Matryoshka doll

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Set of Matryoshka dolls in order of size
Matryoshka doll taken apart

A matryoshka doll (Russian: матрёшка, IPA: [mɐˈtrʲɵʂkə] ( ), matrëška), also known as Russian nesting/nested doll, refers to a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside the other. The first Russian nested doll set was carved in 1890 by Vasily Zvyozdochkin from a design by Sergey Malyutin, who was a folk crafts painter at Abramtsevo. Traditionally the outer layer is a woman, dressed in a sarafan, a long and shapeless traditional Russian peasant jumper dress. The figures inside may be of either gender; the smallest, innermost doll is typically a baby turned from a single piece of wood. Much of the artistry is in the painting of each doll, which can be very elaborate. The dolls often follow a theme, the themes vary, from fairy tale characters to Soviet leaders.


Church-themed matryoshka

A set of matryoshkas consist of a wooden figure which separates, top from bottom, to reveal a smaller figure of the same sort inside, which has, in turn, another figure inside of it, and so on. The number of nested figures is traditionally at least five, but can be much more, up to several dozen with sufficiently fine craftsmanship. Modern dolls often yield an odd number of figures but this is not an absolute rule; the original Zvyozdochkin set, for instance, had an even number. The form is approximately cylindrical, with a rounded top for the head, tapering toward the bottom, with few or no protruding features; the dolls have no hands (except those that are painted). Traditionally the outer layer is a woman, dressed in a sarafan. The figures inside may be of either gender; the smallest, innermost doll is typically a baby lathed from a single small piece of wood (and hence non-opening). The artistry is in the painting of each doll, which can be extremely elaborate.

The word "matryoshka" (матрёшка), literally "little matron", is a diminutive form of the Russian female first name "Matryona" (Матрёна).[1]


The original matryoshka by Zvyozdochkin and Malyutin, 1892

The first Russian nested doll set was carved in 1890 by Vasily Zvyozdochkin from a design by Sergey Malyutin, who was a folk crafts painter in the Abramtsevo estate of the Russian industrialist and patron of arts Savva Mamontov.[2][3] The doll set was painted by Malyutin. Malyutin's doll set consisted of eight dolls—the outermost was a girl in a traditional dress holding a rooster. The inner dolls were girls and a boy, and the innermost a baby.[2]

Zvyozdochkin and Malyutin were inspired by a doll from Honshu, the main island of Japan. Sources differ in descriptions of the doll, describing it as either a round, hollow daruma doll or a fukuruma nesting doll portraying portly bald old Buddhist monk.[2][3][4][5]

Savva Mamontov's wife presented the dolls at the Exposition Universelle (1900) in Paris, where the toy earned a bronze medal. Soon after, matryoshka dolls were being made in several places in Russia and shipped around the world.


Several Russian politicians depicted in matryoshka form.

Matryoshka dolls are often designed to follow a particular theme, for instance peasant girls in traditional dress, but the theme can be anything, from fairy tale characters to Soviet leaders.

Modern artists create many new styles of nesting dolls. Common themes include floral, Christmas, Easter, religious, animal collections, portraits and caricatures of famous politicians, musicians, athletes, astronauts, "robots" and popular movie stars. Matryoshka dolls that feature communist leaders of Russia became very popular among Russian people in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, some Russian artists specialize in painting themed matryoshka dolls that feature specific categories of subjects, people or nature. Areas with notable matryoshka styles include Sergiyev Posad, Semionovo (now the town of Semyonov),[6] Polkhovsky Maidan, and Kirov.

1990s matryoshka set featuring Russian leaders, including some Russian Imperial monarchs. Shows the Bald–hairy sequence.

During Perestroika, the leaders of the Soviet Union became a common theme depicted on matryoshkas. Starting with the largest, Mikhail Gorbachev, then Leonid Brezhnev (Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko almost never appear due to the short length of their respective terms), then Nikita Khrushchev, Josef Stalin and finally the smallest, Vladimir Lenin. Newer versions start with Dmitry Medvedev and then follow with Vladimir Putin, Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Joseph Stalin and then Vladimir Lenin. There are even ones that have Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin, Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Leonid Brezhnev, Nikita Khrushchev, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and finally Emperor Nicholas II a total of 9 dolls.

As metaphor[edit]

Matryoshka set in a row

Matryoshkas also are used metaphorically, as a design paradigm, known as the "matryoshka principle" or "nested doll principle". It denotes a recognizable relationship of "object-within-similar-object" that appears in the design of many other natural and crafted objects. Examples of this use include the Matrioshka brain and the Matroska media-container format.

The "matryoshka principle" is also an example of Mise-en-abyme. Compare with Fractal also.

The onion metaphor is of similar character. If the outer layer is peeled off an onion, a similar onion exists within. This structure is employed by designers in applications such as the layering of clothes or the design of tables, where a smaller table nests within a larger table and a yet smaller one within that.

The Matroska (MKV) multimedia container format derives its name from Matryoshka, alluding to the fact that the same container can hold many different types of content streams.

In media[edit]

There is also a Vocaloid song entitled Matryoshka (マトリョシカ?) which is performed by Vocaloids Miku Hatsune and Gumi Megpoid.


The dolls are constructed from one block of wood to create a proper fit; different pieces of wood would have unique expansion-contraction characteristics and moisture content. Production involves a turning lathe along with various woodcarving knives and chisels. First, the smallest doll (which cannot be taken apart) is made on a turning lathe, and the size and shape will determine that of the larger dolls. Next, the bottom and top halves of the next doll are made separately, with a ring on the bottom made to fit into an inset on the top portion. The upper part is placed on the lower half and allowed to dry, which tightens the ring to its upper fitting to ensure the halves will close securely. No measurements are made during this process; sizing to fit is done by eye. After all the dolls are made, they are treated, painted, and coated, before nesting them inside one another.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary Online. Accessed 2011-03-25.
  2. ^ a b c "Matryoshka - Soul of Russia". Russian Life. Retrieved 2011-10-23. 
  3. ^ a b Billington, James H. (2004). Russia in search of itself. Woodrow Wilson Center Press. p. 148,208. ISBN 978-0-8018-7976-0. 
  4. ^ "Три матрешки" (Three Matryoshkas), Vokrug sveta, July 1980.
  5. ^ "Eastern roots of the most famous Russian toy". Russian Geographical Society. 24.03.2011. 
  6. ^ "The hardworking women behind the matryoshkas hope for an Olympic boost". July 18, 2011, Natalya Radulova, Ogonyok
  7. ^ Matryoshka Doll, How Products are made, volume 6..

External links[edit]