Eastern roots of the most famous Russian toy

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Possible origins of Matryoshka dolls

The Matryoshka doll is undoubtedly the most famous Russian souvenir, which has gained a vast popularity worldwide. The translation of the word “Matryoshka” can’t be found in any dictionary, but everyone knows what it is.

Available information about the origins of Matryoshka dolls is quite confusing. Even though there are many museums and private collections of Matryoshka dolls, and the Internet as well as mass media abound in articles and interviews on this topic, they are dedicated mostly to various specimens of Matryoshka dolls, produced at different times in different Russian regions, and provide little, if any, information on their true origin.

According to the most common version, Matryoshka dolls appeared in Russia at the end of the 19th century. They were the brainchild of the artist S.V. Malyutin and turned on a lathe by wood turner V.P. Zvyozdochkin in A.I. Mamontov’s workshop Detskoye Vospitanye (Children’s Education). It is believed that the Russian nesting dolls were modeled after a figurine of one of the seven Japanese gods of luck – the deity of scholarship and wisdom named Fukuruma (a.k.a. Fukurodzu or Fukurokudju, depending on the name’s transcription).

Another version stipulates that the first Matryoshka doll was cut out by a Russian Orthodox missionary monk, who had visited Japan and modeled it after the local nesting doll. However, reliable information about the source of this legend is not available.

The third version says that in 1890, a figurine of the Japanese deity Fukuruma was brought from Honshu Island to Mamontov’s estate in Abramtsevo, in the Moscow region. “The Japanese toy had a secret: the old man Fukuruma contained increasingly smaller versions of all his family members inside his figurine. Once, on a Saturday, when the estate was visited by members of the artistic elite, the lady of the house displayed the amusing figurine. The nesting doll attracted the interest of S.V. Malyutin, who decided to make a similar toy. He didn’t recreate the Japanese deity; instead he drew up a draft, depicting a peasant girl, wearing a brightly coloured headscarf. To make the girl look more “businesslike”, the artist drew a black cock, cradled under one of her arms. A smaller figurine inside the first one was a young girl holding a sickle. Sisters can’t be happy without a brother, therefore an even smaller piece was a figurine of a young boy dressed in a brightly decorated shirt. The set of figurines made up an entire family, close-knit and hard-working. The doll didn’t even have a name at first. Only when it was turned on a lathe and painted, the name struck the doll’s creator as something obvious – Matryona. Tea at evening parties in Abramtsevo was served by female servants who were called by this name. Had Malyutin turned over a thousand other names in his mind, he couldn’t have thought of a better name for the wooden doll.” 

Malyutin couldn’t think of a better name for the wooden doll, It is clear from the quoted passage that the first Matryoshka doll was made in the town of Sergiev Possad (a town in the Moscow region that hosts the world-famous Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra). However, wood turner Zvyozdochkin started working in Sergiev Possad workshops only in 1905. On the other hand, there are sources stipulating that “the first Matryoshka doll was manufactured in Sergiev Possad, in Leontyevsky pereulok, building 7, which had earlier housed the workshop and store Detskoye Vospitanye (Children’s Education) that belonged to A.I. Mamontov, brother of the famous Savva Mamontov, a Russian industrialist, merchant, entrepreneur, and patron of the arts. Just as his brother, A.I. Mamontov was interested in national art. Artists working in his workshop and store always tried to create new toys for children. One of the toys they made was a wooden doll, turned on a lathe, depicting a peasant girl wearing a headscarf and a pinafore. This was a nesting doll, containing another, smaller peasant girl, which in its turn contained another one, and so on…”

Perhaps the most meticulous, thorough and in-depth research was carried out by Irina Sotnikova in her article entitled “Who created the Matryoshka doll”, which is available in Russian on the Internet. The arguments presented by the author reveal, in the most objective way possible, the history of such unusual toy as the Matryoshka doll.

