Matryoshka Dolls as Russian Culture

Matryoshka or nesting dolls first appeared in Russia around 1892. They come in a variety of sizes, characters and number of dolls nested one inside the other. The development of Matryoshka dolls was centered around the Russian city of Sergiev Posad, Russia’s center for toy making, about 50 miles outside of Moscow. The Sergiev Posad Matryoshas are known for their realistic characters. The early Sergiev Posad Matryoshka were painted by students and artists from the local icon painting school and portrayed peasant girls in colorful costumes and often with baskets or bunches of flowers. Local prominent artists were determined to create a style that was distinctively Russian but also represented Russian’s folk heritage and traditions. During my business trips to Russia in the 1990s, I collected a number of these Matryoshka dolls that are included in this blog.

7 piece Matryoshka depicting an extended Russian rural family. Father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, daughter, son and newborn.
7 piece Matryoshka depicting a Russia lady with flowers. Note the painted eyes and the decrease in detail as the figures get smaller.

Matryoshkas are made from dried wood logs. Using a lathe and chisels of various sizes and shapes, the craftsman begins forming the desired number of Matryoshka pieces using the smallest one first. Each of the remaining pieces are worked to the proper size and shape. After each shape is completed, the top of the piece is cut off, a ring is carved into the bottom piece so that the top will fit secure on it. Each piece is hollowed out just enough to accommodate the nesting of the next smaller piece. Once all of the pieces are carved, the exterior surface are primed with glue and painted to the artist’s satisfaction and then covered by a layer of lacquer. Modern Matryoshka painters use the doll’s apron as a canvas for various themes. Most commonly, Russia’s wonderful architectural monuments, historical figures, churches and writers/poets from the past. The name Matryoshka comes from the word for mother, the rounded bottom shape is meant to celebrate motherhood by representing pregnancy.

12 piece Matryoshka depicting fictional characters from Russian novels and folklore stories painted on the lady’s apron.
10 piece Matryoshka depicting Russian churches, on the apron, as a theme for this set. Each church is slightly different.

After the fall of the USSR, Matryoshka dolls started to be created and sold depicting the former USSR leaders. Here are three examples. Can you identify each of the leaders depicted? The smaller Matryoshka figures represent chronologically past leaders. The smallest Matryoshka are difficult to see, so imagine the careful workmanship that was required.

10 piece Matryoshka depicting the reign of Soviet leaders. Check the list of Soviet leaders to confirm the identify of these dolls. Their names in Cyrillic letters are on each doll.
7 piece Matryoshka also depicting the Soviet leaders.
A different 7 piece Matryoshka of the 7 Soviet leaders. Not as complete as the 10 piece set.

Collecting these Matryoshka doll sets was a most interesting way for me to appreciate and understand the Russian culture. Here is one last Matryoshka for your enjoyment.

10 piece Matryoshka that represents motherhood as the shape of the dolls depicts pregnancy.
Here is my 24set collection of Matryoshka dolls. Note that there are a number of different styles from classical to modern.

Reference for this blog is: DeLaine, Linda, “Matryoshka – Soul of Russia” October 17, 2006.


Semyorka (R-7) USSR and the Space Race with the USA

Stalin, in the early 1950s, press the USSR heavy industries along with the Soviet Military, to develop a rocket program that ultimately would lead to the Russian ICBM or Semyorka, also called the R-7. The first successful flight occurred on 21 August 1957. The “chief designer”, whose identity remained a state secret until 1966, was Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. After the successful launch of the first Semyorka, Korolev received the green light, from Khrushchev, to launch a long-planned artificial satellite that would demonstrated Soviet technical superiority over the USA. The secret launch of Sputnik-1 on 4 October 1957 was successful and came as a complete shock to the USA as well as the rest of the world. Korolev followed up on 3 November 1957 with a second successful secret launch of Sputnik-2. The weights of these two satellites (184 & 1,121 pounds) far exceeded the capabilities of the then American Vanguard rocket (2.2 pounds). The USA, as an open society, televised the launch attempt of the Project Vanguard on 6 December 1957 but it was a spectacular failure that earned it the moniker “kaputnik”. The Space Race between the USSR and the USA became one of the highlights of the Cold War, with the Soviets ahead for a number of years but ultimately, it was the Americans that landed on the Moon in 1969. The Russians took great pride in all of their space accomplishments.

