Matreshka—What a Doll!
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN RUSSIA
AS SOON AS visiting tourists catch a glimpse of me, most of them seem determined to take me home with them, willing to go to quite some expense to do so. I really don’t know what attracts them to me. After all, they know so little about me. Maybe it’s just the fashionable thing to do. But let me introduce myself. My name is Matreshka, and I come from—but then let’s start at the beginning.
Actually, nobody really knows where I came from or who my real parents were. The story has two versions. Some claim that I originated on the Japanese island of Honshu as a unique toy of several interrelated parts. They say that I was brought to Russia from Honshu at the end of the 19th century by the wife of a Russian patron named Savva I. Mamontov (1841-1918). On the other hand, according to certain Japanese, it was a Russian monk who first brought to Japan the idea of making me into an exceptional doll. But whatever the case, Russian craftsmen liked the idea, and Matreshka was born.
At the end of the 1880’s, Russia was developing its economy and culture. At the same time, Russians were taking greater interest in preserving their folk tradition. Intent on reviving Russian culture, the intelligentsia began gathering around Mamontov, including such famous Russian painters as Ilya Repin, Viktor Vasnetsov, and Mikhail Vrubel. To preserve the memory of Russian peasantry, art studios were built near Moscow. There, folklore items, toys, and dolls were collected from all parts of the country.
A professional artist named Sergei Malyutin made the first sketches of me, but I looked a bit different then. I was meant to depict a round-faced peasant girl with beaming eyes. I was dressed in a sarafan (a floor-length garment held up by two straps), and I had carefully styled, slicked-down hair largely hidden under a colorful bandanna. Other figures, each smaller than the one before, were placed inside me. They were dressed in kosovorotkas (Russian blouses fastened at one side), shirts, poddyovkas (men’s long-waisted coats), and aprons. As revealed by Malyutin’s sketches, this is how I looked when I was made in Moscow about 1891.
I often wondered about my name. I learned that at the end of the 19th century, Matrena (diminutive Matreshka) was one of the most popular female names in Russia. Derived from the Latin root matrona, it means “mother,” “respected lady,” or “mother of a family.” Placing one figure inside another was also a fitting symbol of fertility and perpetuation.
Not Easy to Make
In attempts to make me, people have been known to spoil much material and finally to give up in defeat. No wonder, since until recently, knowing how to make me was a secret. So only a few were able to own me. But now I will let you in on the secret.
The work involved in making me requires real skill. First, it is important to choose the proper type of wood. Because of its softness, limewood is generally chosen, less often alder or birch. After the trees are cut down, usually in early spring, they are stripped of most of their bark, leaving just enough to prevent the wood from cracking while it dries. The logs are then left stacked for several years so that they can enjoy proper circulation of air as they dry.
The cutting of the wood needs to be done at the right time, when it is neither too dry nor too damp. Only an expert can determine when it is just right. Each piece of wood goes through as many as 15 separate operations. The smallest doll in the series—the one that cannot be taken apart—is made first. At times it is so small that you must strain your eyes or even use a magnifying glass to see it clearly.
Once the smallest doll has been made, the craftsman starts on the next figure into which that first doll will fit. A piece of wood is processed to the necessary height and is cut into a top section and a bottom section. The bottom section of the doll is fashioned first. Then wood is removed from the inside of both sections of the second doll so that the smaller doll will fit snugly inside. A skilled craftsman, by the way, does not bother to take measurements but relies solely on experience. Afterward, he repeats the process, making a slightly larger doll into which the previous two will fit.
The number of dolls held one within the other varies from 2 to 60. The largest doll may be as tall as its maker! When each doll is finished, it is covered with a starchy glue that fills in any hollows in the surface. The final drying begins, and the doll is polished to a smooth surface to enable the painter to spread the paint evenly. Then the doll is given its inimitable style.
Time Has Brought Changes
People change as they grow older, and the same can be said of me. The craft of Matreshka-making gradually spread from Moscow to other cities and towns, including Semenov, Polkhovskii Maidan, Vyatka, and Tver.a Each locality developed its own style and form of decoration. My loss of true identity was disturbing, but I did not complain. During the centenary celebration of the War of 1812, someone ordered a set of dolls to be made depicting Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov and French general Napoléon Bonaparte. These two generals were the largest dolls and opposing generals involved in the war were made smaller to fit inside their respective commanders.
For a long time, making and selling this type of doll was strictly controlled. But political changes at the end of the 1980’s gave artisans new possibilities and freedoms. They could now make and sell their products without fear.
A painter named Sikorskii was one of the first whose dolls became popular with the public. His dolls bring the highest prices, with individual sets costing as much as 3,000 dollars. His success stimulated other artists, and during the past six years, Matreshka-making has been given an energetic push.
My name, Matreshka, has now come to apply to all dolls made to fit one into another. Different themes are featured: flowers, churches, icons, folktales, family themes, even religious and political leaders. The large variety now available helps keep me quite reasonable in price.
Standing as usual in a store showcase during the summer of 1993 in Moscow, I suddenly heard the sounds of an approaching group of foreign tourists. I overheard them saying something about a convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses they were attending and that each of them, in memory of such a wonderful event, wanted to take me home with them. Wondering why, I gazed at them wide-eyed. As if to answer, one of them said: “She is more than just a souvenir. I want my friends to see her eyes. I see in them the same expression I saw in the eyes of the Russian people I talked to about the Kingdom and about God’s name as found in the Bible.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses? The Kingdom? God’s name? The Bible? My eyes grew larger as I listened, and my heart pounded somewhat faster at the prospect of being taken to faraway places by some of these pleasant-looking people. Perhaps I could learn more about what had brought them to Russia in the first place. I’m sure it must have been more than just to meet me, a doll named Matreshka.
a During the 1930’s, Vyatka became known as Kirov and Tver as Kalinin. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the original names have been restored.