When we think of Russia there are certain quintessentials that come to mind. The domes of St. Petersburg, warm and furry ushanka hats, large expanses of isolated tundra and of course, the world famous spirit vodka. That said, another classic symbol of Russia spreading throughout the world is the Russian nesting doll. With her vivid colors and a kerchief around her head, the Russian nesting doll serves as an ambassador to the world, spreading Russian heritage to every corner of the globe.
With around 1.2 million produced in Russia every year, it might seem like they have always been a part of Russian culture. However, the Russian nesting doll, also known commonly as Matryoshka dolls, has only existed for around one hundred and thirty years. They’re a special piece of history, tying together the old Russian Empire with the Soviet Union and the modern nation. Today, Russian nesting dolls are a classic collectible with enduring appeal on the auction market.
Russian dolls are known by many names. They are most commonly referred to as Matryoshka dolls, originating from the common Russian name Matryona. They are also sometimes called Babushka dolls, Babushka being the Russian word for old woman or grandmother. Other names include Russian tea dolls, Russian stackable dolls and nesting dolls. But regardless of name, they all refer to the same classic decorative wooden doll.
What is a Russian Nesting Doll?
A Russian nesting doll is a hollowed wooden doll made from linden trees and carved into the approximate shape of a limbless person, typically painted with vivid colors. The doll can be opened to reveal another hollow figure inside. The subsequent doll can also be opened to reveal another and so on and so forth, growing smaller each time.
The very first Russian nesting doll featured a peasant family. The outermost doll was the mother with each doll inside of her representing her daughters and sons. Today, there are Matryoshka dolls of all sorts—from movie stars to animals to children’s cartoons. Though you’ll typically find doll sets made up of identical figures, some authentic nesting dolls feature unique designs with each subsequent piece.
The History of the Russian Nesting Doll
There’s a bit of a debate over the exact inspiration behind Russian nesting dolls, though the history is clear. In 1890 at the Abramtsevo estate north of Moscow, which served as an artist colony for most of the 19th century, the Russian painter Sergey Malyutin designed the first Russian nesting doll. Malyutin was part of the Arts and Crafts movement, a response to the Industrial Revolution and industrialization of art across Europe. Additionally, the Abramtsevo estate is famous as the birthplace of the Slavophile movement, a philosophy seeking to reduce Western European influence on 19th century Russia. With those two movements in mind, it becomes clear why Malyutin thought to design a handcrafted wooden doll embodying the traditional Russian peasant.
But the matter of Malyutin’s specific inspiration is one of contention, with some arguing his original inspiration derived from the Japanese nesting doll. It’s said Malyutin saw a set of Japanese dolls brought over by missionaries in a nearby town, but the specifics are unclear. Malyutin likely took inspiration from a Fukuruma nesting doll, but some scholars believe he saw a Daruma—a hollow red doll—or a Kokeshi wooden doll, which features no arms or legs, similar to the Matryoshka. Other scholars refute the idea that this Russian doll could have an eastern origin, claiming Malyutin was inspired instead by traditional wooden Russian easter eggs.
What to Look For in a Russian Nesting Doll
Regardless of exact inspiration, the result is the same: wonderful, colorful pieces that have delighted both collectors and children throughout the years. That said, if you’re considering adding nesting dolls to your collection, there are a few factors to look out for. First of all, like any collectible, there are an abundance of replicas and fakes out there. Watch out for dolls that appear to be hand painted but actually feature designs printed on vinyl before being applied to the wood. A traditional Russian nesting doll will always be hand carved and hand painted and will be priced accordingly. Even a new nesting doll may cost upwards of $100. Authentic vintage Russian nesting dolls will often have a signed provenance on the underside of the piece.
The most expensive Russian nesting dolls are wholly unique or limited in number. Most dolls that feature identical interior figures are crafted in mass quantities. While still gorgeous, these are the sorts of dolls you can find in a souvenir shop and they might not satisfy the discerning eye. Larger, unique nesting dolls can reach into the thousands of dollars, but as with most collectibles, you tend to get what you pay for.
The Many Faces of Russian Nesting Dolls
Don’t confuse the woman in her kerchief for the only image Matroyska dolls have to offer. There are many themes in Russian nesting dolls. For instance, it’s fairly common for dolls to be themed after fairy tales. Perhaps a set will feature each of the little piggies or all of Snow White’s dwarves. Some display scenes from stories painted along the outside, forming a full tale when they’re all laid out beside one another. There are dolls that recreate famous works of art, dolls that tell biblical stories, dolls of Russian authors or just about anything you can imagine. But one of the most interesting, popular and totally unexpected themes in Russian nesting dolls is political leaders.
If you look around you’re sure to find nesting dolls featuring American presidents or British royalty, but if you’re looking for something a little more traditional, you’ll want to check out the Soviet nesting dolls from the late 80s and 90s. At the end of the Soviet Union, during the Perestroika period of reformation, there was a renaissance of Russian folk art combining the spirit of the Slavophile movement with the newly found freedom of artistic expression. It became very popular to make dolls featuring political leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Nikita Khrushchev, Joseph Stalin and Valdimir Lenin seated inside one another in jaunty caricature. If you’re interested in a quirky bit of Cold War memorabilia, full sets in good condition tend to sell in the low hundreds.
The Largest Russian Nesting Dolls
Keep your eyes out for very large sets as well. A typical Russian nesting doll ranges from five to ten individual pieces. But the largest ever made consists of fifty one individual pieces! It was hand crafted by Youlia Bereznitskaia in 2003 and the largest piece measures 1 foot and 9.25 inches, while the smallest piece is barely more than 1/10 of an inch long. You won’t be finding the record holder for sale, but dolls with up to fifty pieces do appear at auction from time to time. Such collector’s items tend to realize several thousand dollars or more and you’ll definitely want to make sure you have the display space for all those beautiful dolls.
There’s a place for Russian nesting dolls in every collection. From the Russian peasant in her kerchief to fairy tale creatures and Lenin, Russian dolls cannot be classified under a single style. There are as many styles as there are dolls. With some research, you’re sure to find a nesting doll to suit your tastes so you too can add a bright piece of Russian history and artistry to your home.
Looking for more? Browse Russian collectibles for sale at auction now on Invaluable.
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