From Russia With Love
Porthole Cruise Magazine|March/April 2021
Seen throughout Alaska, the matryoshka nesting dolls are as poignantly meaningful as they are increasingly adorable.
STEPHEN GRASS

A MATRYOSHKA DOLL IS AN INSTANTLY RECOGNIZABLE SYMBOL OF RUSSIA.

It can take on many forms, but is always a series of wooden dolls of decreasing sizes that fit one inside the other, typically painted to represent either traditional Russian folklife or more topical or satirical themes.

It has been speculated that the matryoshka dolls are inspired by artifacts from East Asian culture such as the Japanese Honshu dolls, which sometimes take the form of round hollow dolls depicting Buddhist monks, but are sometimes nesting dolls that portray the Seven Lucky Gods of Japanese belief. However, Russian master craftsmen were already creating hollow wooden

Easter eggs long before the nesting dolls became popular, so they may have developed independently in Russia. The first recorded matryoshka doll set was carved in 1890 by wood craftsman Vasily Zvyozdochkin from a design by folk crafts painter Sergey Malyutin, who also painted the dolls. They were created at the Children’s Education Workshop in Abramtsevo, which was founded to make and sell children’s toys by Anatoly Mamontov, the brother of Russian industrialist and patron of the arts Savva Mamontov.

Alaska and Russia share a border; at their closest point in the Bering Strait, they are less than three miles apart. There are active Russian Orthodox churches in around 80 Alaska communities, many of which still use the old

Russian Orthodox calendar and celebrate Christmas on what is January 7 on the Western calendar. These Russian Orthodox “Old Believers” often speak an archaic form of Russian called Old Church Slavonic, which dates back to before the American purchase of Alaska in 1867, and wear traditional Russian clothes that they make themselves, such as the sarafan, a long shapeless traditional dress famously worn by the matryoshka. This archetypal first set of matryoshka consisted of eight nested dolls. The largest outermost doll depicted a Russian peasant girl wearing a sarafan and carrying a red-combed rooster. The next five dolls portrayed similar Russian girls in traditional dress, followed by a doll depicting a Russian boy, and then lastly a baby carved from a solid piece of wood.

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