As for the exact time first Matryoshka dolls appeared, I. Sotnikova writes: “… Sometimes the first Matryoshka dolls are dated to 1893-1896 – these dates are stated in reports of the Moscow province council. In one of such reports, released in 1911, N.D. Bartram wrote that Matryoshka dolls had appeared about 15 years before. In 1913, in his report to the Handicrafts Council he wrote that it had appeared about 20 years before. There dates sound too approximate to rely on them, therefore many authors, in order to avoid making a mistake, date the first Matryoshka dolls to the late 19th century. However, some other sources mention the Russian nesting dolls in relation to the 1900 World Fair in Paris, where they received immediate recognition, followed by manufacturing orders from abroad.”

Then, I. Sotnikova makes interesting observations regarding whether S.V. Malyutin was the real author of the first Matryoshka doll draft: “All researchers unanimously believe Malyutin was the author of the draft, however the draft isn’t among the works constituting the artist’s heritage. Nor is there any evidence to the fact that the artist ever made this draft. Moreover, V.P. Zvyozdochkin gives the credit for inventing Matryoshka dolls to himself, making no mentioning of Malyutin.”  This is how Zvyozdochkin described the advent of Matryoshka dolls: “… In 1900 (!), I invented a three- and six-piece (!) Matryoshka sets and sent the toys to take part in the World Fair in Paris. I worked at the Mamontov’s workshop for 7 years. In 1905, V.I. Borutsky transferred me to Sergiev Possad and assigned me to work at the workshop of the Moscow province council as a foreman.” From V.P. Zvyozdochkin autobiography, written in 1949, we know that the wood turner, who had been born in the village of Shubino in the Podolsk region, started working at the workshop Detskoye Vospitanye (Children’s Education) in 1898. It means that the first Matryoshka dolls were made not earlier than in 1898.  Zvyozdochkin wrote his memoirs 50 years later and it is difficult to assess their degree of accuracy. Therefore, the first Matryoshka dolls could be dated approximately to 1898-1900.  The World Fair in Paris opened in April of 1900 – this allows us to conclude that the nesting dolls were produced a little bit earlier, in 1899. By the way, the Mamontov family received a bronze medal for the dolls at the Fair.”

Let’s now look at the shape of the toy, was it modeled after the Japanese figurine, or was the initial draft of Matryoshka drawn up by S. V. Malyutin?

“Some interesting facts were collected by E.N. Shulgina, who took an interest in the history of Matryoshka dolls in 1947. Having talked to V.P.  Zvyozdochkin, she found out that he had seen a “suitable wooden chock” and modeled after it a figurine, which had “a most funny look, resembling a nun” and was “ solid” (it didn’t open). Following the advice of foremen Belov and Konovalov, he turned it in a different way. The toy was then shown to A.I. Mamontov: he granted his approval and had it painted by a group of artists, working somewhere in Arbat Street in Moscow.  The toy was chosen to take part in the World Fair in Paris. After the Fair, Mamontov received a manufacturing order for the toy, and then Borutsky bought Matryoshka samples and distributed them among handicraftsmen.

We will probably never know the exact role S.V. Malyutin played in the history of the Matryoshka doll. In his memoirs, V.P. Zvyozdochkin wrote that it was he who invented the shape of the toy. But he could have easily forgotten who painted it, as many years passed and nobody kept a formal record of what happened, as no one could have predicted that Matryoshka dolls would gain such a widespread popularity. At that time, S.V. Malyutin collaborated with A.I. Mamontov’s publishing house, illustrating books, so it is likely that Malyutin painted the first nesting doll, while other dolls were painted by other artists, after Malyutin’s pattern.”

Speaking about the number of Matryoshka dolls in one set, let’s once again quote I. Sotnikova, who writes that different sources provide different, often confusing, information:“V.P. Zvyozdochkin said that initially he made two Matryoshka dolls – one three-piece and one six-piece. The Museum of Toys in Sergiev Possad holds an eight-piece set, which is considered to be the first Matryoshka doll – it’s the round-faced young girl wearing a sarafan, a pinafore, a headscarf with floral pattern, and cradling a black cockrel in her arms. Inside her hid three little sisters, one little brother, two more little sisters and a baby boy. Many sources indicate that a typical set contained seven dolls, and that girls and boys alternated. The set that is on display in the Museum of Toys proves this to be wrong.”

