Your Reading List

Matryoshka! Matryoshka!

These traditional nesting dolls are always a favourite with young and old

The dolls are a useful prop in the classroom for many projects and discussions.

May I see that toy?” I requested, pointing to a painted wooden doll in the glass case behind the cash register.

“Of course,” Tina Alvetina, the clerk smiled, unlocking and sliding open the door. “It’s a matryoshka,” she added, lifting out the nesting dolls.

“Can you repeat that please?” I asked.

“Matryoshka. It’s Russian, I believe. I’m originally from the Ukraine, so I’m familiar with them.”

“Mat-ry-osh-ka?” Haltingly my tongue tested the foreign, multi-syllabic word.

“Yes! Matryoshka. I grew up playing with nesting dolls such as these.”

Interesting, how a visit to the local thrift store can take you on a journey spanning time, distance and country, while providing learning opportunities.

“I’ll take them,” I informed the clerk, “if all the dolls are included.”

I’d been browsing in our local MCC store, when the colourful matryoshka caught my eye. The clerk opened the first one, took out the next one, opened it and continued to set out a row of five nesting dolls, the largest one about five inches tall, the smallest “the size of a bumble bee,” as C.D. Bliss describes in her book, The Littlest Matryoshka.

Their dresses, of bright blue backgrounds with flamingo-pink flowers, were not unlike the floral patterns on some of our Hutterite girls’ dresses. Each one wore a babushka, a head covering, or Tiechel as we call them.

Of course, I brought the set to my school. At that moment, I wasn’t sure what I’d do with them, but something was certain to come up.

Rather intrigued with my wooden dolls, I wondered if there were any children’s books about matryoshkas. My Google search revealed two: The Magic Nesting Doll by Jacqueline Ogburn and The Littlest Matryoshka by Corinne Demas Bliss.

I stumbled upon a reading of the latter on YouTube, fell in love with the storyline and promptly ordered it from eBay. Already that story has delighted several of my classes. While reading it, I typically have the nesting dolls on hand for my primary students to play with. They enjoy opening each one to discover the subsequent smaller one. The tiniest one always elicits a squeal of glee, especially from the little girls as they clutch it in their tiny hands.

The first nesting dolls were made in China in the early 1800s, and it wasn’t until the 1890s that the idea of making matryoshka came to Russia, (almost 20 years after the Hutterites had left there). Nevertheless, these are the most popular.

In fact, Russia produces 1.2 million nesting dolls annually! Most are made of the supple, white heart of lime wood (also known as linden or basswood), as it’s soft, malleable and durable.

What makes matryoshkas so popular and unique, is the appealing paintwork. Indeed, it’s been said that “there is no souvenir more synonymous with Russia, than the matryoshka dolls.” It’s believed they were founded by patron of the arts, Savva Mamontov. The word matryoshka comes from the common peasant female name, Matryona, a derivative of the word mother. Thus, the dolls have become a symbol of motherhood.

A few months after purchasing my first matryoshka, I visited a garage sale where I happened upon another one. Spotting the brightly painted doll on a table with a collection of other household paraphernalia, I pounced on it like a dog latching on to a bone. It seemed rather lightweight, and upon opening it, I was disappointed to find it empty. I scanned the table, but did not find any others.

“Where’s the inside of this doll?” I questioned the seller.

With a twinkle in his eye, he replied, “Oh, I probably drank it!” So much for a second matryoshka for my collection, I thought, returning it to the table.

In early 2020, as we heard the first rumblings of the novel coronavirus in China, I ordered a set of blank nesting dolls, so I could have them painted in dresses resembling those of Hutterite women. “From where are you ordering them?” a co-worker inquired.

“From China,” I answered.

“I’m not sure I’d order anything from there these days,” he said, concerned about the virus coming to Canada. Although I didn’t know a whole lot about COVID-19 back then, I didn’t think a virus could survive the weeks or even months that packages in transit from China usually take to arrive.

Valerie Waldner, the talented artist who illustrated my upcoming Hutterite alphabet book, graciously agreed to paint my set. I want to use it in social studies class to teach how our local community changes over time. For Hutterites, this includes our dress style. Thus, the biggest doll is dressed in the traditional European dirndl, the second one in the traditional three-piece Hutterite dress, the third, in the current Hutterite dress, the fourth a young girl and the smallest, a baby girl.

Since purchasing my first set, I’ve acquired several others, and I’m using them in my classroom in various ways.

  • They work well for providing something tangible when reading stories to young children. On special occasions and events such as I-love-to-read month, I bring out my matryoshka. Corrine Demars Bliss’s The Littlest Matryoshka is the perfect complement to my wooden nesting dolls.
  • They make an excellent example of an artifact for introducing my writing classes to research projects.
  • They have inspired my students to create several different matryoshka art projects. One example involved personalizing their dolls by dressing them in fabric scraps left over from their own clothing, and naming them after people in their own families.
  • Since matryoshkas originated in Russia, a country where our ancestors sojourned for 100 years, I use them as a means to discuss our history.

Certainly, discoveries from the local thrift store can turn into mesmerizing manipulatives to enhance lessons. What treasures have you found in a second-hand shop or at a garage sale?

For more information on the history of matryoshkas, please visit

About the author

Elma Maendel's recent articles



Stories from our other publications