, or soul, which represents specific Russian cultural and artistic traditions to the world. But why the name matryoshka? The word matryoshka is based on the Russian name of Matryona (or Matryosha), which was one of the most popular female names if the 19th century Russia, emphasizing the fact that this doll represents all Russia women.  At a deeper level, for many, this name came to symbolize motherhood, fertility, and warm care, as at the root of the name Matryona, lies the Latin word “mater,” or mother. Finally, even the shape of this doll conveys the feeling of motherly love and safety, as it did for thousands of years, at least as far back as 26,000 years, which is evident by such archaeological discoveries as Venus of Willendorf, found in Austria, which exhibits the same general form of a very shapely female figure. It is of no surprise then, that in the most common nesting doll sets, the largest doll represents the mother and the smaller matryoshkas represent her children, portraying the typical Russian family, coming to symbolize, at the same time, some of the oldest human social structures – the closely-knit, compact, and interdependent organization of a family.

Through the years, nesting dolls have evolved to become a form of amazing folk art and a metaphorical representation of a multitude of other themes and motifs in Russian history and culture. As the production of nesting dolls spread across Russia, so did the styles that were used by artists to paint their dolls. The eventual range in styles included the famous in its own right, white and blue Gzhel porcelain designs, the world renowned Pavlovo Posad shawl and scarf designs, as well as caricatures of Russian families belonging to varying socio-economic classes such as peasants, nobles, merchants, farmers and laborers – people from all walks of life. The nesting dolls also portrayed notable figures such as the Imperial Family, boyars and their families, politicians, celebrities, musicians and other such acclaimed political and cultural personages.

Although the artistic design and popularity of Russian stacking dolls has greatly evolved through the decades, the methods that are used to produce them haven't changed at all since 1890. The process of making the dolls is very meticulous itself, and greatly relies on the woodturning skills of Russian craftsmen. Nesting dolls are usually made from oak or birch wooden blocks. Timber that is used to manufacture nesting dolls is cut down and stripped completely of its bark and stacked in piles in order to allow for air flow and proper conditioning of the wood. Once the craftsman determines that the wood is ready to be cut, the logs are then sawn into planks. The wood is then turned about 15 times in the hands of a turner before becoming a finished doll. At that stage, the blank dolls are hand-painted by specially trained artists with the brightest colors and the highest attention to detail. Due to the high amount of precision and the complexity of design that go into making nesting dolls, machines cannot be used at any stage of the process. In fact, it is the hard work, craftsmanship, and effort of both the artist and the wood carver that, through a process of almost magical metamorphosis, for over 100 years have come together to turn rough blocks of wood into the uniquely beautiful works of art, recognized the world over.

FromRussia.com and St. Petersburg Global Trade House are committed to offering nesting dolls of the highest caliber of quality. Our buyers travel directly to the producers in Russia to source the best dolls and ship them to North America, allowing us to monitor every step in the process of bringing these beautiful creations to the consumers, ensuring that every matryoshka doll we sell adheres to our high standards of quality, while keeping its prices down. Because we travel directly to the Russian nesting dollmakers, many of our matryoshkas are made to our custom specifications, making them even more unique. Russian nesting dolls make wonderful gifts, and are traditionally given on many special occasions such as weddings, baby showers, birthdays, and holidays, such as Christmas and Easter!  For many, matryoshkas are the epitome of true collectibles, becoming objects of lifelong obsession, wonder, and pride.

In the end, a matryoshka may not be the most expensive piece of art one could find in Russia, nor may it be the most beautiful.  But that is not the true purpose of this alluringly simple wooden doll, for it contains something that no physical object can ever replace – it contains a part of the soul of Russia.  Just like a nesting doll, the smooth and wide features visible on the surface, make it seemingly easy to experience all that was and that is this gigantic country with its limitless open spaces and its kind and generous people.  Opening the top layer, however, reveals the intricate, hidden Russia, the Russia that is almost unknown to outsiders. The deeper one delves into exploring it, the more of its mysteries come into the light, and this process continues into infinity.  And that is the real meaning and purpose behind each of the matryoshka dolls because the real treasure is not knowing everything, but spending a lifetime in the process of discovery.

Edited by Mikhail Kholodov
Additional Source: Wikipedia