The History of Russian Nesting Dolls

Traditional Russian Matryoshka Traditional Russian Matryoshka

Known by many names: nesting dolls, matryoshka dolls, babushka dolls, nested dolls, stacking dolls, Russian Nesting Dolls have captured the attention of children, adults, doll enthusiasts, and art collectors across the globe. From their introduction to the world at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900, to the modern day, the almost deceptively simple concept of a set of smaller dolls nestled within larger dolls has endured not only as a popular children's toy, or a collectible decoration, but as an icon synonymous with Russian culture.

Symbolism and meaning behind nesting dolls

Given their unique shape, illustration, and caricature people often associate nesting dolls with various things. The meaning of nesting dolls that one commonly hears of is maternal in nature. The outer doll is considered the mother from whom the smaller dolls spring like children.

However there are frequently other interpretations. One meaning of nesting dolls attributed to the layering pattern is of plurality, where each layer represents a different part of our personalities. Yet another common meaning of nesting dolls is that of rebirth or constant change, where the shedding of one layer reveals the next which is a new "fresh" version of the previous.

The interesting history of the nesting dolls

Russian nesting dolls history spans time and geography. Though the nesting doll of today is a uniquely Russian construct its origins date back to China at the turn of the first millennium. The Chinese crafted nesting boxes, or sets of multiple containers which featured a large box with several smaller boxes of diminishing size inside. Used for both storage and display these boxes date back to the Song Dynasty in 1000 AD; roughly 800 later the Chinese would apply the recursive theme of the boxes to dolls, giving birth to the world's first nesting doll.

The first Chinese nesting dolls were similar to the dolls popular today. The largest doll would open up to reveal a smaller set of dolls, but unlike the Russian variety, the smallest of the set would hold a single grain of rice inside. The idea would soon emigrate to Japan where the concept would be applied to the Shichi-Fukujin, or the Seven Lucky Gods. In Japan sets of wooden dolls were made into the image of Fukurojuro, the Japanese god of happiness, and longevity, and would open up in a nested fashion to reveal the six other Lucky Gods. Legend has it that the first of such dolls was crafted by a Russian monk. One can speculate that this monk may have been inspired by the tale of a golden statue depicting the sky god Jumala worshiped by ancient settlers in the foothills of Russia's Ural Mountains. Myths claim the statue opened up to reveal smaller golden idols. Regardless of whether this monk or this statue have ever existed, the Japanese doll soon caught the eye of the wife of a man named Savva Mamontov.

Portrait of Savva Mamontov Portrait of Savva Mamontov

Savva Mamontov was a wealthy Russian patron of the arts who surrounded himself with artists enthused by the idea of creating and reviving traditional Russian folk art. The idea of a national identity, and preserving the history of Russian culture appealed to Mamontov who founded a Children's Education Workshop in Moscow. The workshop was opened with the intent to create children's dolls highlighting traditional themes of Russian cultures. At the workshop, after hearing from Mamotov's wife of the Japanese Doll, Sergei Maliutin a member of Mamontov's circle of artists was inspired. The idea of nested objects was not necessarily new to Russia, the Chinese boxes had made their way into the country long ago, and the first Faberge Egg crafted in 1885 featured the nested theme of a hen inside of a yolk inside of a enameled gold egg, but Sergie Malytunin's new idea would take this concept and turn it into a symbol, a symbol not just of ingenuity like the Chinese boxes, or a symbol wealth like Fabrege's Eggs, but a symbol of Russia itself. This is the genesis of the Russian nesting dolls history.

The First Matyroshka Doll Doll carved by Zvezdochkin, painted by Malyutin

Malytunin sketched his idea for the doll and enlisted the help of accomplished lather V, Zveydochin to craft the dolls. The first set was made of linden wood, and painted in subtle earth tones by Maliutin himself, the dolls were dubbed, "Matryoshka." The popular female name of the time Matryona, which was derived from the Latin root "mater" or mother, was the inspiration for the dolls title. It was a fitting name for a round motherly figure wearing a sarafijin and an apron from which other dolls emerged. Inside the largest doll were a set of 7 others, six girls and a boy all carrying symbols of Russian peasantry such as scythes, hens, or bowls. The female dolls all wore babushkas, or kerchiefs on their head, and the smallest doll was a baby wearing a diaper. The dolls were all decorated in a way which formed themes still found on many nesting dolls today. This set of pioneering matryoshki are still on display at the Museum of Toys in Zagorsk.

How are Nesting Dolls Made? The Construction

Just as the perfect painting requires the right canvas, or the perfect photograph requires the right film, the perfect nesting doll requires the perfect wood. The life of a Nesting doll starts long before it is opened up by a child, or a collector, it starts before it's lacquered, or before it's skillfully lathed, the life of the nesting doll starts –like an innumerable number of other products– as a tree. However not just any tree will meet the requirements; its wood must be of a fine grain, to preserve its shape, and it must take well to various climates so the dolls can be enjoyed not just in their native Russia but wherever the wide market for the matryoshka reaches. To meet the demand of this ever increasing market the wood most not only be durable, but it must be easy to work with and soft, so that is able to be shaped quickly without cracking. With these specifications in mind the majority of artists and craftspeople choose the linden tree as their canvas of choice for the nesting dolls.

