One of the best known Russian souvenirs, Babushka or Matryoshka doll, was invented in 19th century, in the artistic colony Abramtsevo, which aimed at cultivating genuinely Slavic traditional culture. Sergey Vasilyevich Malyutin, Russian painter and architect, designed the first set of the nesting dolls in 1890. He gave the design to the craftsman Vasily Petrovich Zvyozdochkin who carved eight little objects, fitting one into the other, from one piece of wood. Malyutin then painted the largest one as a girl in a traditional dress, carrying a rooster, and the smaller ones represented several girls and a boy. The smallest, compact one, was painted as a baby in a diaper. This original set of matryoshka dolls was presented by Malyutin’s wife at the World Fair in Paris in 1900. On this occasion, it won a bronze medal, which brought international fame to this product. Nowadays, Matryoshka dolls are as popular as ever, featuring a broad range of motifs, from folklore to music bands and contemporary politicians.
The original symbolism of the nested doll is a big family, which is to say fertility. Contrary to the popular belief, it does not represent the old woman – “baba” (hence the misleading title “babushka”) and her grandchildren. The biggest doll is usually a young woman and smaller are her children or sisters and brothers. She wears a scarf on her head and is dressed in a colorful folk costume, which gives the artists the opportunity for intricate patterns and an elaborate work. Most of the figures are traditionally female, but males appear too. In its earliest history, Russian nesting doll could differ from this classic idea in order to convey a different subject. For example, a series was produced in 1909 to celebrate 100 years of Nikolai Gogol’s birth – appropriately, the nesting dolls were painted as characters from his novels! Fairy tales, such as these about the Firebird, also found place at the nesting dolls, as well as famous Russian architectural sites, or figures characteristic for country life. Today one can even get a set of dolls representing Star Wars characters, or Russian leaders starting from Putin backwards through history.
It is interesting to note that this profoundly Russian object was originally shaped after a Japanese model! It is said that Malyutin and Zvyozdochkin were inspired by a Buddhist souvenir, round and hollow, vividly painted, which somehow found its way to Abramtsevo colony. Anyways, the nature and artistic spirit of this place was such that all the influences were absorbed in the Pan-Slavic spirit. Due to its significance and relevance for this website, we will say a few words about the birthplace of Matryoshka dolls!
Located in Sergiyevo-Posadsky District of Moscow Oblast, the Abramtsevo estate first became a cultural center under the ownership of Sergey Aksakov, writer and an ardent Slavophile. In the mid-19th century he advocated the rejection of Westernization of Russia, called for a pure national culture and hosted figures such as Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev. Aksakov’s sons continued their father’s mission and Abramtsevo established a reputation of Slavic intellectual abode. In 1870’s it was bought by Savva Mamontov – an heir to a large fortune, who traveled extensively through Italy and Western Europe. He returned to native Russia decisive of sponsoring and cultivating genuine national culture. He offered to share his wealth as a patron with numerous friends from the sphere of visual, dramatic and literary arts. His invitation for an establishment of an artistic colony at Abramtsevo was readily accepted by talented young men which were to become the most important carriers of the Russian national art. Ilya Repin, Mikhail Vrubel, Viktor Vasnetsov – to name but a few – lived and worked in Abramtsevo. It soon became an estate full of newly built objects, which followed the contemporary ideal of “Gesamtkunstwerk” – “A total work of art”. The best example of this is a Church of the Saviour Not Made by Human Hand, shaped after the examples from medieval Novgorod, which contains icons by Ilya Repin and Michael Nesterov, Mikhail Vrubel’s ceramic tiled stove and a mosaic floor by Viktor Vasnetsov. The inhabitants of the Abramtsevo collaborated on many artistic projects and went to field trips in order to find inspiration in folklore and children’s art. They are known to the Art Historians as ‘The Abramtsevo Group’ and their achievements are extremely valuable for the cultural history of Russia. Apart from the Matryoshka dolls, they made many other objects paradigmatic for Russian culture as we perceive it today – for example, a house of Baba Yaga witch, the widely known celebrity of Russian folklore villains. However, the artistic production in Abramtsevo did not end in the 19th century, since there is an active School of Applied Arts hosted among the estate’s objects. Nowadays, Abramtsevo is turned into a heritage site, shrouded in a forest, keeping a valuable collection of less known 19th century artworks – and a memory of the first nesting dolls.