Former Soviet Union: Journey to the Source: Russian Dolls

The Independent (London, England), July 17, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Former Soviet Union: Journey to the Source: Russian Dolls


NEAT LITTLE stacks of nesting dolls are carefully put together in various countries but the best-known tend to come - lovingly - from Russia. Traditionally, the dolls were carved by grandfathers and painted by grandmothers when a grandchild was born (hence their Russian name matryoshka or "grandmother") and the largest doll would typically represent the family's living matriarch. Since most sets are female (the childbearing sex), they are usually thought of as fertility symbols (which may explain why recent sets include one of Bill Clinton and his women, see right).

Nesting dolls were first made about 1,000 years ago in China; in the late 1800s a Russian artist, Sergei Malyutin, designed the first Russian set. Soon he had teamed up with the master carver Zveydochin (who cut and lathed the dolls for Malyutin to paint), and Russia's place in doll history was settled.

The dolls are made from lime wood, which is light but durable, and decrease in size down to the smallest (known as the "seed") which is always a solid figurine (in the early Chinese sets, the smallest doll was a single grain of rice). Some are a series of lookalike figures. Others include characters from Russian folklore. But, in general, the more figures included in a set and the more detail there is (hand- painted designs, wood-burning, lathe work, carvings and inlays, use of mother-of-pearl and gold leaf and so on), the more valuable the set becomes.

Today, although most visitors visit the town of Zagorsk (70km north of Moscow) to admire the blue domes, gold spires and patterned buildings that make up its famous monastery, dedicated doll fans can also visit the Zagorsk Museum of Toys to see an original Malyutin/ Zveydochin nesting- doll set.

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