most frequently asked question about Russian Dolls is how did the
tradition begin?. As ever with these things there are
different answers but one explanation is sufficiently far fetched to
Around 1890 an artists commune to the North of Moscow in the village of
Abramsova was owned by a merchant and patron of the arts called Sava
They had meetings each Saturday at which they exchanged
ideas as to what things they should produce. One day someone produced
a nesting doll of a jolly bald headed man with some other figures
inside. It had been brought from Japan and the legend states it was
made by a Russian monk on the Island of Honshu. Some say that this
doll was actually brought back by the wife of Mamontov from a trading
expedition. The doll was called Fukuruma.
Turning nesting objects such as Easter eggs was not new to the Russian
woodturners but the idea of a doll was something different. Two
artists were commissioned by Mamontov to produce a doll in the
Russian style. Vassily Zvodochkin turned the pieces and Sergei
Maliutin painted the design. Far from being the young girl we see as
so traditional the first doll was a family group with the smallest
piece being a baby wrapped in traditional swaddling.
Part of this commune was in fact a toy workshop so it is not surprising
that other artists picked up the idea and began to produce more
The break through for the new toy came in 1900 when the
dolls were shown at the World Exhibition in Paris. The new toy won a
prize and became internationally know.
By 1904 a workshop had opened in Paris and was the first to sell the
dolls commercially outside Russia. By 1911 dolls were sent from
Russian factories to 14 different countries around the world. Attempts
were even made by German and French toy makers to produce
the dolls but these did not last.
The Revolution brought about an
abrupt end to the production of Matrioshka in Russia and it was
several years into the new regime before they were manufactured in
any number. In the next ssection we look at the way production was
developed in various centres in Soviet times.
oldest dolls we know of in the country, thought to be from the mid to
late twenties are at Wightwick Manor in Staffordshire which is owned
by the National Trust.
If anyone knows of any pre-war Russian dolls
or has one in their collection we would love to see a picture.
The Communist Era 1918-1991
the Revolution in Russia there was a period of about 10 years when
the whole population struggled for survival. The emphasis was on
production of essentials not the more frivolous items. For this
reason the 1920's era was a quiet time in Matrioshka production.
the end of the decade things changed and various factories began to
produce dolls in substantial numbers. As in all other aspects of
Soviet life production was controlled and the Semyenov factory was
chosen as the one which would be allowed to export most of its
production, which is why many people believe that this simple Smyenov
doll is the "original".
The factory at Cergiev Posad, then
Zagorsk, eventually called Toy Factory No. 1 produced dolls mainly
for sale in the Beriozshka shops (Shops which took foreign currency and used mostly by tourists)
as did those at Kirov, Polkhov
Maidan and Lipyetsk.
Most of the production during this time looks
very similar although it is possible to identify where a piece was made
by the design. The design had to be simple to allow for mass
is worth bearing in mind that this system extended to all Handicraft
products including the world famous lacquer boxes, shawls, painted
trays and many other items. It was in effect a crime to paint a doll
and sell it for yourself, all items went to the Berozshka shops or other specialist outlets
which controlled sales and
There are stories of electricity being cut off in areas
where people attempted to produce their own items. Police controlled
the movement of goods at railway stations and entry points to towns.
Despite this a few enterprising individuals did manage to produce
their own dolls but these were normally sold to private collectors
and are very rare.
with the changes of the mid 1980's did the situation alter. Controls on
the activity of individuals was relaxed and those artists
with any talent soon took the opportunity to sell their product on
the open market.
perestroika means rebuilding or changing, the period since the
end of the Communist system has been very hard for the former
factories. Toy Factory No. 1 at Sergiev
Posad formerly Zagorsk closed shortly after Perestroika although it has now reopened as a private concern.
The only other factory now operating is th Semyenov factory near Nizhny Novgorod although this has
amalgamated with the Hochlama factory in the same town.
soon as artists became free to express themselves and sell their own
work for profit they did so. A clear manifestation of this was the
famous “Gorby” doll produced in thousands and in as many
different qualities. But not everyone could benefit from this
change. Sergiev Posad is only about 70 Kms from Moscow with easy
access to the tourist markets but Polkhov Maidan and Semyenov are
around six hours’ driving away.
(Old Arbat Street) were not all they seemed. Many of the ‘artists’
selling dolls and souvenirs were in fact students hired by a small
group which controlled the entire operation.
When President Yeltsin
closed the Old Arbat Market it was a brief and small attempt to stop
crime. Today these controlling groups concentrate on tourist markets,
selling pitches rather than individual items. The
rapid increase in the number of artists selling their own work in the
markets has created a very confused situation as they produce new
designs as well as ‘copying’ traditional styles from other
regions making it almost impossible to tell from the design where it
was produced. There are several areas of production, the major being
around Sergiev Posad with co-operatives also working in St
Petersburg, Ryazan and the area around Nizhny Novgorod. The work
produced is of differing quality, from the worst to the very best. Many
of you will have seen the book by Larissa Salieva which illustrates
much of the best work now being produced. Unfortunately there is now
a trend to “Westernise” production with many of the faces moving
away from the simple maiden style so that they appeal more to the
American market. One
thing that can be said in the post Communist era is that the
Matrioshka is as popular as ever and there are many artists earning a
realistic income by using their individual talents.
Russia today there are a lot of very talented artists producing a
wide range of designs and styles of Matrioshka. The problem for
artists now is that they have to sell their work to survive, rather
than receiving a state income as happened under the Communist system.
Twenty years after the big changes there are still artists working
who grew up under the old system and still produce either as
individuals or in collective groups. Those who work as part of our
know that they will have regular work and a regular income. Those
who paint as individuals sell their work through tourist markets but
this is really only possible if they live close enough to Moscow or St
Others sell their work through ‘agents’ who operate
in the tourist areas. These intermediaries usually try to give the
impression that it is their own work they are selling. There are a
few extremely talented artists whose work is so special they have a
waiting list. I have one such doll – very expensive but very
There is little incentive for young people to follow this
profession and many of them regard this part of their culture as too
‘folksy’. They want to be more like young people in the ‘west’ - up and
coming professional business people with a life style to
match. This is understandable but the country has a long way to go
before even a reasonable proportion of people can attain this ideal.
There is also the possibility that demand will eventually fall away
although it is clear that the matrioshka industry is still thriving
in Russia today.
believe that the production will gradually fall into two groups –
the more commercial production for the mass market either in
factories like Semyenov or in small workshops around Moscow and St
Petersburg and, at the other end of the scale, there will be a few
artists producing work of the highest quality. We will have to wait
and see how things develop.