A Stackable Hobby - Building a Matryoshka Doll Collection

Story and photos by Sara Jordan-Heintz

Regal, colorful and bulbous, Russian matryoshkas – informally known as stacking, or nesting, dolls – have a whimsical air about them. Featuring rosy cheeks, covered heads, and sly, yet knowing eyes, these famed wooden dolls continue to amuse and beguile collectors of all ages and backgrounds.

A small set of Matryosha nesting dolls.

Maybe it's the very design itself that is most attractive – the single doll that harbors a secret – hiding anywhere from a couple to several dozen gradually smaller dolls stacked one inside another.
But I'm also drawn to the craftsmanship that no two sets of dolls can ever be exactly alike. Each doll tells a story - about the person who designed and painted it, the region of the world where it was made, and what themes about life are being expressed, subtly or not so subtly, through this unique medium.

As a preteen, I purchased my first matryoshka set at a retro store in my native Des Moines, IA. A set of five dolls, they're painted a magenta hue, decorated with light pink flowers, surrounded by greenery. The next addition to my collection was also a set of five, all sporting a colorful fruit basket on the front of their bodies, accented by pink, teal and robin's egg blue shades, and a painted lace border, the largest standing three inches tall. Four of the five are trimmed in glitter, creating a raised texture to the pieces. What thrilled me the most about this find is the flourish of Russian writing on the underside of the main doll.

The writer's first doll.

By no means are the bulk of my matryoshka dolls signed. Many were inexpensive purchases on eBay or at global gift shops. But when I find a doll with markings or stamps or stickers, it feels a little more authentic to me; one can prove the pieces were made in Russia and not on an assembly line in China.

However, Chinese origin and Russian-made matryoshkas do share a common thread. At the turn of the first millennium, the Chinese made nesting boxes – a large box with several smaller ones inside. Hundreds of years later in China, this technique was applied to dolls. Then, wooden dolls were made into the image of Fukurokuju, the Japanese god of longevity. These dolls would be filled with the six other Lucky Gods of that faith.

"Marta" and her well-dressed family.

As the story goes, the Japanese doll caught the attention of Savva Mamontov and his wife, Elizabeth, wealthy Russian art patrons who established a Children's Education Workshop in Moscow, which made toys aimed at highlighting Russian art and culture. This led to the first Russian stacking dolls being made in 1890 by Vasily Zvyozdochkin and designed by Sergey Malyutin – a set of eight dolls consisting of a female in a traditional dress holding a black rooster, with smaller "children" dolls inside, representing Russian peasant life. The dolls grew in popularity after Elizabeth Mamontov wife presented them at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, sparking international interest.

Because these dolls sometimes take on a maternal connotation, it's not surprising then the etymology of the word matryoshka (pronounced ma-trow-shka) comes from the popular female name Matryona, which was derived from the Latin root "mater" meaning mother. The dolls are also sometimes called babushkas, as the word is used in Poland and Russia to mean old woman or grandmother. Referring to them as "nesting dolls" is also acceptable.

A sequence of cheerful Matryosha nesting dolls.

The largest "mother doll" will be painted with the most detail. The others in the set will be styled much like the first, but with fewer intricacies. The final doll (which is almost always solid and does not stack) may be quite rudimentary, resembling how the other dolls may have looked in their infant stages of design. It is also the doll most prone to getting lost because of its diminutive size.

The favorite doll in my collection stands seven inches tall and commands attention. Marta, as I have christened the main doll, is one of the most stunning matryoshkas I've ever seen. Her gray eyes pop against her majestic headdress, festooned with painted on feathers, beads and jewels. She reminds me of the type of face you would see hanging as an icon in an Eastern Orthodox Church. The six dolls that stack within Marta are just as gorgeous, and are painted with as much attention to detail – each dressed in different costumes and head coverings.

Unusual brown-eyed-dolls.

Most dolls I find have blue or gray eyes with enormous eyelashes, and blonde or black hair. So whenever I come across a doll with red or brown hair, or with brown or green eyes, I must have it for my collection.

When one conjures up an image of what a traditional Russian stacking doll looks like, I think the vision is that of the Semenov style – dolls with black hair, minimally painted, usually with a red or yellow head covering and bright flowers, accented by polka dots.

The retailer Great Russian Gifts notes how the village of Semenov, established in the 17th century, became a hub of Russian wooden handicrafts. Arsenty Mayorov was one of the first artisans in that area. While attending a fair in Nizhny Novgorod in 1924, he purchased unpainted nesting dolls and had his daughter, Luba, paint the dolls using a goose feather and aniline dyes.

Color coordinated in pink.

