The Matryoshka Doll in Russian Culture

To non-Russians, the matryoshka, or nesting doll, is one of the most quintessential representations of traditional Russian peasant life. It appears to foreign eyes as a relic of quaint serf culture. Surprisingly, however, the matryoshka is barely one hundred years old.

The first matryoshka, created in 1892, very much resembles the matryoshkas found in gift shops worldwide today. It is a small wooden doll, almost perfectly cylindrical, painted to resemble a peasant woman in a traditional sarafan dress holding a rooster. She opens to reveal a smaller doll, which opens in turn to reveal yet another doll, and so on. In total, there are seven dolls in addition to the mother doll; they consist of five girls dressed in similar fashion, a boy doll, and a tiny baby at the center. Each doll wears brightly colored clothing (though now faded with age) and bears a small smile, pink cheeks, blonde hair, and a headscarf (“First”).

This matryoshka was a product of a reflourishing of Russian arts. The late nineteenth century in Russia witnessed a decrease in toy production using Russian materials, so royal figures and other upper-class members of society began encouraging further production via the patronage system (Lodder 399). Princess Maria Tenisheva was a major figure in the Russian production revival, as she set up a system of workshops at her estate Talashkino. From 1900 to 1905, the workshops were more or less a utopia of happily employed peasants (Salmond 11). One such peasant was a man by the name of Sergei Malyutin, who painted the first matryoshka at the behest of patron Savva Mamontov. Mamontov’s brother Anatoly, the owner of a toy shop, had seen similar dolls while on a visit to Japan and became fascinated with the nesting concept. Toymakers in the leading toy centers of Sergiev Posad and Semyonov swiftly began producing matryoshkas (Roosevelt).

The dolls soon became a major export as a Russian souvenir. Non-Russian buyers believed they were authentic handmade folk art, representing an “ancient mother goddess of Siberian peoples” (Hilton 127). Yet although they were in fact mass-produced, this belief was close to the truth — many of the Russian peasant factory workers crafted and painted the matryoshkas (the name itself related to мать, the Russian word for “mother”) as a representation of Mother Russia (Salmond 10). As Joanna Hubbs puts it in Mother Russia, “the Matrioshka (sic) doll … is debased, a souvenir of the motherland sold to tourists … her archaic significance forgotten. And yet … her iconographic presence … express[es] a mythology of maternity” (237). In essence, the matryoshka doll still holds the unique symbolism of Russian patriotic feeling even as it is produced for tourists worldwide.

Today, Russian feelings toward matryoshkas are divided. While some dolls are carefully handmade, most continue to be made in factories. They are even more cheaply made than before, and “reduced to the lowest level of schlock and kitsch,” according to sociologist George Ritzer (204). Recently it has become fashionable to create matryoshkas of nearly any possible subject — including a set of dolls depicting Russian leaders like Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Josef Stalin. This set was, in fact, banned in Moscow for misrepresenting the Russian spirit, considered “vulgar, unethical, and degrading” (“Not” 8).

Although the nesting dolls are most commonly associated with Russia, they have a counterpart in Japanese culture. These are the wooden dolls known as kokeshi on which Anatoly Mamontov had based the original matryoshkas. They are tall and slender rather than rounded, but one is still able to find nesting kokeshi. In the same vein as the matryoshka’s representation of the mother, the kokeshi represents the child. In fact, parents who have lost a child will often receive kokeshi dolls as gifts (“Kokeshi”).

Despite matryoshkas’ recognizability, they are not commonly used in literature or film. Rather, the matryoshka is more likely to be seen as a metaphor for something nesting inside something else. Melissa Green does just this in her poem “Matryoshka.” She references the poem’s title in the line, “A Russian doll encloses / independent clauses.” She then uses a series of metaphors, including a beetle’s shell and a “blood-embroidered egg” (65) to depict the process through which emotions are displayed — hidden, yet able to be glimpsed — in one’s writing. In a similar manner, the outer matryoshka doll hides the smaller dolls, but gives a clue as to what lies inside.

The matryoshkas have occupied a curious space in the Russian consciousness for just over a hundred years. To their foreign buyers, the matryoshkas continue to represent a dream of ancient Russian peasant beliefs. To Russians, they are little more than just another toy, yet they do embody a deep love of their nation.

Alicia Enterman – 15 December 2009


Works Cited

  • DeLaine, Linda. “Matryoshka ˜ Soul of Russia.” Russian Life. 15 Mar. 2007. 05 Nov. 2009.
  • Ertl, Rett, and Rick Hibbern. “The Art of the Russian Matryoshka (Book).” Russian Life 46.5 (2003): 60.
  • First matryoshka museum doll open. 2000. Sergiev Posad Museum of Toys, Sergiev Posad, Russia. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 23 Oct. 2008. 05 Nov. 2009 <>.
  • Green, Melissa. “Poetry: Matryoshka.” The Yale Review 90.2 (2002): 65.
  • Hilton, Alison. Russian Folk Art. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
  • Hubbs, Joanna. Mother Russia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
  • “Kokeshi.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 21 Oct. 2009. 07 Nov. 2009.
  • Lodder, Christina. “Review: [Untitled]; Arts and Crafts in Late Imperial Russia: Reviving the Kustar Art Industries 1870-1917.” The Burlington Magazine 140.1143 (1998): 399.
  • “Not so Fast!” Russian Life 49.6 (2006): 8.
  • Ritzer, George. “Rethinking Globalization: Glocalization/Grobalization and Something/Nothing.” Sociological Theory 21.3 (2003): 193-209.
  • Roosevelt, Priscilla. Encyclopedia of Russian History; Matryoshka Dolls. Ed. James R. Millar. Vol. 3. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.
  • Salmond, Wendy. “A Matter of Give and Take: Peasant Crafts and their Revival in Late Imperial Russia.” Design Issues 13.1, Designing the Modern Experience, 1885-1945 (1997): 5-14.