A Soviet stamp depicting Sputnik-1 with S.P. Korolev on the left side.

After the first Sputniks,the next major goal for the Soviets under Korolev, with the strong support of Khrushchev, was the successful launch of a man into orbit the earth and his safe return. A team of Soviet Air Force pilots, now called Cosmonauts, was assembled and trained. The pilot selected for the first flight was Yuri Alexseyevich Gagarin. He was launched, in secret, in Vostok-1 on 12 April 1961 and circled the earth for one orbit, about 100 minutes. Again, the technical superiority of the Soviet state was proclaimed over the Americans. In the style that Khrushchev used in his secret report on Stalin that eliminated the “cult of personality”, Gagarin discussed aspects of his flight in an article “The World in 100 Minutes.”

“After I returned to earth foreign correspondence asked me many questions . . . Our mighty launching pad was the October revolution. It was this that opened vast expanses to the creative forces of the people. It generated the vast energy that in a short time overcame Russia’s former technical and cultural backwardness and that enabled our Soviet motherland to take the lead in mankind’s progress, to break through to stellar heights. We are infinitely proud that it was the hands of Soviet people that built the “Vostok.” The world does not yet know the names of those who created the space rocket; the time for this has not yet come. But it is clear to everyone that such a victory could have been won only by the collective; not individual heroes, but a huge collective of scientists, engineers, technicians, doctors, pilots and workers. In other words, they are people who have been reared by the Soviet system, the Communist Party. Yuri Gagarin, “The World in 100 Minutes”, current digest of the Russian Press, The.1961.

The Semyorka or R-7 booster, first flown in 1957, is still used today to launch the Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) albeit with many upgrades to improve performance. It is remarkable that the basic design for the Semyorka (R-7) Russian booster has remained the standard rocket booster for manned spaceflight over the past 59 years, where as the American space program has gone through 5 different rocket boosters for their manned flights The Samyorka R-7 boosters have been used for over 2,000 unmanned and manned missions for earth satellites and probes to Mars and Venus. For the past 9 years American astronauts, going to the ISS, have had relied on the Russian R-7 booster to get to the ISS. On 27 May 2020, American astronauts will finally be able to be launched to the ISS on the American Falcon 9 rocket and no longer rely on the Russian R-7.

Here is a drawing of the first Semyorka R-7 showing the 20 main rocket engines and 12 vernier or steering rocket engines of the first stage.
This depicts the changes in the Samyorka (R-7) over the years. Note the 4 strap-on liquid fueled first stage engine design has remained the same up to 2020. The Vostok was the first manned Russian spacecraft, followed by the Voskhod and to the current Soyuz manned spacecrafts. There are no structural changes in the Soyuz of 1966 to 2020 but significant up grades in performance that allows for greater payloads put into orbit.

One of the most significant differences between the Soviet and American space programs was the level of secrecy imposed by the Soviets. All Soviet manned launches until 1975 were not acknowledged until the spacecraft was already in orbit so that any launch failures could be ignored and covered up. Until the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, no Russian television coverage showed the live launch of a Soviet spacecraft compared to the total live coverage, by the US media, of all of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle launches. The manned Apollo launches from 1968-1972 drew very large crowds without any secrecy considerations because the USA is an open society. I was invited by NASA to witness the Apollo 14 & 15 launches at Cape Kennedy.

