Matryoshka doll: The largest set in the world consists of 51 pieces

Verica Sitnik

Matryoshka dolls are a type of wooden doll also known as Russian nesting dolls. “Matryoshka” (матрёшка) is s diminutive form of Russian female name Matriosha. The literal meaning of the name is “little matron.” A set of matryoshkas consists of wooden dolls of different sizes with a top and a bottom half that can be taken apart. Each smaller doll fits inside the next largest doll, and there are usually several dolls in a set. Traditionally, the dolls depict a woman dressed in a sarafan, a traditional Russian jumper dress.

However, there are many variations on this theme: smaller figures inside can be male or female, and sometimes the smallest doll is a baby. The dolls are often painted to follow creative themes, from Soviet leaders to fairy-tale characters, with a wider array of themes being produced since the latter half of the 20th century. The matryoshka dolls are also known as “babushka dolls,” which means grandmother in Russian.

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Matryoshkas, St. Petersburg, 2009 for sale in a souvenir shop. Author: Politikaner. CC BY-SA 3.0

The very first matryoshka doll set was designed and painted by Sergey Malyutin, a folk-craft painter, and carved by Vasily Zvyozdochkin in 1890. This set consisted of eight dolls: the smaller figures were girls and a boy, the outermost doll was a woman in traditional Russian dress holding a rooster, and the innermost character was a baby. The design of the matryoshka doll was inspired by a Japanese doll from Honshu.

The first Matryoshka set, designed and painted by Malyutin and carved by Zvezdochkin (1892), Sergiev Posad Museum of Toys, Russia.

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The toys were presented at the Exposition Universelle in Paris by Savva Mamontov’s wife, and the set of matryoshka dolls won a bronze medal. Soon after, the toys were produced in several places in Russia and exported around the world.

Matryoshka dolls in Christmas theme. Author: François de Dijon. CC BY-SA 4.0

Common themes made by modern artists include portraits of famous politicians, popular movie stars, and musicians. The themes can also be based on holidays such as Easter or Christmas. Russian artists that specialize in painting matryoshka dolls draw inspiration from history, culture, and nature.

English cocker spaniel matryoshka doll. Author: BrokenSphere. CC BY-SA 3.0

Improved freedom of expression in the Soviet Union the late 1980s allowed artists to decorate matryoshkas with Soviet leaders. Generally, the largest doll of these sets was painted with the portrait of the leader at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev. The toys became so famous at that time that they even earned the nickname of a “Gorby,” short for Gorbachev.

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An example of political matryoshka set dolls. Author: Brandt Luke Zorn. CC BY-SA 2.0

Political doll sets contain a series of prominent Soviet and Russian leaders or historically significant persons such as Peter the Great, Vladimir Lenin or Joseph Stalin. One set of political matryoshka dolls usually ranges between five and ten characters.

A matryoshka doll for sale at a theme park in Shenzhen, China.Author: BrokenSphere. CC BY-SA 3.0

The world record for the largest set of matryoshka dolls belongs to Russian artist Youlia Bereznitskaia. Completed in 2003, the set consists of 51 individual pieces, and every single doll is hand painted. The smallest doll in the set measures 0.12 in, the largest one 21.25 in, and when lined up side by side, they span 11 ft 2.25 in. As a design paradigm, the matryoshkas are often used metaphorically to describe scenarios where there is an object or concept inside a similar one, such as the “nested doll principle” or the “matryoshka principle.”