Art from Russia, With Love

Babushka dolls, also known as Nesting or Matryoshka dolls, have been a widely enjoyed extension of Russian culture for many decades. “Babushka” is the Russian term for grandmother, and is associated with the dolls in a similar way to “Matryoshka,” which means “little woman/little matron.” Although it is common to believe the dolls have an ancient, peasant origin, they only began to appear as the nineteenth century neared its end. Since then, wooden babushka dolls have gained renown as a charming and beautifully rendered gift.

The standard babushka doll is made from a single large block of wood. The craftsman eventually ends up with five to ten hand painted dolls that are placed inside each other. Designing the babushka dolls is a laborious and difficult art, one that ranks high with other cultivated, intricate hand paintings done in Russia and surrounding nations, such as Ukrainian egg decoration.

The original dolls occupied a murky territory between child's toy and art, but today, their symbolic uses are almost infinite. Creative doll makers continue to produce nesting dolls that carry on traditional designs: peasant families, animals, saints and religious icons, and holiday themed sets make common gifts in Eastern Europe and abroad. These are normally displayed as decorations or given to children.

Other artists have employed the babushka doll for more serious ends. Leaders from Russia, the United States, and other nations have ended up in doll sets. These types of matryoshkas depict history in an artistic fashion, and sometimes carry political statements as well in parody.

Sets of German dolls have included Hitler painted in a devilish fashion, and Russian ones have shown Stalin with a grim reaper like skull instead of a human face. Current leaders are not spared either. Dolls celebrating or condemning Barack Obama's election, Vladimir Putin's KGB ties, and Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet era reforms have famously appeared.

Politics is hardly the limit for marvelously painted babushka dolls. Other artists have turned their attention to making pop culture icons into sets. Star Wars characters, the Beatles, sports figures, and astronauts or cosmonauts have all been given the babushka treatment.

Despite their use in political activism and cultural expression, most babushka dolls will end up on display or as children's toys. This is why they continue to make popular gifts. In a time when many offerings are valued only for their usefulness or immediate comfort, the babushka doll can be enjoyed for many years to come, by both kids and adults.

Few ever fail to appreciate the intrinsic beauty in their hand crafted, elegantly painted uniqueness, and in the puzzle-like wonderment of their design. Today, babushka doll sets can be loved as offerings not just from one culture to the world, but as emotional symbols from one person to another.

Russian Babushka Doll