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El origen japonés de las muñecas rusas matrioshkas

The Russian dolls that come from Japan

Matryoshkas, mamushkas, babushkas or simply nesting dolls. There are many names for this traditional toy made in Russia. They are pear-shaped and hollow inside. Each doll contains a variation of itself in different sizes, fitting perfectly inside each other. The number of pieces can vary from a minimum of 5 nested dolls to the desired number. But it must be an odd number, according to tradition.

The story behind the Russian nesting dolls

Despite being recognised as one of the most characteristic elements of Russian culture, nesting dolls were not originally created in Russia. They seem to have originated in Japan.

Group of nesting figurines from Japan
Photo: Pinterest

In 1890, Savva Mamontov, a famous Russian industrialist and patron of the arts, made a trip to Japan and brought back to his country a series of nested figures, representing the seven divinities of fortune. Together with Sergey Maliutin, a painter and designer of children’s toys, they began to create a reproduction of these figures, but in the Russian style. They depicted a peasant woman dressed in traditional Russian clothing, carrying within her all her offspring up to her newborn. It is a symbol of motherhood, family unity and the representative habits of the country.

The toy soon became very popular in the country, receiving the name of ‘Matryona’ (English for ‘mother of the family’), one of the most popular names in old Russia. But because it sounded so serious, people began to use its diminutive, ‘matryoshka’. In 1900, the doll caused a sensation at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, where it won a bronze medal.

From the 1930s onwards, the state took over matrioshka production and established factories in many Russian cities. At the Museum of Decorative Arts in Moscow, the variety of models illustrates the extent of the Soviet empire, from Chukotka dolls in the Far East to those made by Eskimos in the Arctic.

Artisanal production

Mamushkas on sale at a store in Saint Petersburg
Photo: Flickr / Tobias Begemann

The authentic Russian doll is usually made from linden or birch wood, and is completely handcrafted. According to tradition, and as a measure of quality, all the pieces that make up a matrioshka must be produced from the same piece of wood.

The first to be modelled is the smallest one, and the other sizes are created according to its size. Finally, the largest one will be carved, which will house all the previous ones.

To ensure a good fit, the matryoshkas are left to dry inside each other. Afterwards, the dolls are decorated with oil-based paint and finished with a coat of varnish.

The Russian dolls as a gift

Matrioska poppies model on sale at Fantastik
Matrioska poppies model on sale at Fantastik

Giving a matryoshka as a gift has an important meaning for Russians. When someone gives you a matryoshka, you have to make a wish. When the wish is granted, you can then open it and see the next matryoshka inside, making another wish. The process continues until you reach the last of the dolls. At the end, you must give the original set to the descendant of the house, as a symbol of the continuity of the family.

For this reason, if someone gives you a Russian doll and also knows its meaning, they are giving you their love and affection.

Original matryoshkas made in Russia

The matryoshkas you can buy here at Fantastik are a 100% original Russian product, handmade and hand-painted by craftsmen in the Nizhny Novgorod region, in particular in the towns of Semenov and Polkhov-Maidan. It is a region known for producing the best craftsmanship in Russia and still accounts for 60% of Russian matryoshka production.

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