Forgotten Dolls

an encyclopedia of dolls and doll collecting

Matryoshka -- Russian nesting dolls


matryoshka russian nesting dolls

What are matryoshka? Matryoshka dolls are sets of hollow dolls typically made of linden wood which have been specially designed with a wood turning tool to nest one inside another. They are cut in half at the waist with the intent to be opened. The word 'matryoshka' derives from the Latin mater, meaning 'mother'.

Modern matryoshka designs can include animals, Soviet leaders, fairy tale figures, and pop culture icons.

History of Russian nesting dolls

The original set of matryoshka art dolls was originally created in Russia in 1890 by Sergei Maliutin and Vasiliy Zvezdochkin, who were inspired by traditional Japanese kokeshi dolls. The outermost figure is usually that of a woman in traditional Russian garb. Each successive doll is smaller than its predecessor. The innermost doll is a baby that cannot be opened. The original matryoshka dolls were presented at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900 and won a medal.

Tip: You can tell you have a full set if you have both the outermost doll, which can be identified by the "lip" around the bottom of the doll, and the baby which cannot be opened.

Types of matryoshka nesting dolls

Semenov matryoshka dolls

The Semenov matryoshka dolls are made in a traditional style which is painted in aniline dyes. The apron is the focal point: there will be a large asymmetrical flower bouquet featuring a rose and violets. Three colours are used for these dolls: red, yellow, and green (typically a red headscarf with yellow dress and green detailing, or a yellow headscarf with red dress and green detailing). There is a spiral design on the headscarf of the dolls.


Sergiev-Posad matryoshka dolls

Those matryohska dolls produced in Sergiev-Posad are far more modern in appearance than those elsewhere. Many have detailed face-painting and bodies. The designs are not restricted to the traditional floral apron. It is not unusual to find matryoshka dolls from this region decorated with domed churches, snow scenes, and fairytale paintings.


Tver (Kalinin) matryoshka dolls

Tver matryoshka are distinctive in that they are feature a wood-burned design on the raw wood. The darker woodburn tones enhance the detailing of their clothing. The colours used are very bright with non-stylized apron designs, and there is a lot of gold leaf detailing.

Polkhovsky Maidan matryoshka dolls

The matryoshka from Polkhovsky Maidan are quite stylized, often having spiral curls for hair. Their outfits tend toward yellow tones with some reds and greens used, and a floral pattern on the apron. These are very traditional matryoshka.

Viatka (Kirov) matryohska dolls

The Viatka matryohska dolls have rounded child-like facial features. They are painted in simple bright colours with a stylized floral design on the apron. The designs of this style have clean lines.

semenov matryoshka russian nesting dolls
sergiev matryoshka russian nesting dolls
tver matryoshka russian nesting dolls
viatka matryoshka russian nesting dolls

Make your own matryoshka dolls

DIY matryoshka

It's easy to design and paint your own set of matryoshka if you start with a blank set of matryoshka dolls. Once you have the dolls, it's just a matter of painting a design on them. I recommend this book:

Paint Your Own Nesting Dolls Paint Your Own Nesting Dolls by Carmen Barros (Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2010): A guide to designing and painting your own set of matryoshka dolls. Included are patterns for some basic designs, materials list for each project, and detailed how-to instructions. There are twelve patterns, and it would be easy to adjust designs for your own imagined images of the dolls.

Further reading

You might also enjoy this book:

A Collector's Guide to Nesting Dolls A Collector's Guide to Nesting Dolls: Histories, Identification, Values by Michele Lyons Lefkovitz (Books Americana, 1989): Older book, but still a useful guide to the various styles of matryoshka from each region. Includes both b&w photos and a small section of colour plates. If you collect matryoshka, it's a must-have collector's guide.

These books can be difficult to find since many are out of print. Some great places to buy used books online include:

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