Online retailer The Russian Store explains that most matryoshka dolls are made from blocks of wood from the linden tree. One block of wood is used to make the bottom of the doll, and then a separate block is used to create the top.

Dolls tend to depict females, either in the form of maidens or mothers with children. They wear dresses, aprons and don head coverings. Their hands are either painted at the sides, or hold an instrument, animal, fruit, teapot or flowers.

Mordovian style.

Some dolls have scenes painted across them, depicting Russian folk art or classic fairy tales such as "Rapunzel" and "Cinderella." With much of Russia inhabiting a subarctic climate, it seems a natural choice to decorate matyroshkas with wintery imagery.

Dr. Lori Verderame, a noted academic and antiques appraiser, uses her trained eye to review approximately 20,000 items a year. She is the antiquities expert on the television show "The Curse of Oak Island" and the star appraiser on the show "Auctions Kings." She told Discover Vintage America, "After identifying expertise in the hand-painting and craftsmanship of the doll, the most valuable matryoshkas are those that tell a story using folk tale scenes, as these bring the most money from the market. The greater number of dolls in a nest typically will enhance value, but is not the sole value indicator for serious collectors." (For more information on matroyskas, visit Dr. Verderame's website at www.DrLoriV.com)

More dolls displaying the archetecture of Moscow.

The design in which I'm most drawn to as a collector is of dolls painted to feature scenes of Soviet architecture. As an admirer of Saint Basil's Cathedral, I tend to buy dolls that depict this gorgeous, colorful structure. Dolls with generic Russian cityscapes are also attractive, especially ones featuring the onion dome cathedrals.

But sometimes, the pull a matyroshka has on me is more primal. It's something about the doll's facial expression, the color scheme; it's shape (tall, thin dolls jump out because most are more squat in nature).

Elena Dityateva, who is based in Barnaul, Russia, makes these dolls by hand, selling them through her Etsy store NestingdollShop. A newcomer to the art form, having taken up her paintbrush in January 2018, she bonds with her creations in a way other artists may not connect with their clay or canvas.

"It seems to me that my matryoshka dolls have a soul – a kind soul. They too can feel sad, dream, rejoice, be happy," she explained. "When I do a matryoshka, I start to paint the face, and then the doll itself dictates the style and color of the clothes. In general, I have it on an intuitive level, so that color combinations are harmonious."

An entire collection of Matryoshkas.

Dityateva said these dolls have both a sentimental and monetary value, oftentimes at odds with one another. A stacking doll set that was carved and painted with ornate care will fetch a higher sum than ones that have a basic paint job look. If a piece is signed, and by a noted artist, that too increases its collectability.

"The price depends on professionalism, experience and time spent on one job — that is how it is everywhere," she said. "I advise buyers and collectors to choose their matryoshka with their heart; if the matryoshka doll is very expensive, but they do not like it, this is a bad option," she said.

Pop culture-inspired matryoshkas are extremely popular. Musicians, actors, super heroes, cartoon characters and Disney princesses have all been immortalized in wooden doll form. One of the newer sets in my collection was a recent birthday gift from my husband Andy. Knowing of my love of "The Golden Girls" he set out to find the female foursome's stacking doll counterparts. He landed on Etsy, in the bobobabushka shop run by stacking doll artist Irene Hwang, who is based in Queensland, Australia.

The cast of "Golden Girls."

Billed as dolls with attitude and sass, she has built up an impressive roster of character-themed matyroshkas, including "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", "A Clockwork Orange", "Breaking Bad", "Pulp Fiction" and "Willy Wonka."

Dorothy is the largest doll in my set, followed by Blanche, Rose and a tiny Sophia – clutching her ubiquitous purse. They even came with a mini piece of cheesecake!

Being an avid Angela Lansbury and "Murder, She Wrote" fan, I commissioned Brovary, Ukraine-based artist Olga Kechedzhy of DollladyUkraine Etsy store, to craft a black, white and
 gray rendering of Lansbury, during the height of her television career.

This set displays the buildings of Red Square.

I remain on the lookout for additional Russian architecture-themed matryoshkas and anything avant-garde that catches my eye. The next customized doll set I hope to obtain will feature my other favorite female foursome — the cast of "Designing Women."

The endless assortment of matryoshkas on the market and how customized orders are just a click away, is what leaves me breathless and keeps me coming back for more of these dolls.

Sara Jordan-Heintz is a writer, editor and historian, based in Iowa. She has been published by the Associated Press and in Antique Trader, Collectors Journal, Farm Collector and Classic Images magazines, as well as in several books. She is a recipient of the Genevieve Mauck Stoufer Outstanding Young Iowa Journalists Award from the Iowa Newspaper Association. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SaraEliz90 or contact her at: rose111@netins.net

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com

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