Secrets of Russian Matryoshka

A well-loved toy in Tsarist times, the Matryoshka doll became an international celebrity when it made its debut at the Paris Exhibition of 1900.

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The wooden doll with a surprise filling, Matryoshka is one of the few Russian words that every foreigner recognizes. However, there are still many things about it that remain a secret, even in the doll’s motherland.

The Matryoshka is a wooden doll, usually in a colorful dress. If you pull it apart, there is a smaller doll inside – which, in turn, has another one in it. The number of pieces typically ranges from 3 to 12, but there are also “supermatreshkas” boasting up to 60 dolls.

The first Russian Matryoshka was made just over 100 years ago, at the end of the 19th century. At that time Matrena or Matreshka was among the most popular names for Russian girls.

A well-loved toy in Tsarist times, it became an international celebrity when it made its debut at the Paris Exhibition of 1900.

Matryoshka’s “age” is not the only legend connected with the doll. Many people do not know that it’s "as Russian as it gets" design may actually have been borrowed from abroad.

“The Matryoshka may have been inspired by the Japanese dolls. Or perhaps it sprang from the old tradition of making painted Easter eggs,” Irina Chertovich, a tour guide at the Museum of Russian Matryoshka, told RT. “Anyway, the Matryoshka reflects Russian philosophy and history – it’s about motherhood, fertility, and infinity.”

The basic technique of Matryoshka-making remains unchanged and demands a huge amount of time and effort. Hand painting may take from three minutes to three hours or even weeks and months of work.

“Every artist brings a part of his own world to the doll he paints. It’s not just about Russian fairytales or traditions, it becomes personal,” craftsman Sergey Kovlov told RT.

It is no secret that in Russia, Matryoshkas are sold almost everywhere. Prices range from a modest $5 to a whopping $2,500. The gold standard of tourist-trap souvenirs, they are snapped up by those looking to take home a piece of the real Russia.

VIP visitors also are not immune to the charms of the stacking doll – Michelle Obama, as well as many other celebrities, got hers as a present.

Meanwhile, Obama’s husband himself became the inspiration for one. Indeed the popular doll has even made its way into politics, with Soviet, foreign and modern Russian leaders immortalized in wood and paint.

Russia is very keen to promote the talents of the Matryoshka: it is displayed to international audiences, it has made itself a name in the music industry, is handed out as a coveted prize, and has shown off its stylish side in a makeover by the world’s hottest designers.

One animation studio has even come up with a modern take on the old toy.

“We needed a Russian character that could be further developed into a popular brand and suddenly we thought of Matryoshka. It is always depicted in Russia as just a wooden doll. It deserved a more creative approach. Our cartoons are aimed at teenagers but even my six-year-old daughters got hooked!” Egor Aristakesyan, creative director of Articul Media animation studio, told RT.

Source: Russia Today
16 August, 2010