As for the prototype of Matryoshka dolls, the question is, Was there the old man Fukuruma? Some researchers doubt it, then why is there the legend, stipulating that the world famous Russian nesting doll was modeled after the Japanese figurine? And is it really a legend? The wooden deity is also kept in the Museum of Toys in Sergiev Possad, and this story might very well be nothing but a legend. N.D. Bartram, the Museum’s director, doubts that Matryoshka dolls were modeled after a Japanese toy. The Japanese have been really skilled at making lathe toys, but the design of the famous Japanese Kokeshi dolls is different from that of Matryoshka dolls.”

So who was the mysterious Fukuruma, the good-natured bald-headed wise man? Where did he come from? According to tradition, Japanese people visit temples, dedicated to the seven deities of luck, where they can buy figurines of these deities. Could the figurine of the legendary Fukuruma have contained figurines of other six deities inside? 

V.P. Zvyozdochkin never mentioned the nesting figurine of Fukuruma in his memoirs. In fact, separable wooden wares enjoyed a massive popularity in Russia – take for instance the world famous Easter eggs.

Origins of the name “Matryoshka”

Why was this unusual wooden doll called Matryoshka? Most researchers unanimously say that the name stems from the woman’s name Matryona, which was very common among peasant women in Russia: “The name Matryona comes from the Latin Matrona, meaning “a noble woman”. The name had many diminutive forms – Motya, Motrya, Matryosha, Matyusha, Tyusha, Matusya, Tusya, Motya. It means that theoretically Matryoshka dolls could have been called Motka or Muska. Other good common names were Marfa or Agafia (in fact, porcelain painting was called “Agashka” – the diminutive of Agafia). Why weren’t they chosen?

Indeed, the name Matrona is translated from Latin as “a noble woman” and is included in the Orthodox Church Calendar. As for the assertion that it was a popular and widespread name among peasant women, here too there are a number of interesting facts that show that everything is not as straightforward as it might seem. The same name or image could embody both positive and negative, allegorical meanings. Thus, for example in the “Tales and legends of the North Caucasus”, collected by I.V. Karnaukhova, there is a tale entitled “Matryona”. The main character – a woman named Matryona – is a wicked wife, who intimidates even the devil. A.N. Afanasiev, author of the “Russian Folk Tales”, also mentions the same story about the wicked wife named Matryona, which was a popular tale in the Russian North – classic versions of the tale have been recorded during numerous expeditions undertaken by the State Institute of Art Studies.

One of the Internet forums dedicated to culture contains the following post: “The Russian Matryoshka dolls – which also have Indian roots – were modeled after the Japanese wooden toy Daruma, which is a tumbler doll. The doll depicts an ancient Indian wise man Daruma (Bodhidharma in the Sanskrit language), who moved to China in the 5th century. In the Middle Ages, his teaching spread all over Japan. According to Daruma, understanding the truth was possible through silent contemplation. In one of the legends Daruma is described as a hermit, living in a cave, stout because of his sedentary lifestyle. Another legend says that his sedentary lifestyle paralised his legs (many sculptures of Daruma are legless).”

Nevertheless, Matryoshka dolls received a universal recognition as a symbol of the Russian popular art.

There is a belief that if you put a note with your wish inside a Matryoshka doll, this wish will definitely come true. The more effort has been put into the doll, the more elaborate its painting is and the more pieces it contains, the sooner the wish will come true. Matryoshka dolls were believed to bring comfort and warmth into a house.” This statement is difficult to contradict – the more smaller dolls there are inside a Matryoshka, the more notes with wishes one can put inside it and wait till they come true. It’s a sort of game, in which Matryoshka doll plays a role of a cute, charming and homey symbol.

As for the Eastern wise man Daruma, who is often referred to as Matryoshka’s predecessor, many people have difficulty associating the solemn image of this sage man with the positive and colourful Russian toy, famous and loved in almost all parts of the world. The case is, the non-fading popularity of Matryoshka dolls help continue the time-honoured traditions of Matryoshka design and painting, characteristic of this or that school.

Don’t forget that in ancient times – both in Russia and other countries – various decorations, both women’s and men’s, as well as household articles and toys, cut out of wood or made of clay weren’t regarded as simple objects that made people’s everyday life easier, but rather as symbols, embodying particular meanings. These symbols were closely interwoven with myths.

