The matreshka designed by Sergei Maliutin and turned by Vasilii Zvezdochkin has fulfilled a precisely defined function from its inception in the late 1890s until today. Conceived as a material embodiment of national identity amid Abramtsevo’s revival of endemic Russian traditions, the stacking doll symbolized robust national fecundity. Produced and sold in the workshop Detskoe vospitanie [Children’s Upbringing] established by the Mamontov family, it promoted Russianness in a range of stacked dolls garbed in the ethnic dress of the country’s various regions. During the Soviet era the matreshka became standardized and promoted as the quintessential emblem of a vital Russia, above all to foreigners.
The demise of the Soviet Union witnessed the spectacular rise of the author’s matreshka, one indelibly stamped with the creative imagination of its individual creator under new economic and cultural conditions. Political figures, American sports heroes, British rock groups, TV characters, and Hollywood stars all appeared as increasingly decorative stacked dolls. In short, the fate and the appearance of the matreshka accurately reflect Russia’s ideological biases and shifts. If early twentieth-century exploration of diverse national images yielded to a monochromatic defensiveness materialized as the unyielding, stoic child-bearer of Cold War Sovietism, then the post-Soviet matreshka conveys the chameleon-like, cosmetic veneers adopted and discarded by the consumerist society of the 1990s and subsequent decades. My article analyzes the vagaries of the matreshka’s legacy under Soviet and post-Soviet rule, during which the stacked doll has never lost its status as a unique symbol of national identity, though the terms of that symbolism have evolved.