Legend of Russian Nesting Dolls – Matryoshka

Unusual forms of Russian nesting dolls are known all over the world. It is, perhaps, the most popular Russian national souvenir, staying in one row with vodka, samovars and balalaikas. At the same time, it seems that the matryoshka doll is an ancient invention, although the Russian girl in the national costume is only a little more than a century old. Discover the  Legend of Russian Nesting dolls with us.




Japanese Daruma

Despite the relatively young age, the origin of the matryoshka is shrouded in mystery and surrounded by legends. According to one of the legends, the prototype of the matryoshka doll was the Japanese doll Daruma, a traditional doll-tumbler, personifying Bodhidharma – the god who brings happiness.

Japanese doll Daruma
Photo by livejapan.com

Daruma depicts Bodhidharma, who according to legend, after nine years of meditation atrophied his legs and hands. The doll is made of wood or papier-mache and is usually painted in red. The version about Daruma as a prototype of a nesting doll is very doubtful, because the Japanese doll only remotely resembles the Russian doll, and is more like a hedgehog.


Fukuruma Doll

According to the second legend, the first similarity of Russian nesting dolls was carved out by some Russian Orthodox monk-missionary, staying in Japan. As a basis, he took a figure of one of the seven Japanese gods of luck Fukuruma (or Fukurokuju, or Fukurokuju – in different transcriptions).

Fukuruma Doll
Photo by russian-crafts.com

Although the reason why the Orthodox monk copied the pagan deity the history doesn’t know. Also, the legend does not reveal the name of the monk and even the approximate time of creating the prototype of a nesting doll. But it is necessary to recognize that the Fukuruma doll both with form and content is much more like a familiar matryoshka doll than Daruma.



Version three, the most common and often repeating: the first matryoshka was made in the late nineteenth century by artists Malyutin and Zvezdochkin in the studio of Anatoly Mamontov’s “Children’s education.” It was made in the likeness of the Japanese Fukuruma. This version has minor variations. At the end of the nineteenth century a Fukuruma doll from the island of Honshu was found in the Mamontov estate near Moscow – a toy with a secret: in the wooden deity his whole family was hiding.

The Japanese wonder interested the artist Sergey Malyutin, and on its basis he created a sketch of a peasant girl in a kerchief and with a black rooster under her arm. The doll production was entrusted to the best turner of the Sergiev Posad training and demonstration workshops Zvezdochkin. The final doll was called Matryona.

The first Matryoshka
Photo by www.culture.ru

True or False?

As a proof of the first option says Zvezdochkin’s autobiography, where he writes that in Sergiev Posad he began to work only in 1905, and, hence, the matryoshka could not have been born there at all. Zvezdochkin also wrote that he invented a matryoshka doll in 1900, but it probably happened a little earlier – this year the matryoshka doll was presented at the World’s Paris exhibition, where the Mammoths received a bronze medal for toys nominations.

It is also interesting that in the memoirs of Zvezdochkin there is no mention of the artist Malyutin, who at the same time, collaborated with Mamontov, doing books illustrations. Perhaps the turner just forgot this fact, since all the biography was written fifty years after the creation of the matryoshka doll.

Maybe this version is just a legend since no sketches of nesting dolls were found in his heritage. Japanese Fukuruma in the memoirs of Zvezdochkin is also not mentioned.

In the question of how many matryoshkas were in the very first set, there is also no consensus. If you believe Zvezdochkin, at first he made two matryoshka dolls, later three and six, but in the museum in Sergiev Posad there is an eight-place doll, in an apron and with a black rooster in her hand. This dool  is considered to be the first matryoshka doll.

Matryoshka’s motherland – Sergiev Posad city
Photo by stolica-s.su

Matryoshka’s Wide-spreading

But, however that may be, the matryoshka quickly won love not only at home, but also in other countries. It even went so far that matryoshka was forged abroad.

In Sergiev Posad, where matryoshkas were started to be manufactured after the closing of the “Children’s Education” workshop, painters gradually expanded the range of dolls. Together with the girls in sarafans with flowers, sickles, baskets and sheaves, they began to produce cowherd boys, old men, bridegrooms with brides, in which relatives were hiding, and many others. See below the series of matryoshkas which were specially made for a memorable event.

  • By the centenary of the birth of Gogol, matryoshkas were released with characters of the writer’s works.
  • By the centenary of the Patriotic War of 1812, they produced a series of matryoshkas depicting Kutuzov and Napoleon, inside of which were the members of their staffs.
  • There were many matryoshkas on the themes of fairy tales: “Humpbacked Horse”, “Repka”, “Firebird” and others.


Dolls of Repka fairy tale
Photo by www.woodfun.ru


From Sergiev Posad matryoshka went on a trip around Russia – it began to be manufactured in other cities. There were attempts to change the shape of the doll, but nested dolls in the form of a cone or Old Russian helmet found no demand, and their production ceased.


Matryoshka nowadays

But, having retained its form, the matryoshka gradually lost its true content – it’s not a toy anymore. If the nesting dolls of the fairy tale “Repka” could be played in this very turnip, then modern matryoshka dolls are not designed for games at all these are souvenirs.

Modern artists painting matryoshkas do not limit their imagination at all. In addition to traditional Russian beauties in bright scarves and sarafans, you can meet nesting dolls politicians, both Russian and foreign.

You can find a matryoshka-Schumacher, Del Piero, Zidane, Madonna or Elvis Presley, and many others. In addition to real faces, sometimes dolls from fairy tales appear on matryoshka dolls, as well as from modern fairytales, like “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings”.

Nasting dolls of Harry Potter heroes
Photo by www.livemaster.ru

In some workshops for a fee a painter may draw you and your family members on matryoshkas faces. Come to Russia and explore this unique doll yourself!

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