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.

By Tom Patton

Senior citizen scholar auditing classes at Virginia Tech.

5 replies on “Matryoshka Dolls as Russian Culture”

This is an awesome post about an aspect of Russian culture! I also enjoyed the personal aspect of your post, sharing your personal Matryoshka doll sets! All of the sets you shared are very detailed so I can’t imagine how long it takes to finish a whole set (do you happen to know). I was also curious, on average how much do these Matryoshka doll sets cost and do you think it’s possible to have custom sets made?

Natalie, thanks for your comments. I have collected 24 Matryoshka doll sets. I don’t remember what I paid for them back in the 1995 era but there were a number of large tables, with dozens of Matryoshkas for sale, at a park in Moscow over looking the river. Somewhere I have photos of the park with the dolls for sale. Because of the workmanship, I would guess that many sets were at least $100 dollars then. I can see a difference between older sets, made of denser wood and with more details, and the newer sets, thinner wood and less detail and colors. As far as the time to complete, the article I used talked about the time and effort just to make the wooden shapes before the artists started the painting, so it isn’t done quickly. I guess that you could get a custom set made if you can find the actual artist as opposed to the salesman/distributor.

Thanks so much for writing this, Tom! You’ve got a wonderful Matryoshka collection — it even rivals mine ;-). I’ll try to take a picture of a couple of my sets and will post them here for comparison. I find the history of the Matryoshka as an “invented tradition” of Russian culture really fascinating — there’s a quick crib here you might find interesting:

Hi Natalie — Prices vary a lot, and you can definitely have custom sets made. I was in Moscow around the time VT was in the Sugar Bowl (many years ago) and found a matryoshka set of the Hokie Football team! I gave it to my veterinarian, because she was a huge Hokie Fan. She said it was the best gift she’d ever received. Not sure I believe that one, but still….

Good post, Tom. The dolls definitely make me think about Russia! The dolls of Soviet leaders kinda creep me out. I think Russian culture is very interesting, I was actually planning on going to Moscow this Summer before COVID

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