The Latin name Matrona, which many believe was borrowed into Russian from Latin, sounds very similar to the ancient Indian word Matri (stress on the first syllable), meaning “mother”. In the Hindu mythology, Matri is the divine mother, associated with both constructive and destructive natural forces. The idea of the active female energy has gained a widespread acceptance in Hinduism with the establishment of Shakti cult. Matri were regarded as female personifications of the creative energy of several greatest gods – Brahma, Shiva, Skanda, Vishnu, Indra, etc. The number of Matris ranged from seven to 16; authors of some texts describe Matris as “a great many”.

Matryoshka doll is also a symbol of mother, as it contains several smaller figurines inside, which in their turn symbolise children of different ages. This is not a simple coincidence, but a clear proof of the common Indo-European roots of the two words and evidence that Matryoshka dolls were a Slavic phenomenon.

Hence, the following conclusion can be made: figuratively speaking, if the unusual wooden figurine started its symbolic “journey” in India, continued it in China and then in Japan, and only then “unexpectedly” took root in Russia, it means that the assertion that the Russian Matryoshka doll was modeled after the figurine of the Japanese wise man is groundless. Not least because the figurine of an Eastern wise man was not Japanese in its origin.  Apparently, the hypothesis of the wide distribution of the Slavic peoples and their culture, which has had an influence on the culture, language and religious pantheon of other Indo-European peoples, holds true.

However, the inventor of the nesting dolls had drawn his inspiration in Russian folk tales. Many people remember the tale about Koshchey the Deathless, who was defeated by Tsarevich Ivan. Describing the moment when Tsarevich Ivan set out to find Koshchey’s death, Afanasyev writes: “Accomplishing this extraordinary feat requires heroic effort, because Koshchey’s death is hidden far away. In the ocean there is a Buyan Island, where a green oak grows. Under the oak an iron chest is buried, containing a hare. The hare contains a duck. The duck contains an egg. You have to smash the egg and Koshchey will be dead in an instant.”

Manufacturing techniques

Matryoshka dolls manufacturing techniques have remained unchanged over the years. Matryoshka dolls are made of well-dried, durable timber – linden or birch. The first to make is always the smallest, solid piece, which can’t be taken apart. It can be as small as a rice grain. Turning Matryoshka dolls is a fine art, taking years to learn.

Before painting, Matryoshka dolls are primed, and are covered with lacquer to finish and protect the paint. In the 19th century, artists used gouache to paint Matryoshka dolls, while today they create unique images using aniline dyes, tempera, watercolours. However, gouache is still most artists’ favourite. Artists start by painting a toy’s face and pinafore, and only then its sarafan and headscarf. Since the mid-20th century, Matryoshka dolls have not only been painted, but also decorated with nacreous plates, straw, and later with strass or glass beads.

There are several towns and villages in Russia that are famous centres of Matryoshka manufacturing. Each centre produces unique, distinctive dolls. Differences can be noticed even in the same region. Craftsmen in the village of Krutets in the Nizhny Novgorod region explore different types of paint and, to a slight extent, shapes. In the village of Polkhovsky Maidan of the same region, Matryoshka dolls are the main source of income – practically all residents earn their living by manufacturing and selling traditional Russian nesting dolls. Their Matryoshka dolls are famous for their rose patterns – the main ornament used for their decoration is wild rose flowers. Matryoshka dolls produced by craftsmen in the town of Semyonov (again of the Nizhniy Novgorod region) are distinguished for large unpainted areas on the surface and a thick bouquet on fantastical flowers on the pinafore. These Matryoshka dolls were very spacious and could contain as many as 15-18 smaller dolls inside. The most “northern” Matryoshka dolls in Russia are made in the town of Vyatka in the Kirov region. Matryoshka dolls manufactured in Sergiev Possad were even bought by members of the tsar family, who came to visit the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra.

Photographs from the archives of Ingrid Sluyte, who has been collecting nesting dolls from different countries of the world for several years.

Russian text by Natalia Sokolova

Translated into English by Nadezhda Tsyba

Russian Geographical Society