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From peasant maidens to Pussy Riots: The changing face of Russia's emblematic matryoshka dolls
A picture taken on July 15, 2015 shows traditional Russian wooden nesting matryoshka dolls displayed at an exhibition in Moscow. From peasant maidens to Pussy Riots: the changing faces of Russia's matryoshka nesting dolls reflect the country's tumultuous history. For gaggles of tourists they are a traditional symbol of the vast nation but a new exhibition and the appearance of matryoshkas for the hipster generation show the handycrafts can throw up some surprises. AFP PHOTO / MARINA LAPENKOVA.

By: Anna Malpas / Marina Lapenkova


MOSCOW (AFP).- From cheery peasant girls in Tsarist times to Soviet-era cosmonauts to today's Pussy Riots, the changing face of Russia's matryoshka nesting dolls reflects the country's tumultuous history.

For tourists the dolls inside dolls that generally depict a buxom woman in a coloured headscarf are a must-buy souvenir believed to date back to a centuries-old tradition, but a new exhibition throws up some surprises. Whoever thought we would run out of ideas when it comes to these collector's items was very wrong. These dolls will not only astound you. They will tell us more about the social climate we are in.

For one thing, the initial idea behind the iconic wooden dolls, with the small ones hidden inside larger ones, appears to have originated in Japan. 

In the 1890s, when the Far East was all the rage with Russia's elite, well-known industrialist Savva Mamontov brought back a set of seven deities of happiness that inspired painter Sergei Malyutin to produce a Russian version -- a peasant woman with all her children inside.

The dolls caught on swiftly and were initially given a typical peasant name, Matryona, whose nickname is Matryoshka. At the 1900 universal exhibition in Paris the dolls were an immediate sensation, winning a bronze medal.

"In Russia, there's a matryoshka practically in every home," museum director Yelena Titova told AFP. "You can say matryoshkas really reflect the Russian national character."  

The dolls are a big part of a Russian childhood -- teaching kids about culture and tradition.

At school, at around age 12, Russian children learn that matryoshkas "symbolise the Russian character, the Russian soul, and the basic Russian values: maternity, family, collectivism, unity and warmth," according to a guide for social science teachers. 

No simple toy 
Titova curated an exhibition on the dolls called "No simple toy" at Moscow's Decorative Art Museum that ends mid-September and which captures their diverse reincarnations. 

A doll dating from around 1910 depicts a portly capitalist Frenchman in a top hat, while one from the 1920s shows a bearded "Kulak", a prosperous peasant driven out by the Bolsheviks.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, the dolls in the 1920s took a political turn, depicting workers in different trades, historical figures and even enemies of the people.

In the 1930s the state took over their production with factories set up in different cities. The exhibition has some dolls from Russia's far east along with others painted as Arctic Eskimos, highlighting the considerable size of the Soviet empire.

One even has dolls inside dolls from the Soviet Union's many different ethnic groups. The largest is a bearded Russian peasant, followed by his wife in yellow headscarf, with figures from Ukraine, Belarus and the Caucasus and Central Asian nations progressively smaller.

Under the Soviets, the matryoshka developed into a mass-produced souvenir, and by the 1950s they all looked similar -- smiling and round-cheeked. "The basic look of the mass-market, commercial type of matryoshka became firmly fixed," Titova said.

But in the 1960s in the heyday of Russia's space programme, several dolls paid tribute to Yuri Gagarin and other heroes of early space exploration.

One set of 10 dolls at the exhibition wear yellow space helmets and come in a rocket-shaped case.

In the late Soviet era, the dolls became more ornate, with brighter colours and outfits featuring large, stylised flowers. The emphasis was often on larger dolls with many more inside -- 25 or more. 

The largest known matryoshka has 100 pieces, Titova said -- while a standard matryoshka only has six to eight.

But the exhibition breaks off as matryoshkas entered the post-Soviet era. "Updating the collection in the 1990s was difficult," Titova said.

Dolls in balaclavas 
Mass-produced dolls today feature sports teams or Russian and Soviet leaders or pop stars, but most are still traditional.

"Matryoshkas are nearly all the same," said Pyotr Kozlov, a journalist who designs matryoshkas, selling them online under brand name Duxovnaya Skrepa.

His first design was a moustachioed "rainbow doll" painted in the colours of the gay pride flag. 

He went on to create dolls wearing bright balaclavas, inspired by Pussy Riot punk group. Group member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova posted pictures of Kozlov's dolls on her Instagram.

"My idea was to try... to capture some trend -- cultural, political or economic -- that's appearing now and quickly create matryoshkas," he said.

Last year he created several dolls in camouflage, helmets and patriotic ribbons, representing the Russian forces in unmarked uniforms who took over Crimea. 

While the dolls should be "provocative", Kozlov said that they were meant "to present objectively what is happening in Russia".

"They are neither for nor against."

Nevertheless, he said, some topics are simply too sensitive. "There definitely won't be any dolls about the Donetsk People's Republic," he said of Ukraine's war-torn eastern separatist region. 

"I think that's a topic we'll be working through for a long time."



© 1994-2015 Agence France-Presse





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