The Origin of the Matryoshka, Russian Nesting Dolls

Nesting Dolls -- in Their Native Russian

Matryoshka doll
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A matryoshka (plural: matryoshki) is a Russian nesting doll, and they are often simply called nesting dolls. It's pronounced mah-tree-YOSH-kah. These dolls open to reveal increasingly smaller versions of the same doll, one within another. The dolls can be pulled apart in the middle to reveal the next smallest doll, with the smallest doll being made of a solid piece of wood.

Nesting dolls are often used as symbols of Russian culture, but matryoshka dolls have their origins in similar dolls made in Japan.

Etymology of Matryoshka

If you suspect that the meaning of "Matryoshka" has a connection to the Russian word for "mother," you would be right. The Russian word for mother, мать (and another form of "mother" -- матушка) sounds like the Russian name Matriosha, which has a warm, motherly sound and might be connected to the Latin word "mater," or mother. It is believed that matryoshka derives from this female name, which was common when the dolls first gained their popularity. When you examine matryoshka dolls, they often seem like a happy family, with the mother or grandmother being represented by the largest dolls and the smaller dolls representing daughters or generations of younger women of the same family.

About the Dolls

Matryoshka dolls are popular and iconic Russian souvenirs. It's possible to buy very simple matryoshki in sets of five or seven. More elaborate matryoshka dolls might hold 20 nesting dolls or more. Typically, matryoshki are painted as cheerful, kerchief-wearing women. However, a matryoshka can also depict Russian fairy tales, Russian leaders or pop culture icons. The word matryoshka is often confused with the word babushka, which means grandmother in Russian.

Development and History

As traditional crafts go, matryoshki are a fairly recent invention, making their first appearance in the late 19th century. Their makers were inspired by similar dolls made in Japan, though Russian nesting dolls were given a relevant folk twist, depicting women dressed in traditional clothing with a kerchief and apron. Matryoshki became popular after their presentation at an international exposition and continue to be a favorite traditionally Russian item today. In fact, this trend has bled beyond Russia's borders, and cheerful nesting-doll shapes appear as kitchen utensils, key rings, makeup cases and wall decals.

Because of the nature of wood, which contracts and expands with the level of moisture in the air, nesting doll artisans must bear that in mind when they produce dolls. A set of dolls is typically made from a single piece of wood, with the smallest doll being the first to be produced so that the increasingly larger dolls can be made to fit around it.

Matryoshki can be found outside of Russia in several nearby countries, such as Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic countries -- Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. But Russia still has a corner on the nesting doll market, and the largest variety can still be found there.

If you're traveling to Russia, check out more Russian words in this travel words glossary.