As a personal example of the controlling Soviet culture that related to the Soviet Space program, I was project manager in Moscow in 1996-97 on a program for the startup of a pharmaceutical testing laboratory that verification the integrity of imported drugs from China and India. I worked with Ramil Khabriev, Chief of Inspection, for the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation on the testing protocols for the project. Ramil was in his mid-60s, so he lived under Soviet socialism his entire working life. Interestingly, we both shared an interest in the Soviet space program. In May 1997, Ramil came to Tampa, FL to approve the final design of the laboratory. I told Ramil, that I would take him to the nearby Kennedy Space Center for a tour that included a viewing point stop to see the Space Shuttle on the launch pad. He told me that being a Russian citizen, NASA would never allow him into the Space Center. We drove to the Cape and went to the visitor center without any security checks. At the visitor’s center, we viewed a IMAX movie on the MIR space station, partially in Russian (just my luck), and then we took the bus to the Space Shuttle viewing site. The viewing point stop went very well with the Shuttle sitting about 1 mile away. Ramil was really impressed seeing Space Shuttle directly but I could sense that Ramil came to the realization that the Soviet political system had been lying to him all these years about America. He was able to take the tour and see the Shuttle as close as 1 mile and there was no governmental control preventing him. For him, there was just breathing the freedom that Americans enjoy that he as a life-time Soviet citizen could not and did not enjoy. It was a real awakening for him and I enjoyed being the one that made it possible.


Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge, Asif A Siddiqi, University Press of Florida, 2000.

The Soyuz Launch Vehicle: The Two Lives of an Engineering Triumph, Christian Lardier & Stefan Barensky, Springer Praxis Publishing, 2010


Can we make sense of the USSR Census of 1937 & 1939?

The Soviet government, under Josef Stalin, determined that it was time to schedule a census of the USSR for January 1937. We need to look at the results of those censuses from the perspectives of contemporary time and again in today’s time.

The purpose for taking the census in 1937 was to show the population growth that was due to the leadership of the Communist Party, under Stalin, and show how productive the Soviets were in comparison to the west. It would show that the Russian people were healthy, happy and working towards a growing nation. Stalin wrote: “With the years of Soviet authority, our country has become a wealthy and mighty socialist power. In the Soviet Union the population is growing with extraordinary speed. . . Mortality has become less, and fertility more, and the net growth appears incomparable more quickly. . . Everybody says that the material situation of workers has dramatically improved, that life has become better and more fun. It is of course true. But this has led the population to breed much faster than in the old days. The birth rate is higher, the death rate is lower and the pure population growth is far stronger. It is of course good and we welcome it.” (6).

It was decided to take the 1937 census over a single 24 hour period on 5-6 January 1937. That proved to be a serious miscalculation. “In the first place, 5-6 January happened to be the Orthodox Christmas, which meant that the data collection coincided with a religious festival as well as the end of the customary drunken New Year celebration. Large numbers of people were not in their usual places of residence, and many were actually in transit that night between family and work.” (2). The census results showed some under counting as well as some double counting, which made the total population count suspect. (3). As far as what included in the 1937 census, “The original questionnaire prepared by the Statistical Commission was very detailed and thorough, but Stalin dumbed it down to fourteen straightforward questions with endless possibilities for misinterpretation and deceit. . . The only question Stalin introduced, not present in the original questionnaire, was the question about religion.” (1). The results of the religion question showed that Stalin’s effort to eradicate religion and promote atheism were a failure.

The analysis of the 1937 census showed an actual increase in population of only 7.2 million whereas Stalin had projected and increase of 37.6 million. “The population gap spoke so graphically of unnatural death, and so belied the image of a healthy happy society, that the census was squelched.” (3). Keep in mind the 6 million deaths in the 1932-33 famine, especially the the Ukraine Holodomor, as well as the mass executions of “counter-revolutionaries” by the Soviet government during the 1930s purges. “More than 1.5 million ordinary people were ensnared by the secret police, interrogated, tortured and in many cases summarily executed. At the campaign’s height in 1937 and 1938 the execution rate was roughly a thousand per day, with people accused of being class enemies, saboteurs, oppositionists or speculators, some denounced by their own neighbors or relatives.” (7). The thought that the population would increase significantly clearly ignored the millions of deaths caused by the famine and the mass executions by Stalin’s Soviet government. This minimal population increase can clearly be attributed to Stalin’s leadership and his use of absolute power. Was Stalin unique in the 20th century? “Power seized through violence must be maintained by violence, although violence can be a blunt instrument. A dictator must rely on military forces, a secret police, a praetorian guard, spies, informants, interrogators, torturers. But it is best to pretend that coercion is actually consent. A dictator must instill fear in his people, but if he can compel them to acclaim him he will probably survive longer.” (7). No Stalin was one of the few dictators in the 20th century that used absolute power to control the populations under his control. The results of the 1937 census were never published and many of the census takers, in the Central Statistical Department, were executed. (4).

