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Matryoshka Nesting Dolls
The Red Square in winter
Discovering the dolls
When I worked in Russia I was fascinated with the amount of traditional wooden toys that were on offer. Where ever we went there would be a stall filled with marvelous toys, and always amongst them were the Matryoshka nesting dolls. Many were painted in traditional styles, but I found sets with Disney characters, politicians, pop stars and even motorbykes painted on the wooden dolls tummies.
The origins of the dolls
It is often thought that Matryoshka Dolls are a uniquly Russian doll but, this toy came to Russia from Japan in the last century. Japan has an extremely long tradition of doll making which goes back as far as 3,000 years. Japanese dolls are made from wood, paper, cloth or clay, and a wealth of techniques are used to create a quite beauty of expression and a rich display of colour. The Russian dolls are usually made from birch which is easy to work and plentiful in Russia.
Venturing into the wilderness
I had a few chances to venture out into the vast forests of Russia, and coming from the UK which of course is a relatively small island I found the vastness of it mind boggling. I visited a monastry which is being renivated revealing wonderful artworks and frescos that had been painted over in the Starlin ephoc near a place called White Lake and it was brought home to me how wild and untamed the forests are when we were warned that there were wolves near by and that a schollboy who had been turned off the bus for misbehaving had been eaten; all that remained was his schoolbag and his shoes. It was just one of the many fascinating and interersting places I had the chance to visit. The Russian people are wonderful, warm, friendly, not at all how I had been brought up to think of them during the cold war years of the fifties and sixties.
Russian artist Sergey Vasilyevich Malyutin saw the dolls during his travels to Japan. He copied the style, painting them in traditional Russian village style. Then after his return to Russia he showed his variant of the Japanese toy to his friends. They liked it very much and also began producing the dolls. So, the doll became widespread very quickly.
Growth in popularity
Soon there were many different schools of making Matryoshka. The most famous of these was the school in Sergiyev Posad (currently Zagrosk town located close to Moscow) and it is still remaining the most famous. The masters from that place use very special techniques: they burn out a pattern on the wood surface of the toy and then paint small pictures from Russian peasant life there and afterwards cover it with gold.
In other schools, Matryoshka is simply painted with colours but of course different masters insert their own style and peculiarities in the painting process. Before the Matryoshka can be painted they are dipped into a special starch liquid, necessary to prevent the paints from being washed out.
There are many other toys made in the same way but different in forms: domestic animals, kings and princesses with big crowns and so on. Currently you can see Matryoshka painted as political leaders such as Gorbachyov, Yeltsin, Stalin.
these days it is a huge industry and sometimes the quality suffers, but they are still good fun. You will find them at all prices too, with the most nested dolls being the most expensive. I brought them home as gifts and for my self too, as well as many other wooden toys.