Matryoshka Dolls: From Fukurama to the Modern Era

An enchanting collection of Matryoshka dolls, each handcrafted with meticulous attention to detail, tells a captivating story of Russian tradition and artistry – Photo: Jacqueline Macou | Pixabay

If you had to name a souvenir someone would bring back from a trip to Russia, a Matryoshka doll would likely be the first thing that came to mind.

Also known as babushka dolls or nesting dolls, Matryoshka dolls come in various colors and styles and can be found displayed on shelves and mantels across the globe.

Have you ever wondered about the meaning behind these unique dolls? If so, their history and significance are explained below.

Before the Matryoshka, There was the Fukurama

The first Matryoshka dolls showed up near Moscow toward the end of the 19th century. Their ancestors date back much further, though, to Fukurama, a Japanese sage.

This sage was often depicted as a cheerful, older man with his head outstretched.

When the figure was split open, a smaller version of the sage was presented, with another smaller version inside of that one. Altogether, the Fukurama doll contained five sages, each smaller than the last.

How Did the Fukurama Figure Get to Russia?

Elizaveta Sapozhnikov, the wife of Russian entrepreneur Savva Mamontov, brought the Fukurama figurine back to Russia after traveling to the island of Honshu.

Inspired by the figure, a woodturner named Vasily Zvyozdochkin partnered with artist Sergei Malyutin to create a female version. They described the first Russian stacking doll as “Matryoshka,” and the name has stuck around ever since.

Behold the First Matryoshka Set by Zvyozdochkin and Malyutin, Created in 1892, a Masterpiece of Russian Craftsmanship and Culture – Photo:

The word “Matryoshka” means “little matron.” The first doll was named Matrona, a popular female name in Russia that is derived from “mater,” the Latin word for mother.

The Matryoshka doll quickly became associated with motherhood and the continuation of life. The largest doll is generally considered to be the mother of the large family contained within her.

Industrial Production

Soon after Zvyozdochkin and Malyutin debuted the first Matryoshka doll, a toy factory in Moscow began producing them in mass quantities.

The original dolls contained eight figures, alternating between boys and girls. Because each “child” was smaller than the previous one, they represented a large family with children of different ages.

Matryoshka Dolls as Metaphors

The Matryoshka, a mesmerizing wooden doll brimming with smaller dolls nestled inside – Photo: Dids | Pexels

Practically since their inception, Matryoshka dolls have served as metaphors for femininity in Russian culture.

Many people associate them with mothers and the critical role they play in a family. The mother carries her children within her, and those children carry on the family’s legacy.

Even those outside of Russia use the Matryoshka doll as a metaphor. For example, people refer to the “Matryoshka principle” to describe any object contained within a similar, larger version. It’s even shown up in education and biology research.

The 20th Century and Beyond

During the early 20th century, the Matryoshka dolls were exported to other European countries, including Germany and England.

The dolls became especially popular in 1957 when thousands of people from 131 countries visited Moscow to attend the World Festival of Youth and Students. Many of the attendees bought Matryoshka dolls during this event and then took them to their home countries.

From here, the Matryoshka dolls continued to grow in popularity. Creators also started to get more creative and experiment with different styles and types.

For example, some represented historical events or characters from fables and fairy tales. Others portrayed famous politicians and artists.

World Record Breakers

Most Matryoshka dolls are a few inches tall. However, in 2003, Youlia Bereznitskaia decided to try her hand at a larger version. She currently holds the world record for the largest set of Russian nesting dolls.

Bereznitskaia’s project features a 51-piece set, all hand-painted. The largest doll stands at one foot 9.25 inches, and the smallest is a mere 0.125 inches tall. When all the pieces are lined up side by side, they’re 11 feet and 2.25 inches long.

The Modern Matryoshka

Over 100 years after their invention, Matryoshka dolls continue to be recognizable and beloved additions to people’s homes worldwide. Apple even introduced a Matryoshka emoji in 2020!

Jef Gray and Samantha Sunne proposed the emoji as a “non-religious and non-political” symbol that could represent Russian, East European, and Far East Asian cultures.

Whether one wants a digital version or a large wooden set of dolls to display on their shelf, they have a wide range of Matryoshkas to choose from.