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About the Author Greetings! This is me when I was 3. And, as you can see from the photo, I was very happy when playing with my dolls. Decades later, dolls still hold a fond place in my heart. I have created DollKind in order to publish my doll history research articles and to share my enjoyment of dolls with you.

  closeup image of Nesting Doll Face

Nesting Doll, Matroishka, Matryoshka or Stacking Doll - Whatever We Call Them, We Love Them!

The history of this favorite plaything of children and gem of doll collectors begins in 1899 in Sergiev Posad, a town a small distance from Moscow, Russia. This region of Russia has been known for it's toymaking for centuries, and popular legend has it that a nesting doll was brought to this place from Japan, just before the turn of the 20th century, and the local toymakers took immediate inspiration from the idea. Both the downfall of the Tsarist regime and the beginnings of the industrial revolution contributed to the Russian nobility looking for the first time at peasants as real artisans. When industrialization threatened to replace the folk art of this nation, the Matryoshka doll succeeded in unifying the unique Russian folk style of painting with the wood working tools of an increasingly mechanized age.

Here in the USA, you will most commonly find reference to these carved and painted sets of dolls as Nesting Dolls. The correct word in Russian in Matryoshka - which relates to the root word Mat, meaning Mother. You may also encounter this word being spelled Matreshka and Matrioshka. The correct plural of Matryoshka is Matryoshki, but here in America, we often use our familiar system of plurals and simply say Matryoshkas. Apart from the familiar appellation Nesting Dolls, it is common to find these dolls being labeled Stacking Dolls, or even Pull-em-apart Dolls.

example of Russian Easter Egg

The Russian craftsmen were expert lathe operators and had been making their beautiful nesting Easter eggs for generations before the first nesting doll supposedly was brought to Russia from Japan by a merchant or traveler. The move from making egg-shaped objects to doll-shaped ones was a natural step. It is asserted by nesting doll historians that the very first Russian stacking doll was painted by a peasant named Sergei Malyutin. The aristocracy so loved the first matryoshka dolls that they began to sponsor their production and founded workshops and toyshops for this purpose. The photo shown to the right here is of a Russian Easter Egg, featuring the famed icon of the Madonna of Vladimir. Though this is not an actual stacking egg, it beautifully captures the tradition of telling stories through painted wood carvings that was to become a major hallmark of the nesting doll in years to come.

The process of burning designs into wood was used on Easter eggs for a complex, raised effect. This skill carried over into the making of nesting dolls in the early years of their creation.

Nesting Doll image, traditional, Sergiev Posad

Early Nesting Dolls

The first matryoshkas / matryoshki came in sets of 3, 6 or 8 dolls. The doll reputed to be the first ever Russian nesting doll depicted a peasant woman, and this style was to become known as the Sergiev Posad Matryoshka style. Wearing the traditional folk costume of head scarf and apron, and often carrying some familiar object in her hand such as a chicken or a basket, it is this very simple style of wooden nesting dolls that is most familiar to us to this day. The photograph to the right shows a beautiful, modern example of the traditional Sergiev Posad style of nesting dolls. Each doll in this large 20 piece set holds a strawberry in her hands. The largest of the dolls in 9" in height and the baby of the family is so tiny, she is hardly there at all! The bottom of this set of nesting dolls is signed by a present day artist who is carrying on the tradition of this historic toymaking region of Russia.

Early Matryoshka dolls were made both in the familiar 'human' form, but also in the shapes of tubes, bells and bottles. Though most were made as toys and ornaments, some were also made as caricatures of religious figures who were rapidly falling out of favor with the Bolshevik regime.

By 1911, the city of Sergiev Posad had 41 Matrioshka workshops, and when the dramatic revolution came to pass in Russia in 1917, the ban on the import of toys from other countries only increased the importance of nesting dolls. Unfortunately, the ensuing political takeover of the country by Josef Stalin had less happy consequences for artisans. All of the workshops were consolidated into a single master production center - the Sergiev Posad Handcraft-Industrial Artel. Dollmakers were no longer free to paint whatever they might fancy in the way of Matryoshka subjects. They were given orders to craft only the traditional peasant woman style of nesting dolls and such strict guidelines were unfortunate inhibitors to the creativity that is so essential to genuine folk art. A very settled and uniform style of dolls was the end result of Stalin's rule.

image illustrating the historical similarity of nesting dolls through the ages

World War II saw a increase in the production of the nesting doll. The Russian government saw that this little doll had come to symbolize something important to the Russian people. At a time when patriotism and culture seemed the vital issues of the day, a second major dollmaking center was opened - the Zagorsk Artistic-Production Workshop. A third, the Factory of Toys and Cultural items, opened in 1947. Little by little, across the decades, further dollmaking centers arose throughout Russia, and though the dolls made in the east do possess a characteristic 'Asian' look to them, for the most part, nesting dolls produced between 1920s - 1980's have a remarkable sameness.

