Russian Nesting Doll Themes in Modern Times

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Nesting dolls became a Russian folk art staple in the early 1900s thanks to artisans, monks, and art patrons living at Sergiev Posad, a city 74 km (46 miles) north of Moscow.

In the same year, the nesting doll received international acclaim when Savva Mamontov’s spouse presented the dolls at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. But what has changed since then? This article explores the Russian nesting doll and what they look like in the year 2021.

What are nesting dolls?

Nesting dolls are sets of hollow wooden dolls placed one in another, from the most miniature doll to its largest. According to historians, the Russian nesting doll originated from its Japanese counterpart—the Fukurokuju dolls. However, this fact is widely disputed by Slavophilic historians who believe that Sergey Malyutin—the architect of the first Russian nesting doll—was inspired by Russian nesting eggs.

What are other names for nesting dolls?

Contrary to common opinion, the name ‘Matryoshka’ does not translate to nesting dolls in Russian. While Matryoshka is the official name of nesting dolls in the Russian language, it is a derivative of ‘Matryona,’ which means Matron or mother.

The first Russian nested dolls depicted a mother and her seven kids, establishing the connection between the Russian nesting doll and motherhood or fertility.

Western foreigners often call them Babushka dolls, and in Montessori classrooms, they’re known as stacking dolls.

How are Nesting dolls made?

Nesting dolls are often made from linden, birch, or basswood tree—usually cut down around April every year. The tree’s barks are removed and wiped off with sap to stop the wood from splitting. The logs are then stacked in piles so that air can circulate in and around them for some years until they are ripened enough for doll making.

Every Russian nesting doll set is created from the same block of wood.

First, the wood is placed on a lather and turned. The woodturner carves out the smallest doll, followed by the lower and upper halves of the next largest doll, till this block is exhausted.

The blank nesting dolls are then cleaned with glue and oil to smoothen the dolls’ surfaces—this helps create a beautiful painting surface that is less prone to staining and dries quickly.

The second stage involves painting and varnishing the nesting dolls. Authentic nesting dolls from Russia are hand-painted by skilled artists—descendants of original Matryoshka artists or college-educated talents. In the past, Russian artists used aniline dyes and oil-based paints, but the use of watercolors and water-based paints is widespread today.

Some artists go as far as using gold-leaf, precious stones, and crystals when adorning a nesting doll. After painting and decorating are done, a lacquerer applies varnish to protect the doll’s design from the elements.

Nesting Doll Themes in Modern Times:

Nesting dolls have changed a lot since the 1900s. From the floral design of traditional nested dolls to surrealism in nesting dolls, we’ll take a look at what Russian nested dolls look like today.

Movie-themed Nesting Dolls

Traditional Russian nesting dolls depicted peasant women and their children. However, many other matryoshka themes appeared and became more popular.

Movie-themed nesting dolls are as common as Hollywood blockbusters released in cinemas worldwide. You can find nesting dolls depicting characters from the Star Wars franchise, Studio Ghibli animated movies, the Chronicles of Narnia, and so on: the list is endless.

Movie-themed nesting dolls are also a good way of commemorating a movie-watching experience, making them more than just ordinary merchandise. One Redditor bought a Star Wars nesting doll in remembrance of viewing the very first star wars movie in the cinemas with his dad, who has now passed.

Popular art-themed Nesting Dolls

The latest Nesting doll idea appears to be depicting popular art pieces on Matryoshka dolls. We’ve seen nesting dolls portraying Salvador Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory,’ Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss,’ and doll designs inspired by Pablo Picasso’s surrealism.

Surprisingly, this nesting doll theme is a unifying front for some art natures—wood sculpture, canvas, and miniature painting. Although initial types of popular art-themed nesting dolls depict carbon copies of famous art pieces, the trend seems to favor individual takes on these notable works of art.

Ballet, Nativity, Fairy Tales

Matryoshka dolls depicting Tchaikovsky’s nutcracker ballet, the nativity of Christ, and fairytales like Alice’s adventure in wonderland, are becoming bestsellers on western marketplaces. 

Nesting dolls for Kids and Toddlers

Nesting dolls were originally made as toys for kids in Russia. They only became luxurious collectibles in 1968, when artists improved on the traditional peasant costume—creating very detailed and decorative nesting dolls.

So it’s not a surprise that this unique piece of Russian heritage has seeped into the international toy market.

Nesting dolls for toddlers come in bright colors, featuring cartoons and animals. They’re made of beech, linden, basswood and are always appropriately sanded before being covered with toxin-free paints.

Unlike their traditional counterpart, nesting dolls for kids are devoid of any crystals or other pointed details that could harm a toddler.

Going back to a simpler time

Even though the world has changed a lot since Russian nesting dolls appeared in the late 1890s; they are reminiscent of older traditional times.

Today, these beautiful dolls adorn bookshelves, playspaces, and fireplaces in homes in places as diverse as Moscow, London, Tokyo, Cairo, Buenos Aires, and New York.

What are your favorite nesting doll designs? Let us know in the comments below.

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