What are Matryoshka Dolls?

A matryoshka doll is a set of dolls of decreasing sizes placed one inside another. It is also referred to by other names: Russiannested doll, stacking doll or Babooshka doll.  Babooshka doll is my personal favorite because my Russian grandmother often wore a babooshka, a kerchief, on her head. The name “matryoshka”, however, comes from the Russian word “mat” or mother. The “oshka” part of matryoshka is given to names to show beloved affection.
Names like Matryona and Matryosha were common names for Russian girls prior to World War I.  Generally, Russians associate the word matryoshka with fertile women and motherhood. The word is also lent to the image of Russian females who are robust, rustic, and of a portly physique. The images of these women were honored in the earliest styles of matryoshka dolls. The largest doll or mother was accompanied by her children who were painted on the smaller dolls nestled, or nested inside.
A set of matryoshkas consists of a wooden figure which can be pulled apart at the mid-section to reveal another figure of an almost identical nature inside. The figure inside the mother doll has, in turn, another figure inside, and so on down the line. The number of nested figures is usually five or more, a nice size Russian peasant family. The shape is mostly cylindrical, rounded at the top for the head and tapered towards the bottom or base, but little else. The dolls have no hands,legs or feet (except those that are painted). There are no moving parts or carved facial features.
Traditionally, the outer layer is a woman, dressed in a sarafan, holding a rooster. Inside, it contains other figures that may be of both genders, usually ending in the tiniest doll, a baby that does not open. The artistry is not in any intricate carving, but rather in the painting of each doll, which can be extremely detailed and elaborate.
Matryoshkas are often designed to follow a particular theme. One of the most common themes is peasant girls in traditional dress.  However, the theme can be anything, from fairy talecharacters to political leaders to musicians or popular movie stars. Modern artists create many new styles of nesting dolls, and the popularity of certain dolls can depend on the times. For example, the matryoshka dolls that feature communist leaders of Russia became very popular among Russian people in the early 1990's, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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