Endangered Species Alert: The Matryoshka

Sinister forces are challenging the way of life of one of our most enduring literary metaphors: the Russian nesting doll.

The Matryoshka, or nesting doll, has long been both a major export and recognizable Russian icon, iterations running the gambit from the traditional nest of identical, diminishing sisters to a nested roll-call of Russia's leaders, often ending in a miniscule czar, or Lenin. It's as much a part of the kitsch landscape as the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty, and yet, it seems the economic crisis, lax tourism and falling oil prices are posing a threat to the Matryoshka - makers and sellers report that sales are down more than 90%. So dire are the industry's prospects that the Kremlin has stepped in, stating that it would place a 1bn rouble (about $28 million) order for matryoshka and other traditional handicrafts, with an eye to giving them out as gifts. But given that the government is predicting no economic recovery until at least 2010, this may be a mere band-aid.

Despite its storied place in Russian lore, the nesting doll is by no means a traditional peasant craft: it's said to date back only to 1890, and to have been based upon a Japanese souvenir doll portraying Seven Gods of Fortune. A painter named Sergei Maliutin was inspired to create a Russian version, and working with a craftsman, created the first Russian nesting doll for Children's Education Workshop-Salon in Abramtsevo. The name "Matryoshka" is derived from the popular old Russian peasant name "Matryona," and her outift and sarafan mimic traditional festival dress. An industrialist presented the Matryoshka at the 1900 Paris World Exhibition, and the rest is history.

Whatever its antecendents, the nesting doll has become a true showcase of the turner's skill: truly fine Matryoshkas are valued for their thin sides and the number of 'nests,' and the best ones are painted with the precision of a Russian icon. To say that the industry has employed generations of artists is no exaggeration, and the appeal of the doll need not be explained to any child who's felt the familiar squeak of the wood under her hands and waited with baited breath to see just how tiny the dolls will get. And as devastating as the industry's death would be to thousands of artisans and producers, it's equally hard to imagine a world without the "Russian doll" metaphor. In addition to technical terminology -"Matryoshka brain," or the paradigm of Matroska media-container format - the Russian doll metaphor is a cottage industry amongst slapdash journalists and writers everywhere. A neat shorthand for many-layered complexity, the metaphor also manages to invoke the enigma-wrapped-question-mark appeal of the inscrutable east, with none of the earthy stench of the similar "onion" comparison. Will "nesting doll" somehow end up in the morgue of words that are used and not understood, its origins extinct and anachronistic - alongside "brass monkey," "Sam Hill" and "worth its salt?" Say it ain't so! The only upside we can find is the inability to describe any of Mel Gibson's various love interests as "Russian Dolls" - apparently a major challenge for The Media.

Can The Russian Doll Survive The Recession? [Independent]
Russian Bailout Covers Nesting Dolls [USA Today]

Related: History Of Russian Nesting Dolls [Russian Crafts]