Example of Political Nesting Dolls from Russia

Perestroika and the rise of the unique Nesting Doll

Glasnost, meaning openness was the slogan of the new Russia of the 1990's. During this period, two art markets, not government-sanctioned, were allowed to appear in Bitsevsky Park and Izmailovsky Park. The loosening of the government's hold on the people resulted in a new creativity emerging in Russia, and the introduction of the famous Gorby Matryoshka doll truly served to break ties with past history. This nesting doll, depicting a somewhat irreverent image of Mikhail Gorbachev, was a hit with the Russian people and was widely copied by nesting doll makers all over the country. The image shown at left illustrates how this newfound love of political satire has continued to be a popular theme with Matrioshka artists, and the appearance of the first Gorby doll opened the floodgates for dollmakers. A whole new world of nesting dolls arose out of this time of struggle and change.

Grandfather Frost and Snegurochka Nesting Dolls

Popular themes of modern Matryoshka Dolls

Some of the most beautiful dolls that began appearing in the new Russia depicted the folk tales and fairy tales beloved by the Russian people. Extensive use was made of the middle part of the doll, acting as a window onto special scenes from these old stories. Princes and princesses, the strange old woman, Baba Yaga, and various enchanted animals appear in these cameos of beauty and color. Exquisite gold leaf embellishments adorn the scarves, jewelry and clothing of the dolls, giving them a jewel-like quality. To the right, we see a nice example of a 5 piece set of wooden nesting dolls painted to represent the two traditional Christmas/New Year's characters of Russia.The figure that resembles our Santa Claus is their Grandfather Frost, and the woman is Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden. The winter theme is completed with a snowman, a penguin and a bear.

If you enjoy collecting Russian nesting dolls, researching the basic themes of Russian folk tales will truly enhance your understanding and appreciation of the many fantasy-themed stacking dolls that are produced today. Chances are, the children's section of your local library will be able to provide you with a collection of these interesting and unusual stories.

Russian Icon Nesting Dolls image

Perhaps, for me, the most touching of all nesting dolls are the ones that display the historic religious icons of Russia. The example shown here on the left is quite a stunning one of this particular artform and features the Mother and Child, Jesus Christ and important patron saints. Some of the icons these images are based upon are said to predate the Dark Ages. My study of the history of this country has always left me with the feeling that the Russian people have known more of their share of troubles because of the maneuverings of their political leaders down the centuries. War, revolution and severe oppression are the recurring themes in the story of this distant land.

During communist rule, the government declared it illegal to believe in God. Just like that. This caused untold psychological stress for the older Russian citizens who had grown up in a faith-based country. I have read tales of old grandmothers hiding small altars in their closets at home, worshipping in secret, knowing that their actions would be considered punishable criminal ones by their government. Christianity was kept alive in Russia by means of underground activities like these and the older generation tried, in many cases, to pass on something of the former life to their children. Thus, it touches my heart to see religious icons depicted so beautifully on Matryoshka dolls since the downfall of communism in 1991. I see them and I think of those devout grandmothers' prayers.

Dog Breed Nesting Doll example

Nesting doll makers are keeping up with the times, as well, and the sample shown at right of a popular dog breed painted over the basic shape of a doll is a perfect example of how artisans are attempting to fill and create new collectors' markets. Whether your favorite dog breed is the Poodle, the Pug or the Pomeranian, chances are, you can find a Matryoshka that celebrates man's best friend to your exact taste! Wild animals have also become popular themes for these dolls as modern people learn to place a greater value on the natural world. And, for pop art fans, you will find rock stars and other famous figures adorning sets of stacking dolls. The long and unique history of Russia and its people has resulted in a form of doll that is unlike any other.

How Matryroshka Dolls Are Made

All nesting dolls begin with two pieces of wood. The better dolls are made of sturdy linden wood and the cheaper stacking dolls are made of more brittle birch wood. People often incorrectly assume that this doll would be created by carving it from one branch and then cutting it in two down the middle, but such is not the case. The lip that fits the dolls together necessitates both pieces to be created separately. Whether highly automated or worked by hand, a split, cured log is turned on a lathe that smoothes the wood. The smooth piece is then further turned on a lathe and shaped by the craftsperson with a curved chisel called a gouge.

