The story of Russian Dolls began in the 1880’s when an extraordinary Japanese doll fell into the hands of the Russian craftsman S.V. Malyutin (1859-1937). This exotic toy, named “Fukuruma”, consisted in fact of a set of figurines of varying size nestling one inside the other. Malyutin was working at that time for the Children’s Educational Workshop, an institution that created dolls displaying the many traditional national costumes. Shortly after, the Workshop introduced a new concept and began to produce nesting dolls displaying Russian traditional costumes. The first of these sets, designed by Malyutin himself, represented a pretty, moon-faced peasant girl in folk dress cradling a rooster in her arms. In a short space of time, the nesting doll became a popular commercial object and was soon adopted internationally as a major symbol of Russian culture.


The creation of a set of nesting dolls is a highly technical operation and craftsmen must be masters of the lathe in order to fashion perfectly fitting wooden shapes, made from either lime or birch.  The smallest doll of the set is made first and is used to determine the dimensions of the next largest doll, and the process repeated until the series is complete. The dolls are then painted in such a way as to resemble a person.  The Russian name for these objects is “matryoshka”, derived from the word “matron”.  The sets of dolls traditionally represent the female members of a family, with the largest doll as the matriarch.  The details of a doll’s appearance are highly significant and relate to social conventions and custom. For example, a doll representing a married woman bears a scarf to hide the hair and can thus be differentiated from a doll that represents an unmarried woman.


The main villages and towns dedicated to manufacturing Russian dolls are Sergiev Posad, Semyonov and Vyatka.  Sergiev Posad, a small town close to Moscow famous for its XIV century monastery, has a large population of artists, the overwhelming majority of whom are women.  They produce excellent dolls commonly representing peasant girls and other female figures. The wooden dolls are decorated with stunning oil-based paintings before being given a varnish finish. Sergiev Posad experienced a dramatic success story: in 1900, its matryoshka attracted international attention in the Universal Exhibition in France, and four years later the school boasted its own Parisian outlet.


The dolls produced in Semyonov, a town situated in the region of Nizhni Novgorod, are symbolic rather than realistic representations, in contrast to those of Sergiev Posad.  Large portions of the dolls’ surface area are left bare of paint and, instead, are simply varnished.  The proportions of both faces and eyes are exaggerated and the colors used are essentially red, yellow and black.  Semyonov boasts the largest Russian matryoshka ever created, consisting of 72 individual dolls, towering over three feet in height.


The Vyatka dolls characteristically represent a blue-eyed maiden with shy smile. Often, the dolls are partially decorated, using Palekh and Fedoskino miniature painting techniques, with illustrations of traditional Russian fairytales.  As the set is opened, each doll portrays a scene from the unfolding story.  The Peterhof Gallery also presents works by contemporary artists who create dolls bearing paintings of rural or urban landscapes, the curved surface producing a remarkable impression of perspective.  Finally, an eclectic array of themes can also be found, representing famous characters drawn from worlds as far apart as those of religion, the arts and show business.