While the dark days of Stalinism were the most extreme, the struggle between the proudly independent peasants of Maidan and their communist suppressors continued right up into the Gorbachev era. Authorities actually branded Maidan “Little America” for its inextinguishable capitalistic tendencies and were always harassing the merchant-minded Maidan craftsmen. Working for oneself, employing others, selling goods on an open market—these were all illegal under communism, but were all second nature to the folks who had been turning trees into toys long before communism was conceived.
The folks of Maidan have been independent toymakers for as long as anyone can remember, well into the last century. Though each family runs a small subsistence farm, planting a potato field and tending a garden, the soil is not rich as in the Ukraine. It is the surrounding forest that provides the people with their wealth. The hardwood forests around the village were burned for potash and exhausted back in the 1700s, but a new resource and corresponding industry grew in its place. The plentiful European linden tree offered a light, smooth-grained wood that cut like butter under the practiced blade of the Maidan craftsman. With a great deal of know-how, skill, and sweat, the Maidan magicians turned branches into whistling birds, spinning tops, piggy banks, vases, bowls, and nesting dolls.
What the husband carved on his lathe with the help of his father and son, the wife painted with the help of her mother and daughter. Working together thus the long winter through, the family filled large wicker baskets (the specialty of a neighboring village) with wares to be sold. Each man of age would then depart for weeks at a time, schlepping his wares to the distant reaches of the czar's empire and beyond (Mongolia, Germany, Turkey), where he would sell them at holiday bazaars, open markets, and the like. With an empty basket he then returned home with what money he didn't drink up along the way. An industrious family could make a fairly good living during good times.
But what was one to do during an era when this way of life was illegal? Work on the nearby kolkhoz, was Stalin’s answer. Get out the hammer and sickle and throw away the turner’s chisel.
The folks of Maidan did work on the collective farm, but they kept their chisels and turned toys at night. Many a turner started his day at a dark 4 a.m. bent over his lathe, before clocking in at the kolkhoz. They sold their wares on the black market. To keep them in check, the bully authorities would occasionally bust up a turner’s workshop and lathe, or raid a market and burn confiscated toys in a punitive display. To hear such stories, one would think they were running moonshine, not making toys. On the contrary, the moonshine was all too often the currency paid authorities to keep a blind eye to the peasants’ greater sin of independent self-improvement.
In a sort of “if you can’t beat them, join them” gesture, a toy factory named Red Sunrise was finally founded in the 1970s on the outskirts of town to legitimize the industry and move it from the home to government quarters. Some of the ladies I spoke with remembered their stint at the Red Sunrise as mainly show, while their own private production continued. The Red Sunrise workshop quickly dissolved when along came perestroika, at which time the rules of the game changed, and the proud peasants were officially allowed to work for themselves in their own workshops, and just in time to serve a boom market and supply the world with their magic--the magnificent Russian matryoshka doll.
Freedom! Yeltsin’s economic reforms. A democratic Russia. You might think that now the Maidan peasant has got it all, that times are golden. Not so, says Misha Masyagin. Not everything has changed for the better.
“Our women used to get together to paint dolls and would sing songs together while they worked. Neighbors used to help each other out to raise a barn, slaughter a hog, or what have you. Ever since Gorbachev no one has time for that. It’s work, work, work, just to make ends meet. It’s everyone for themselves now. God forbid I should fall ill; we could not afford the lost income. These are stressful times.”
Apparently, switching economic systems feels like being thrown into deep water before you learn how to swim; the best you can do at first is desperately try and tread water, and when you start to go under, you do your best to climb on top of the unfortunate fellow next to you. This is what I saw in the big city as well. Everyone bemoaned the sudden loss of their friends, of their support network, not to mention their comfortable salaries.
Surprisingly, although the rhetoric is completely different, the authorities are no friendlier. No one believes any more in communist ideals, or in any ideals, but the thugs in power (mostly the same men in different suits) are still pleased as punch to keep power and make the smaller man cower. Bribes are exacted to keep the villagers in line. Fat and lazy, the authorities enjoy bullying a slice of profit out of the hard working Maidan peasants in classic Tom and Jerry fashion; their way of life depends upon it.
Hence there is a general frustration with the “new world order” and yearning for the good ol’ simple days of yesteryear, especially among the elderly. Misha estimates that 40% of Maidan’s population voted for the communist party in the presidential election of 2000, while 60% voted for Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, in hopes that he would “clean up the bandits.” No one voted for the status quo; change was the only option, either forwards or back.
