A symbol of Russia that originated in Japan

Matryoshka is a wooden doll pertaining to the Russian tradition and it is one of the best-selling souvenirs that tourists buy when they visit the cities of the largest state in the world. Rather than a single doll, it is a set of dolls of different sizes, which can be stacked one inside the other, from the smallest one to the largest one. Each piece consists of two openable and reclosable parts that reveal its content. The larger doll is called the mother, while the smaller piece is the seed.

The term matryoshka comes from the Russian matrëška, a term of endearment for matrëna which, in turn, derives from the Latin mater. It means “matron” in the sense of a female head of family within a matriarchal society. It is in fact an object totally inspired by the female universe. Each doll is a mother with several children. The matryoshka is therefore a symbol linked to the mother figure, which would represent fertility, family and generosity. 

It would also symbolize our lives, since memories, stories and experiences are kept in each of them. It is therefore also a representation of the relationship between macrocosm and microcosm. According to tradition, the dolls contain in order of size: a mother, a girl, a boy, a babygirl, a babyboy and an infant.

Traditionally, the matryoshka depicts a Russian peasant woman dressed in traditional clothing and bright colors. The classic matryoshka is still represented like this, but now there are many versions representing characters from Russian fairy tales and novels, and even political figures like Stalin, Lenin and Putin.

The most controversial topic concerns its origin, as many link it to Japan. It is to the Russian entrepreneur and patron Savva Mamontov that we owe the creation of the first matryoshka, dating back to the second half of the nineteenth century. He was an art collector who wanted to make the traditional crafts of Russian peasants flourish again. He used to import objects from different parts of the world and that time his attention fell on a wooden object coming from the Japanese island of Honshu. It was a figure depicting a Buddhist wise man with four other figures inside.

The object in question is called kokeshi, and they are traditional Japanese wooden dolls. These are characterized by a simple cylindrical trunk, with no arms and legs. Matryoshkas are inspired by them. The idea of importing the Japanese doll and making a Russian version of them comes from the Japanese claim that the first kokeshi was created by a Russian monk. However, both matryoshkas and kokeshi could stem from Chinese boxes. 

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