Age-old craft in a classic Russian souvenir

Dressed in a dark blue smock, Alexander Dorofeyev stoops over his lathe, honing limewood into tiny, perfectly formed dolls.

“Our workers have hands of gold,” says Nina Neustroyeva, manager at this factory in the town of Sergiev Posad, north-east of Moscow.

Here, ancient craft skills are used to turn out the ultimate Russian souvenir—the matryoshka doll, famous for opening up when its two halves are twisted apart, to reveal another slightly smaller doll inside.

In another room, Antonina Gerasimova picks up the raw wooden dolls. With her bare hands she dips them three times in varnish, stroking the liquid smooth on the wood and setting the dolls on a tray.

“You need warm hands for the surface to be smooth,” says Gerasimova, an elderly woman who works five hours a day surrounded by the intoxicating fumes of the paint.

The craftsmen of Sergiev Posad, a picturesque town with a famous monastery, say matryoshkas were inspired by traditional wooden Easter eggs contained in rounded boxes.

Others say the renowned nesting dolls were inspired by statues of a Japanese Buddhist god, Fukuruma, which sparked the curiosity of a Russian philanthropist and art lover, Savva Mamontovtury, at the end of the 19th century.

Whatever the truth, the dolls were first put on display at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900. They proved so popular in the West that that an order for 150 000 dolls came to Sergiev Posad—a centre of Russian craftsmanship since the 16th century.

The current factory opened in 1947.
While its workforce has reduced in size, those craftsmen who remain are passionate about their art.

While few Russians themselves display matryoshkas in their homes, for foreigners “it’s part of the kitsch imagery linked to Russia”, reflected Tatyana Burlachkova, a travel agent in Sergiev Posad, “like vodka, the troika or the bear”.

At the entrance to the town’s famous monastery, the matryoshkas sell like hotcakes.

One that is not painted with the usual chubby-cheeked girl sells particularly well: it shows successive Moscow leaders, including current Russian President Vladimir Putin, his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and a tiny Josef Stalin.

For Alexander Grekov, director of Sergiev Posad’s wooden-toy museum, the political theme is nothing new.

At the beginning of the 20th century, local craftsmen made dolls aimed at defending family values, with the matryoshka representing a mother and her large family, he says.

Other dolls celebrated Russia’s victory over France in 1812, with images of Napoleon and Russian military leader Field Marshal Kutuzov.

The flood of incoming tourists prompted by the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse was a boom period for the matryoshka.

“Everyone in Sergiev Posad started making matryoshkas, myself included. Some people made fortunes,” Burlachkova says. “Now it’s only enthusiasts and the most gifted.”—AFP

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