Matryoshka seems very ancient. However, the ancient origins of matryoshka are nothing but a marketing trick for easy tourists. From the historical perspective, the dolls relatively recently in 1890's, came to Russia from Japan. Hard as it is to believe, matryoshka is as old as cinema.
They say that somebody brought to the Mamontovs, a renowned family of Russian industrialists and patrons of arts, a wooden carving of a Buddhist saint with a surprise. The doll that came from island of Honshu would break into two halves revealing a smaller one with the same trick, of which there were five.
As for matryoshka's ancestors, is it only certain that they come from a tea-house in Japan whose owner once marketed a new toy, twelve dolls one inside the other. The toy was doubly nicknamed: parti-colored Daruma is honor of the Japanese god of luck, and Shichifukujin after the seven Shintoist gods - family patrons.
Once in Russia, matryoshka first established itself in Moscow "Children's Education" for design and marketing of the so-called ethnographic dolls dressed in folk clothes of various regions of the Russian Empire. The idea was happily married to the Japanese form to give birth to what is to world-known today as a multiple wooden doll in a Russian folk dress.
The immigrant doll naturalized in the Russian soil, changing it's eastern narrow eyes for a wide stare, with roses in it's cheeks and golden curls of hair. Ten years later matryoshka made its appearance in Russia it was awarded a gold medal as a typically Russian toy at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900.
After the World exhibition of 1900 international orders swarmed to encourage opening of large workshops in Moscow's suburb of Sergiev Posad, a major centre of Russian icon painting. As a matter of division of labor, women would paint clothes and men faces since, according to the ecclesiastical rule, only men learned to paint countenances of the saints. This explains why motionless faces of early dolls from Sergiev Posad are so expressive.
After the revolution matryoshkas were ideologically purged. It was not just policemen, deacons and old-believers who were put on the black list but also sea-maids and forest trolls, something quite understandable from the point of view of the soviet regime. Of the entire variety only one species survived, a puff-sided wide-eyed lady with rosy cheeks. Production of dolls in the Soviet Union peaked at the time of 1980 Olympics when a total of 10 million sets were made. Of souvenirs bought by international travelers only the Bear, official symbol of the Olympics, was competitive.
Today a whole army of craftsmen produce dolls for sale as their fantasy and skill would suggest. From a few forms of traditional Russian matryoshka, one can always guess where the doll comes from knowing specific tricks of their manufacture.
Already early in the 20th century Sergiev Posad developed its own species later called "Zagorsk" by the name that the town adopted at the time of the Soviet regime. Dolls are painted heavily without leaving a single patch of pure wood. Their warm color palette - orange, light brown, yellow, red - inspires warmth and vitality. This hostess doll as it is often called will invariably hold something like a samovar or a basket.
In the 1920s matryoshka came to the fair at the Nizhni Novgorod and spread out to several craftsmen villages. The most famous dolls were made in Semyonovo. They were more brightly
colored than those of Zagorsk, with contrasting combinations of red, blue and yellow in their dress. Semyonovo sets are known for their prolificacy (15-18 dolls) of which the biggest (72-doll 1,5 m high and 0,75 m wide) was even mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records. This giantess was specifically commissioned to the Semyonovo factory as a memorable gift for the Japanese government.
Another manufacturing centre is the town of Vyatka (Kirov). In the 1960s the local matryoshka acquiring patches of straw. After rye straw is manually cut in the field, it is boiled in a soda solution to gain yellowish shade, cut and ironed, with decorative elements die-made as necessary.
The process of doll manufacture changed little from the last century, the best material being soft and easily workable linden. Trees are cut in April for juicy wood which is then freed of bark, the ends covered with the clay to avoid flaws. Before coming to the turner, blanks are patiently aged in the open air for two long years for the she shaft to dry to the core.
It takes a true professional to make one round blank through 15 operations using only a primitive set of chisels and knives. The blank is covered with starch glue to have an absolutely smooth surface for paints to apply evenly and avoid flowing. Since production of blanks ("whites" as they are called in slang) is a sophisticated and painstaking process, it is not surprising that every craftsman wants his own turner so that the doll perfectly falls within the size and shape of the pattern designed by its author.
Today shops abound in dolls designed exclusively for foreign guests. Characters of Disney animations compete with sets of Russian rulers, while faces of the saints with those of the hair Beatles. True connoisseurs want only an exclusive precious doll for themselves. Dolls may be commissioned: one American wanted from Sergiev Posad a set after Alice in Wonderland, a work that required several months to complete. Some collector's items follow the style of Rubens and Gainsborough, their cost going well beyond 3 or 4 thousand dollars. A traditional 30-doll set from Russia is displayed in New-York's Gallery of Modern Art. The largest private collection of more than 6 thousand sets of different schools including original pre-revolutionary ones belongs to Robert Brokop, an American.
The art of matryoshka, despite its Japanese origins, is surprisingly Russian. Attempts to paint collapsible dolls were made in Germany, France, and Japan itself. Chinese craftsmen even set up a large-scale production of dolls with all exactness of costume detail and painting methods. But the alien nature would instantly reveal itself, foreign dolls failing to win recognition.
Could it be that the unresolved mystery of matryoshka is in a short story told step by step, from the bigger doll to the smaller, with all intimacy and romance so peculiar of Russia?