Because the 1937 census results were not what was expected, another census was scheduled for January 1939 with hopefully a different result. The rational for taking a second census, as determined by the Soviet leadership, was that “But is was disrupted by contemptible enemies of the people – Trotsky-Bukharinite spies and traitors to the motherland, having slipped at that time into the leadership of the Central Director of the People’s Economic Accounting. . . The census of 1937 was conducted with the grossest violations of elementary principles of statistical science. . Thus, the 1937 census was done without a full count of the population. . .The unmasking of the hostile work in the 1937 census obliges Soviet and Party organizations to take special political responsibility for the upcoming census.” (5). So the poorly designed and executed 1937 census had to be blamed on others rather than the poor performance of the Soviet government. The results of the new 1939 census indicated a total population of 170.6 million although historians believe the actual figures were about 1.5 million less. (1).

Today we look back at the rule of Stalin with many questions. His dictatorial history and cruel excesses while leader of the USSR was “denounced” after his death by Khrushchev in 1956. The deaths of many millions Russian people lie directly at his hands. The 1937 and 1939 censuses do not make sense as the rational for taking them was only to support Stalin’s ego and to maintain himself in power.

In summary, “Whatever the motive behind the catastrophe of 1933, the calling and suppression of the 1937 census suggests, for example, miscalculation as well as deliberate and premeditated falsification. It confirms that one of the greatest dangers for authoritarian rulers lies in the possibility that they themselves may cease to discriminate between fact and deception. In Stalin’s case, the lines were obviously blurred. The result, less than a month after the census, was the unleashing of the great purge, a second Stalinist demographic upheaval in which, by the best accounts, a further 2 or more million lives were lost.” (2).

References: (1) The Soviet Census Debate of 1937, Kaushik Patowary, (2) The 1937 Census and the Limits of Stalinist Rule, Catherine Merridale, The Historical Journal, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Mar 1996), Cambridge University Press. (3) The Soviet Censuses of 1937 and 1939: Some Problems of Data Evaluation, Mark Tolts,, (4) The Lost Census, Subject essay: James von Geldern, Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. (5) Duty of the Whole People, Original Source: Bol’shevik, No. 23-24 (December 1938), Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. (6) the Most Important Government Task, Original Source: Pravda, 29 November 1938, p.1, Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. (7) How to be a Dictator – The cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century, Frank Dikotter, Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, 2019.


The Holodomor Question

This is a black and white image taken in Kyiv in 1932-33. This image depicts what was known as the “blackboard” or really to be what we would call blacklisted names of villagers that had been found out to have hidden food or supplies, which was a crime, would be listed on a blackboard. You would have been deemed an enemy of the state if the officials found any food after the massive collection had taken place. (2)

General prime source for this blog is book Red Famine by Anne Applebaum.

History reminds us that in the 1932-33 period in the USSR, Stalin caused mass starvation in the Ukraine by the confiscation the grain and other food stuffs produced there for the consumption others in the USSR while leaving little to none for the locals. Such was the famine’s devastation that Ukrainian emigre publications coined a new word to describe its barbarity: ‘Holodomor,’ a combination of the Ukrainian words for hunger (holod) and extermination (mor). It is not disputed that in this time frame, 5 million people died from starvation in the USSR including 3.9 million Ukrainians. The issue to be discussed related to Stalin’s intentions towards the Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. This Holodomor is still a big issue that effects the current conflict and relations between Ukraine and Putin’s Russia.