Traditional Russian Stacking Dolls

The blank dolls are then rubbed with a liquid starch that seals the wood. The primed nesting dolls are then presented to the painters. At the present time, there is an extremely wide variety in the setup of doll making operations. There are tremendous factories where the dolls are painted by an assembly line of workers. One paints outlines. The next fills in colors. The next might do the face, or gold leaf work. Then, there are backyard operations being run by families where the husband does the lathing and the wife does the painting. Flowers are the most common embellishment of Matryoshka dolls, particularly stylized roses, but today's nesting doll artisans are free to create whatever seems most beautiful or interesting to the individual creator.

The final step in the making of a nesting doll is the application of lacquer. This is what seals and protects the paint and gives these dolls their distinctive sheen. Lacquering is done by hand whether the operation is on a large or small scale, and top quality art Matryoshka dolls are carefully lacquered with numerous coats applied with a fine brush.

Collectors' Value of Nesting Dolls

Matryoshka collectors commonly refer to these dolls as mats and you are likely to encounter this term when trying to identify a particular doll in order to gain a sense of its present value. Both doll size and the number of pieces in a nesting doll set are important factors.

Though one encounters simple 3 piece sets, nesting dolls sets of 5 and 7 pieces are most common. Dolls with more than 20 pieces are more valuable than the inexpensive typical sets and the largest recorded Matryoshka doll set was produced by the Semyonov doll factory. It contains 72 pieces! So, the more complex the toy, the more one can expect to see it take at auction.

6" seems to be the median size for typical Matryoshki from most factories. Price at auction will go up when one is dealing with either very tiny dolls, called Micromats or with very large ones. In terms of overall shape, you will encounter both potbellied and more slender dolls, as well as egg-shaped, conical and bell-shaped dolls.

Because of the nearly century long enforcement of dolls being made to conform to government standards, dating and identifying nesting dolls from the 20th century will require an expert, if you need complete accuracy. Very old, museum-quality dolls do appear from time to time at auction and in such cases, value can be tremendous, particularly with the right audience. Many best quality dolls feature burned wood designs that add to the texture and intricacy of the doll.

A few final notes on Matryoshka dolls and their relatives

Perhaps it is the seemingly limitless creativity one encounters in the painting of these dolls that leads doll lovers to mistakenly assume that all painted, wooden, Russian nesting dolls are called Matryoshki. I thought it would be helpful to provide a small clarification here.

If you have a doll that does not come apart, is shaped like a bell and rings when shaken, this is a Nevalyashka. An extremely complex metal mechanism inside the body weights the doll and causes it to jingle. Like a familiar American toy from the 1960's, the Weeble, Nevalyashki dolls wobble but don't fall down. You will sometimes, in fact, find these dolls listed as Russian wooden weebles, or roly-polys.

The term Babushka (meaning Grandmother) is often incorrectly applied to regular Matryoshkas. However, a Babushka is a very specific type of wooden doll that comes apart in the following way: the large grandmother doll opens to reveal three non-nested smaller dolls - the daughters. Each of these daughter dolls opens to reveal a set of three tinier non-nested dolls. These, of course, are the grandchildren. This type of doll is properly called a Babushka.

In addition to the many wooden dolls described and depicted above, you will encounter wonderful novelty items such as globes filled with small, non-nested people of all nations, or nesting dolls that serve like acts in a play, each successive one depicting the next part of a tale. You may find little wooden houses that open to reveal sets of elves and a tiny ball to play bowling with, using the elves as the pins. Or, nesting dolls that have a surprise object as the final doll - a teapot, a golden egg, a Christmas tree ornament. It is the variety of these modern dolls that makes them so exciting to collectors.

In conclusion, nesting dolls can be an excellent choice for the beginning doll collector to get started with. Though inexpensive dolls may never have much market value, they are still extremely ornamental and a pleasure to own, and the truly fine dolls created by the master craftsman are worthy of being the showpiece of your home.

In conclusion, nesting dolls can be an excellent choice for the beginning doll collector to get started with. Though inexpensive dolls may never have much market value, they are still extremely ornamental and a pleasure to own, and the truly fine dolls created by the master craftsman are worthy of being the showpiece of your home.

Permission to display many of the images shown on this page graciously granted by Russian Traditions, an eBay store specializing in Nesting Dolls.