Cultural policy Russian Federation

Hermitage vs Kremlin in the battle of the dolls

Tourist tat or authentic folk art?

LONDON. The Hermitage and the Russian government are politely clashing over whether “nested” matryoshka dolls are part of the national culture.

Museum director Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky has banned their sale in the Hermitage’s gift shop in St Petersburg, saying that they are not part of Russian folk art. In an interview to mark the opening of the Hermitage’s Amsterdam branch last month, he explained: “The dolls are Japanese in origin, adapted to Russia…These dolls are frightful. They are symbols of the tourist industry. Let’s not sell any rubbish here, is what I say.”

The painted wooden dolls, which snugly fit inside each other, are said to have been invented in 1890 by Russian folk painter Sergei Maliutin, who was inspired by a set of Japanese figures representing the Seven Gods of Fortune. However, one could argue that the concept of nested objects, such as eggs, was already part of Russian decorative art. Although traditionally matryoshka dolls portrayed girls, current bestsellers include a set of Russian leaders, starting with president Dmitry Medvedev and ending with a diminutive Lenin.

Despite this satirical take, the Russian government is only too aware that matryoshka dolls are big business—and one that has been hit by the recession and the fall in tourism. Last month the government announced that it would be placing orders worth Rb1 billion for matryoshka dolls and other handicrafts in a bid to rescue the industry. Will Professor Piotrovsky stick to his principles?

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