Semyonov Style Russian Nesting Dolls


Semenov is a town in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, Russia, famous for being a major centre for traditional handcrafts such as Khokhloma wood painting and Nesting dolls.

History of Semenov

Semenov was formed in the beginning of the 17 century as a settlement of Old Believers. First mentioned as Semenov's hamlet in 1644, later as Semenov village, and from 1779 as district town of Semyonov.

The Old Believers were a schismatic group of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In 1652, Patriarch Nikon of the Russian Orthodox Church introduced a number of reforms aimed at centralizing his power and bringing Russian Orthodox ritual and doctrine in line with those of the Greek Orthodox Church. Old Believers rejected Nikon's reforms. One of the main figures in the movement was Avvakum Petrovich. Even after the deposition of Nikon (1658), who broached too strong a challenge to the Tsar's authority, a series of church councils officially endorsed the liturgical reforms. Followers of the movement were anathemized at the synod in 1666–67 and several, including Avvakum, were executed. The Old believers thence force faced heavy persecution until the reign of Peter the Great, when they began to be tolerated as an extra source of tax revenue. An attempt to make the Old Believers obey the Church was the creation in 1801 of the united faith church.

Early Old Belief was characterized by rejecting "the World" where anti-Christ reigned; they preached about the imminent end of the world, asceticism, adhering to the old rituals and the old faith. Given a lack of Bishops and priests, the laity were predominant. One group, the “Popovtsy”, sought to attract ordained priests and were able to set up an episcopate in the 19th century. The “Bespopovtsy”, on the other hand, renounced priests and all sacraments, except Baptism.

Old Belief became associated with a strict asceticism that could sometimes be taken to extremes. In the 17th century some groups in Karelia that belonged to the sect committed suicide through self-immolation. Other groups that broke off from the Old Believers practiced castration of men and removal of breasts from women in order to enforce sexual abstinence.

The Old Believers had no official toleration until 1905. In 1971 the Russian Orthodox Church revoked the anathemas placed on the Old Believers in the 17th century, but most Old Believer communities have not returned to Communion with other Orthodox Christians.

In the modern day, differences between most Old Believer communities and more conventional Eastern Orthodox Christians are in details of ritual practice, alone. However, centuries of persecution, and the nature of their foundation, has made them highly culturally conservative and mistrustful of anything they see as insufficiently Russian. Some Old Believers go so far as to consider any pre-Nikonian Orthodox Russian practice or artifact to be exclusively theirs, denying that the Russian Orthodox Church has any claims upon a history before Patriarch Nikon.

Approximately one million Old Believers remain today, some living in extremely isolated communities in places to which they fled centuries ago to avoid persecution. A few Old Believer parishes in the United States have entered communion with the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia. Many other groups exist, some with teachings and practices that have even less in common with those of the Orthodox churches.

Semenov is a Russian town famous for more than just its religious and cultural history, it is a large center of wooden handicrafts. Arsenty Mayorov was one of the first artisans of Semenovo area. He became well known by his wooden utensils, rattles, balls and apples.

In 1924 he brought from the fair in Nizhny Novgorod unpainted nesting doll set. His elder daughter Luba painted it using ordinary goose feather and aniline dyes, which were used for painting of toys. For 20 years nesting dolls made by Mayorov were the best in the area of Nizhny Novgorod. In 1931 an artel which made souvenirs including matryoshkas was established in Semionovo.

The Rise of the "Semenov WoodenToy"

Gradually the artists of Semenov developed a distinct style of nesting dolls. It was and still is a more decorative and symbolic style in comparison with stacking dolls of Sergiev Posad. Semenov's tradition goes back to the traditions of ancient Russia.

The painters of Semenov used aniline dyes; they left quite a lot of unpainted space and varnished dolls. First of all, light touches of the brush mark the outlines of the face, eyes and lips. Color to the cheeks applied later. Then a skirt, an apron, a scarf on the nesting doll's head and hands are drawn.

An apron is considered to be the main thing in painting of Semenovo. A bright bouquet of flowers usually decorates these dolls. This is the most distinctive feature and it makes these stacking dolls easy to recognize -- the technique is truly a tradition of the old Russian masters. The early matryoshkas of Semenov were more in the spirit of old Russian painting traditions, the lines were more graphic and lighter. It is easy to recognize a typical Semenov shape of wooden form for its nesting dolls. It is slender and has a relatively thin top, which widens sharply into a thick bottom.

The matryoshkas of Semenov are famous for containing many pieces. The biggest matryoshka contained 72 pieces; it was 1 meter high and had a 1/2 meter diameter. This unique doll was made in 1970 and was dedicated to birthday of Soviet communist leader Lenin. It originally cost 3000 rubles (its notable to mention that a popular Soviet car cost in that time 5,000 rubles). The doll was sent to exhibition in Japan.

In the 80's the artists from Semenov, Serov designed a new concept of the nesting doll that contains 10 small pieces inside of one large doll. This matryoshka was designed for children to help them learning how to count. Those uniquely designed stacking dolls remain very popular today.

Now Semenov and its artists face difficult times. The complex economic situation in Russia is reflected in the difficulty one will have in finding large quantities of these dolls anymore. High inflation makes it more difficult to purchase raw materials; and fuel and electricity have become more expensive. Nevertheless, we believe that these dolls will be a hallmark of Russian culture for a very long time to come. We also actively work to promote these items and work directly with the artists to keep these unique Russian dolls popular.

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