Black and white image taken in 1932-33 in Kharkiv depicting a mass grave used to bury the deal from the Ukraine famine. (2)

The Bolsheviks in 1918, under the leadership of Lenin, referred to the Ukraine as “Southwest Russia” having no independence, unique cultural identity or more specifically a separate language. There was a brief effort for Ukrainian independence after Russia signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty but quickly “General Mykhail Muraviev, the commanding officer, declared he was bringing back Russian rule from the “far North,” and ordered the immediate execution of suspected nationalists. His men shot anyone heard speaking Ukrainian in public and destroyed any evidence of Ukrainian rule, including the Ukrainian street signs that had replaced Russian street signs only weeks before.”Applebaum, Anne. Red Famine (p. 24). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Starting in 1918, the Russians clearly acknowledged the agricultural “bread basket” potential of the Ukraine region to be used for the critical supply of food/grain for the Red Guard and upper party officials at the expense of the peasants in the Ukraine. Collectivization process was soon setup and the identification and prosecution of “kulaks” as counter-revolutionaries was begun. As long as the annual two harvests were as provided as expected, the collectives in the Ukraine part of Russia were able to survive.

This is a black and white image taken in Donetsk in 1932-33. the image depicts a woman and child being kicked out of their home in the winter. They are pulling a wagon of things that they are allowed to take with them.

The book, Red Famine, then discusses many expects of the events in the Ukraine during the 1920s but specifically during what is called the Holodomor from summer/fall of 1932 through spring/summer of 1933. I have included some significant quotations from Applebaum text that are included below where the author documents the starvation effects of the Holodomor as well as the attitudes and leadership of party officials and specifically Josef Stalin:

A) Stalin’s policies that autumn led inexorably to famine all across the grain-growing regions of the USSR. But in November and December 1932 he twisted the knife further in Ukraine, deliberately creating a deeper crisis. Step by step, using bureaucratic language and dull legal terminology, the Soviet leadership, aided by their cowed Ukrainian counterparts, launched a famine within the famine, a disaster specifically targeted at Ukraine and Ukrainians. (p.190).

B) On 18 November the Ukrainian communists carried out his wishes. The party issued a resolution declaring that “the full delivery of grain procurement plans is the principal duty of all collective farms,” to be prioritized above and beyond anything else, including the collection of grain reserves, seed reserves, animal fodder and, ominously, daily food supplies. In practice, both individual and collective farmers were forbidden from holding back anything at all. Even those allowed to keep grain in the past had to give it back. Any collective farmer who produced grain for his family on a private plot now had to turn that over too.22 No excuses were accepted. (p. 191).

C) Dead bodies caused a sanitary crisis. In January 1933 the city of Kyiv had to remove 400 corpses from the streets. In February the number rose to 518, and in just the first eight days of March there were 248.64 (p. 201).

D) As winter turned to spring, and the lack of food took its toll, the vast majority of peasants ceased to fight back. Even those who had rebelled in 1930 stayed silent. The reason for this was physical, not psychological. A starving person is simply too weak to fight back. Hunger overwhelms even the urge to object. (p. 236)

E) . . . survived the famine because her father was a party leader who had access to a special Communist Party shop providing grain and sugar. The highest party officials also had ration cards, which enabled them to make purchases that were impossible for others. Privileges were also extended to their children, as those less fortunate remembered: “There was a special school for the children of the bosses. There was a canteen inside…breathtaking smells spread from that kitchen . . (p.235)

Applebaum continued for 200 pages with detailed documentation of the events and meaning of the Holodomor and the responsibility of the party officials, specifically Josef Stalin, for the deaths by starvation in Ukraine the 1932-33 period. Although the propaganda from the USSR, even to today, denies the details, there was established in 1984 the International Commission of Inquiry Into the 1932-33 Famine in Ukraine . The final report was issued in 1990 with the following conclusions: 1) 4.5 million Ukrainian victims died and the responsibility of the famine was placed on the central government of the USSR. 2) the policy of the USSR disregarded the precepts of basic morality and must be vigorously condemned. 3) The commission does not believe that the famine was systematically organized to crush the Ukraine nation once and for all but did use the famine to crown the new policy of denationalization. 4) The commission concluded that the Soviet authorities, without actively wanting the famine, most likely took advantage of it to force peasant to accept policies they strongly opposed. That commission’s report is available online. There is also an organization in Canada that focuses on the Holodomor at The photo images in this blog are from that website.

