Traditional Russian Nesting Dolls


About 45 miles north of Moscow, along the road to Yaroslavl, is the small city of Zagorsk. This city grew up around the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra Monastery that was established around 1340 by St. Sergius of Radonezh. This monastery has been the single most important spiritual center in Russia for well over 600 years, and today is a working monastery, Seminary, Theological Academy and place of pilgrimage.

Visiting this monastery enables any person to experience its lively spiritual environment, filled with history, icons, architecture and relics of the saints. It is marvelous to be able to venerate the relics of St. Sergius, Metropolitan St. Innocent, Apostle to America and Metropolitan St. Philaret. Visitors can view many magnificent examples of architecture, icons and decorative arts from the early 15th to the 20th centuries, located in the churches, in the Seminary/Academy's Museum of Icons, and the State Museum of Arts and History located on the monastery grounds.

The largest of the many churches is the 16th century Dormition Cathedral containing the relics of a number of saints, including St. Innocent. To hear the world-famous monastery and seminary choir in person is an opportunity to experience the glory of Russia's spiritual culture at its most splendid! (But most people must listen from across the ocean by means of one of their numerous recordings.)

The early 15th century Church of the Holy Trinity contains icons by the famous iconographer, St. Andrei Rublev, 17th century icons by Simon Ushakov, and the totally awesome tomb- reliquary of St. Sergius.

There is also much of interest outside the monastery walls, including panoramic views of the monastery other historic buildings of interest, and wooden homes.

Zagorsk has been a center of wood-carving and toy-making for centuries, and continues to carry on this tradition. In the summer, sometimes one might be able to see some artists at work. The city's Museum of Toys, the only one of its kind in Russia, is also very educational attraction.

Arts and crafts flourished in the towns and villages who surrounded the monastery. Wooden toys, which were known as "Trinity" toys, became particularly popular. According to the legend the first "Trinity" wooden toy was made by the Prior of the Monastery, Sergius Radonezhsky.

Today, Zagorsk is still a colorful, truly Russian town that is part of the Golden Ring of Russia. The Monastery in Sergiev Posad lent a unique peculiarity to it. Professional artists made the first painted nesting dolls of traditional style just for fun. That is why these dolls are so expressive and won admiration of adults and children. In the initial period of stacking dolls development particular attention was paid to the face outlines of matryoshka dolls, clothes were not detailed painted. Such dolls depicted different character and types: peasants, merchants, and noblemen.

The faces of the early Traditional nesting dolls of that style were oval and strict. The heads of many babushka dolls were greatly enlarged that's why the face dominated the body. These dolls looked very primitive because of this features.

The first political nesting doll, the prototype of famous "Gorbachev doll", was born in that time. Today, political nesting dolls are extremely popular and sometimes funny. Russians enjoy making fun of politicians, especially since the Russian people have suffered greatly as a result of the Russian political leadership that has existed in Russia and the Soviet Union over the past 100 years.

Sometimes stacking dolls portray unique political themes, and show a sequence in chronological order or presidents, politicians, or careers’ time frames of famous movie stars.

The typical Traditional nesting dolls consisted of any amount between 2 to 24 pieces. The most popular dolls consisted of 3, 8 and 12 pieces. In 1913 a 48-pc. Stacking doll made by N. Bulichev was displayed at the Exhibition of Toys in St. Petersburg.

Development of Russian stacking dolls greatly depended on turners' skill. Highly skilled masters turned matryoshkas with very thin sides, which was considered to be a special art of nesting dolls’ turning. Apparently, painting was secondary. Professional artists who painted the first turned dolls did not treat it seriously enough. It was sort of entertainment. Depending on the home town of the skilled artisans, Russian babushka nesting doll often would be re-shaped in a very unique and new way. Folk art tradition was very important in the development of the present traditional Russian dolls’ style. The town of Sergiev Posad allowed unique artists that had experience in painting unique Russian religious icons the ability to mix with other artisans. The artists today still focus mainly on the figure of a person, and his or her face.

This tradition of ancient Russian art came in part from Byzantine Empire, which had also borrowed artistic styles from ancient Greek culture. The connection of certain early types of the nesting dolls of Russia with the tradition of the local icon painting is clear when you examine these dolls carefully. Along with the religious icons, matryoshkas were also painted in the "Icon Painting Schools" in Central Russia.

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