Who is Matryoshka?

Matryoshka (матрёшка) is a traditional Russian souvenir, most popular among foreign guests to Russia as well as the Russians themselves. Lots of people are familiar with the “Russian doll” but not many know the history behind it.

The official story of origin

Matryoshka was invented in 1890s. Its prototype was the chiselled figure of one of Japanese Seven Lucky Gods, Fukurokuju, which was brought from the island of Honshu to the Abramtsevo estate near Moscow, owned by Savva Mamontov – industrialist and philanthropist. It is believed that Fukurokuju, a bald elderly man, stands for happiness, prosperity and wisdom. The statuette of the god depicted a wise man with a big forehead, deep in thoughts. His head was detachable, and inside the statuette was a smaller figure, which also consisted of two halves. In total there were five of them.

The creators of the very first matryoshka are believed to be the craftsmen in Mamontov’s workshop – Vasily Zvezdochkin and Sergey Malyutin. When Malyutin saw Fukurokuju, he was intrigued and decided to do something similar but portraying Russian culture. Zvezdochkin has carved the first matryoshka, whereas Malyutin depicted a girl in a summer dress (сарафан) and a headscarf, holding a black rooster. The toy consisted of eight statuettes: a girl then a boy, then a girl again etc. All of them were different in some way from each other, and the last, the eighth, represented a baby wrapped in diapers. This very first matryoshka is now in the Toy Museum in Sergiev Posad.

The history behind the name

There is an abundance of theories that talk the origin of  “Matrysohka” name. One of them is that in provincial pre-revolutionary Russia, the name Matryona was a very popular female name. It derives from the Latin word «matrona» – in ancient Rome, the name of a free-born married woman with a good reputation and belonging to the upper class of a society. In the pre-revolutionary Russia though, people associated it with the word “mother”, and not just mother but one with a large family, in good health and with a burly figure. Subsequently, the name Matryona (and hence Matryoshka) acquired a symbolic meaning and was used specifically to describe brightly coloured wooden dolls made in such a way that one was inside the other. The mother-doll with numerous daughters-dolls perfectly expressed the oldest symbol of human culture and a symbol of motherhood and fertility.

Rise to fame

The end of the nineteenth century was a period when the Russian artistic intelligentsia began to seriously engage in collecting works of folk art and comprehend national artistic traditions. The Interest in matryoshkas is also explained by the originality of their forms and the decorative painting.

Up until the end of the 90s of the nineteenth century, matryoshkas were made in the Mamontov’s workshop “Child Education”, and after its closing, their production and craftsmanship was mastered in Sergiev Posad, an old centre for toys manufacturing. It was Sergiev Posad, where the mass production of these toys soon began.

In 1900, Russian dolls were introduced at the exhibition in Paris, where they received world recognition and a medal. It was also the time when everything Russian was very popular thanks to the Ballets Russes of Diaghilev in Paris. The rest, as they say, is history.

Team EBC