You can’t think of Russia without the Nesting Doll (Matryoshka) coming to mind! For over 100 years, the wooden babushka stacking dolls have been a symbol of Russian culture throughout the world. Due to this cultural ubiquity, we find Nesting Doll and Matryoshka motifs all throughout Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker production. You will see two seven-foot tall matryoshkas right at the top of the show, in the Party Scene, when the guests wheel them to center stage. These larger than life Nesting Dolls then reveal two Moscow Ballet soloists in the role of the Moore Dolls, who then dance an acrobatic pas de deux.
The origin of the Matryoshka can be traced back to 1890, when Sergey Malyutin designed the first set. He partnered with Vasily Zvyozdochkin, who carved and spun the wooden dolls. Malyutin was an accomplished artist, and this first instance of the Nesting Doll is considered to be part of the Arts and Crafts movement which was a popular global phenomenon at the time. In addition to his ground breaking work creating the modern Nesting Doll, Malyutin painted for theater; creating drops for Nutcracker and doing work for the world famous Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg, Russia.
Matryoshka’s, or Nesting Dolls, literally mean ‘Little matron’ in Russian. In America they are most often seen in sets of five stackable wooden dolls with each smaller doll nesting comfortably within the next largest in the series. For collectors, the real prize are the very elaborate sets which can contain a dozen or more of the highly decorated matrons. Often painted with floral patterns, Nesting Dolls can act as a blank canvas for a story, or for abstract naturalistic reflections. Often the central “belly” area of Matryoshkas are used to relate a Russian folk tale in sequence, from the largest mama doll in the set down to the baby doll which does not separate at the middle, but is carved from a single piece of wood.
In modern times, Nesting Dolls became canvases for political ideas as well. During the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, in the latter stages of the Soviet Union, Perestroika lead to a liberalizing trend in the subjects painted on the wooden Nesting Dolls. It became common to see Soviet political leaders rendered on matryoshka; from Lenin to Stalin all the way up to the leaders of the time, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and even Vladimir Putin.