Wood for making nesting dolls Wood for making nesting dolls

First the linden tree is felled, the branches are stripped, and the majority of the bark is removed. The remains of the tree are then cured to prevent damage to the wood. The length the wood is cured for depends on the weather, and the method by which the logs are stored. The curing process can range from under a year to over three tears. Improper preparations can result in a brittle, warp-able, or discolored wood.

After the wood is has been deemed suitable to work with it is cut into blocks and then taken to a worker who will use a lathe to carve out the shape of the doll. One block of wood is used to create the bottom of one large doll, and a separate block is used to create the top of one large doll, another block is used to create the top of the second largest doll, and so on and so forth. A five piece set will actually require nine pieces of wood; 8 for the four larger dolls, and a single block for the baby doll which does not open. Dimensions of these blocks vary depending on the desired sizes of the dolls.

Process of carving nesting doll Process of carving nesting doll

The construction process itself has changed very little since Maliutin and Zveydochin crafted the first set of dolls at the turn of the 20th century. The blocks of wood are first put onto a lathe. The artist then takes a gouge, or a long curved chisel, and carves out the inside of the bottom half of a doll. Next the outside of the doll (the side which is to be painted later) is shaped using a straight chisel or knife. Then using this half of a doll as a sizing guide, the inside of the top half is gouged out from the next block of wood. Finally the outside of the top half is carved out using the same process. The average lathe operator can craft approximately 50 single dolls a day, which translates into roughly 50 sets of five piece dolls in a week. Amazingly, throughout this entire whole process most measurements are done by eye. The creation of one doll is used as a basis for the size of the other dolls in the set, however occasionally a tool called a caliber is used to ensure the dolls are the correct height.

Nested Doll Art, Designs, and Themes

This whole process of course only yields a half-finished product. There is a market for zagotovki, or blank, unpainted nesting dolls, however most of the allure of the dolls comes from their paint scheme. Nesting dolls are all garnished with splashes of individual charm, and the dolls' pallet of colors, designs, motifs, and themes all vary depending on the region in which they are produced.

Artist is painting nesting dolls Artist is painting nesting dolls

Although the dolls were conceived in Moscow, their adopted home for the early years of their production was most certainly the city of Sergiev Posad, found about 50 miles north-east of Russia's capital. Sergiev Posad's workshops were responsible for introducing the nesting doll to the world at the the Paris World Exhibition in 1900. Typically painted with subdued earth tones using an opaque form of watercolor paint called gouche, the Sergiev Posad nesting dolls inspired many of the themes that are still present in the modern matryoshka. Nesting dolls, like the original sets created by Maliutin and Zveydochin, featuring traditional marks of peasantry such as scythes, hens, and baskets were popularized in Sergiev Posad. Nowadays, political nesting dolls, from Russian and Soviet leaders to American Presidents, are a popular commodity, this theme originated in Sergiev Posad when the 100 year anniversary of Russian victory over France was marked by dolls featuring Russian Field Marshall Mikhail Kutuzov. The doll opened up to reveal other military leaders whose position in the military hierarchy was symbolized by the size of the doll. Popular culture, including various cartoon characters, and celebrities, are another inspiration for nesting dolls, this too originated in Sergiev Posad in 1912 with a doll honoring the works of famed Russian author, and master of the short story Nikolai Gogol. From popular animals, to fairy tales, to satirical caricatures, if you see a nesting doll anywhere, chances are it has evolved from a humble origin at the hands of workers and artists in Sergiev Posad.

Despite the innovation attributed to the artists of Sergiev Posad, if you were asked to conjure up an image of a traditional nesting doll the chances are you would envision a creation from the town of Semyonov. Surround by thick forests roughly 300 miles north-east of Moscow, the town of Semyonov is credited as the birthplace of Khokhloma painting. Khokhloma is a traditional Russian form of painting which features freehand brushstrokes and depicts a barrage of berries, birds, and leaves arranged at the discretion of the artist. This highly individual artistic method helped create a type of nesting doll where no two feature the exact same design. The typical Semyonov matryoshka, or Red Roses as some people call it, unlike most dolls of its kind are crafted from birch wood as opposed to linden. The most popular of the variety depict a woman with dark hair, donning a red or yellow kokoshnik, or head dress, with a pattern or random arrangements of swirls or spirals on it. These swirls, created by a curled up piece of fabric dipped in paint, not only add to the distinct look of each doll, but also cover up any imperfections in the wood. Each doll also features a uniquely arranged and asymmetrical pattern of roses colored with aniline paints. These dolls with faces so simply painted, yet so full of character, grace the shelves of many a serious collector; each its own personality, and each its own work of art.

Along their path across Asia into Russia, from their journey from the forests to the factories, the nesting doll has acquired as many unique themes and incarnations as it has admirers. Whether as a decoration or as a toy, whether a reproduction of the works of a great artist like Kustodiev, or a simple light haired doll depicting a young girl in the northern village of Kirov, whether you call it a nesting doll or a matryoshka, this wooden novelty emanates an aura of individuality, charm, and culture, that although popularized by the minds of the Russians, has served to put a smile on the face of the community international.


Ertil, Rett & Hibberd, Rick The Art of The Russian Matryoshka. Boulder, Colorado: Vernissage Press LLC, 2003. 330 Pages.

Leftkoviz, Michelle Lyons, A Collector's Guide to Nesting Dolls. Histories, Identification, Values. Florence, Alabama: Books Americana Inc, 1989. 173 pages.

Marder, Marina & Soloviova Larissa, Russian Matryoshka. Moscow: J.V Interbook, 1992. 63 Pages.

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