The Matryoshka and Other Symbols of Russia

Matryoshka Doll from Russia
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The Matryoshka, also known as the Russian nesting doll, is one of the most instantly recognizable symbols of Russia. Other common symbols include include the birch tree, the troika, and the Russian samovar. Discover the origins of these symbols, as well as their significance to Russian cultural heritage.

The Matryoshka Doll

Matryoshka Dolls Arranged On Table At Shop
Nalin Nelson Gomes / EyeEm / Getty Images

The Russian Matryoshka doll, also called a nesting doll, is perhaps the best-known symbol of Russia around the world. In Russia, the doll is thought to symbolize traditional values of Russian society: respect for the elderly, unity of the extended family, fertility and abundance, and the search for truth and meaning. In fact, the idea that the truth is concealed within many layers of meaning is a recurring motif in Russian folk tales.

In one such folk tale, a character named Ivan searches for a needle representing the death of an evil character. The needle is inside an egg, the egg is inside a duck, the duck is inside a hare, the hare is inside a box, and the box is buried under an oak tree. Thus, the Matryoshka, with its many layers concealed within the larger doll, is a perfect symbol for Russian folk culture.

As for the first Matryoshka doll, the most popular theory is that the Matryoshka was conceived in 1898, when the artist Malyutin visited the Mamontov family estate in Abramtsevo. At the estate, Malyutin saw a Japanese wooden toy that inspired her to design a series of sketches reflecting the Russian version of the nesting doll. In Malyutin's sketches, the largest doll featured a young woman dressed in townsperson's attire holding a black rooster. Smaller dolls depicted the rest of the family, both male and female, each with their own object to hold. Malyutin asked a local wood craftsman Zvyozdochkin to create the wooden dolls.

The finished set of eight dolls was called Matryona, a popular name at the time that matched the widely accepted image of the strong, calm, and caring Russian woman. The name suited the dolls, but Matryona was considered too solemn a name for a children's toy, so the name was changed to the more affectionate Matryoshka.

The Birch Tree

Grove of birch trees and snow
Tricia Shay Photography / Getty Images

Birch is the most ancient and well-known symbol of Russia. It is also the most prevalent tree on Russian territory. Birch is associated with the Slavic goddesses Lada and Lelya, representing female energy, fertility, purity and healing.

Objects made out of birch have been used in rituals and celebrations in Russia for centuries. During Ivan Kupala night, young women braided their hair ribbons into the branches of the birch tree in order to attract their soul mates. Birch was often kept in the home for protection from jealousy and bad energy, and when a baby was born, birch brooms were left outside the front door of the family's house to protect the baby from dark spirits and illness.

Birch has inspired many Russian writers and poets, particularly Sergei Yesenin, one of Russia's most beloved lyric poets.

The Troika

Aleksander Orlowski,
Aleksander Orlowski, "Traveler in a Kibitka (Hooded Cart or Sledge)", 1819. Lithograph. Public Domain / The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

The Russian troika was a harness method for horse-drawn vehicles, used during the 17th-19th centuries. The troika was driven so that the middle horse trotted while the other two horses cantered, keeping their heads turned to the sides. This meant that troika horses took longer to fatigue and could travel much faster. In fact, the troika could reach speeds of 30 miles per hour, making it one of the fastest vehicles of its time.

Originally, the troika was used to transport mail, with tired horses being exchanged for fresh ones at regular intervals. The Troika was later used to carry important passengers, at which point it became a cultural icon: featured in weddings and religious celebrations and decorated with bright colors, bells, and gold.

Because of its innovative design and impressive speeds, the troika came to be associated with the Russian soul, which is often called "bigger than life" (широкая душа, pronounced sheeROkaya dooSHAH). The symbolism of the number three, which has significance throughout traditional Russian culture, also played a role in the troika's popularity.

According to some accounts, the troika was adapted by the Russian government from secret rituals of the Russian North. Every year on St. Elijah the Prophet's Day, ritual troika races took place in northern parts of Russia, with the troika symbolizing the fiery chariot that carried Elijah to heaven. To crash in one of these races was considered an honorable way to die—it was said that Elijah himself took those who died in the races to heaven.

The Samovar

The Teacher's Guests. Artist: Bogdanov-Belsky, Nikolai Petrovich (1868-1945)
Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky, "The Teacher's Guests.". Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

A samovar is a large, heated container used to boil water, especially for tea. The samovar is an iconic symbol of Russian tea-drinking culture. Traditional Russian families spent hours chatting and relaxing around the table with traditional preserves, Russian pretzels (кренделя), and a hot samovar. When not in use, samovars remained hot and were used as an immediate source of boiled water.

The word "samovar" (pronounced samaVARR) means "self-brewer." The samovar contains a vertical pipe filled with solid fuel, which heats the water and keeps it hot for hours at a time. A teapot containing a strong tea brew (заварка) is placed on top and heated by the rising hot air.

The first official samovar appeared in Russia in 1778, though there may have been others made even earlier. The Lisitsyn brothers opened a samovar-making factory in Tula in the same year. Soon, samovars spread across Russia, becoming a much-loved attribute of everyday life for Russian families of all backgrounds.