I found the details of this Holodomor book very difficult to read as it reflected the absolute lack of humanity shown by the party officials of the USSR, as lead by Josef Stalin, in the 1920-1933 time period.


Dachas in Russia ~ 1910

From “A General’s Dacha in Yekaterinberg” by Prokudin-Gorskii

From 1909 to 1912, Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863–1944) made several trips to the territory around the Ural Mountains, where he photographed railroad installations, factories, urban settings, and natural scenes. In 1909 and 1910 he photographed extensively in the Urals region, including the city of Yekaterinburg (named Sverdlovsk 1924–91). This photograph was taken in a resort area known as General’s Dacha, located to the north of City Pond. The park was formed in the 1830s, when a pond dam was constructed on the small Ol’khovka River, a tributary of the Iset’ River. Large wooden dachas were built in the area, but when Prokudin-Gorskii visited, it had become rather neglected. The two-story dacha seen here is surrounded by a dense growth of pine and birch trees. In front of the home is a wooden bathing shed and to the right, a pier with a rustic railing. Seen in the right background is an arched bridge built in the style of Western landscape parks. Despite their dilapidated state, these modest structures look beautiful as reflected here in the still waters of the pond. In 1927, this area was renamed Proletarian Dachas. It is now occupied by a large housing development. Prokudin-Gorskii used a special color photography process to create a visual record of the Russian Empire in the early 20th century. Some of his photographs date from about 1905, but the bulk of his work is from between 1909 and 1915, when, with the support of Tsar Nicholas II and the Ministry of Transportation, he undertook extended trips through many different parts of the empire.

There are two interesting issues with regard to this Prokudin-Gorskii topic. First is the history and culture surrounding Dachas in Russia, while the second is the location of this particular dacha, Yekaterinburg, the location where the overthrown Romanov family was executed in July 1918.

Dachas have existed for centuries, surviving revolutions, purges, and falls. They remain an integral, if at times hard-to-define part of Russian life; many Russians scoff at them, many hold them dear, and many, oddly, do both. Yet “dacha season” remains so widespread that stores announce dacha season sales in ads nearly as large and pervasive as those for “back-to-school” in America.

Dachas are basically summer homes, away from the city, typically of very simple design, and usually with a garden plot where vegetables are usually grown for the family’s consumption. Today, many of the average people, who live in the larger cities throughout Russia, can and do have dachas in the rural areas outside of cities. Certainly, as above, some dachas of the elite were grandiose. I had the opportunity to spend a day at such a simple dacha with a lab worker from the local metals assay plant when I was on assignment in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. The dacha was three rooms including a sauna. Outside was a garden where the family’s vegetable garden provide the needs of the worker’s family.

The term “dacha” was born of early medieval Russian. It meant “a gift given publicly and later cane to specifically mean “property given and used in feudal fashion”. A dacha could include land, houses, outbuildings, serfs, etc.. . . owning a dacha became popular with the “middle class” of bureaucrats and businessmen and came to mean “summer house”.

The main controversy revolved around whether the dacha should be part of the bourgeois past or the communist future. Now in today’s Russian society, A dacha usually lays a 1-2 hour local train ride away. These local trains are usually overcrowded with people of every social class and, we have seen, the occasional livestock. For those fortunate enough to own a car (it is common to have a dacha, but no car), the trip can take twice as long, as the roads are not built to handle the mass exodus that occurs every weekend.(Dacha Wanna Be Russian? – The School of Russian and Asian Studies, by Josh Wilson)

The picture of the General’s dacha described above was locate just outside of Yekaterinburg, the city where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were imprisoned and then executed by the Bolsheviks in July 1918. Since the date of the color photo was around 1910 and the execution in took place 1918, I wonder if any of the plotters and/or executioners stayed at this dacha or were plans of the Bolsheviks formulated in this dacha. What was the attitude of the Bolsheviks towards the concepts of dacha since they were typically owned and used by the elite bureaucrats and capitalist businessmen.


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