(The village has grown now to over 800 homes, so it is fair to estimate that nearly as many private turneries exist, each a shed-like out building in the back yard. Despite the modern appearance of the new houses and in some cases installation of plumbing, these hearty folk have not been quick to embrace modern ways, preferring instead to keep to older, time-proven modes of living. Along with a turnery, you’ll find a couple other out buildings in each yard: a wood-fired sauna that serves as the family wash room (the water being drawn from the well), and an outhouse. One modern convenience, electricity, has been enjoyed in Maidan since the early 1960's; it powers the village’s lathes and has revolutionized their output.)
Harvesting the Linden
Where do matryoshka nesting dolls come from? I mean, really come from?
Roman and I timed our visit to Polkhovski Maidan to really find out.
In the spring of each year, when the sap is rising, Maidan villagers venture out into the forest to harvest the linden trees that will become matryoshkas in the years to come. In the spring of 2000, this annual event took place as usual, with one exception: a couple of crazy foreigners (one from America, one from St. Petersburg, which is far enough removed from Maidan to be considered foreign) tagged along to document the occasion.
May 25th. Sunny. Sweltering hot and humid. No wind. The first thing we had to do was find enough denim and DEET to survive a forest full of mosquitoes. Misha Masyagin, our fearless leader, prepared for battle by donning heavy military khakis and jacket, and cautioned me to add additional layers, relenting only once he had equipped me with his extra jean jacket.
To help with the harvest, Misha called upon the aid of his cousin Vasya, whose presence lent a great deal to the romantic charm of the event. From his unkempt, curly beard to the Orthodox crucifix hanging around his neck, right down to his leather boots, Vasya looked exactly like what I always imagined a Russian muzhik of days gone by would look like. He played in perfect character, as if straight off a movie set, toting into the woods a hatchet in one hand, and a flask of moonshine in the other. “Potent mosquito repellent,” Vasya claimed, offering the bottle. And indeed, he seemed bothered less by the swarm of insects that followed us as we walked deeper and deeper into the forest along an overgrown logging road.
Together we were four. Misha carried a cross cut saw with great care; it appeared to be an irreplaceable relic handed down from grandfather, to father, to son. How many thousand linden trees had it felled? I wondered. To Roman Misha entrusted a second hatchet. I brought along the provisions Vera had packed for our lunch and the blessed water we had taken an hour before as we made a special stop at a holy roadside spring. It was cool water chilled by the deep earth, and sweet and refreshing, not only of body, said Misha, but of soul; an Orthodox priest, the bishop, or some sort of clergyman from the region’s monastery had attended the spring and bestowed upon it God’s healing powers.
Did we not need a chainsaw? I asked Misha.
As I was to see, the lightweight tools he had chosen were ideal for the job. But his answer was curious. In addition to not wanting to lug around the weight of a chainsaw, he didn’t want the noise of it to attract attention to us. This fear of being found in the forest came to the fore when we heard the loud rumble of an approaching motorcycle. We ducked behind some undergrowth to be hidden as it passed us by. “Better to not meet any strangers in the Russian forest!” Vasya explained in his naturally melodramatic way.
I have forgotten to mention that we had also stopped briefly at the local forester’s home. While we waited in the car, Misha, with a bottle of vodka in hand, had gone inside to transact semi-clandestine business. As far as I could understand, we were venturing onto national forest land and, in return for about $25 payment, the forester was giving Misha dibs on so many linden trees in a particular stretch of woods.
While forest surrounds Maidan, the linden wood that once had been found at one’s doorstep had long been taken. To find enough suitable linden was an everincreasing problem, Misha consented, and there was fierce competition. Each year he had to venture further and further from home and cover a larger area to find it.
A mile from the road, we jumped across a small creek and were completely enveloped in emerald: the lush gold of spring’s first green on birch, pine, aspen, larch, and linden. Between bird calls, the background music of spring’s symphony rose from the forest floor: an incessant drone of insects. The storybook call of the classic cuckoo— often heard but seldom seen—counted the hours and welcomed us into the enchanted woods, home to Russian brown bear and the mythological witch Baba Yaga.
With a sharp whack, Misha buried his hatchet in the trunk of an 8” diameter linden tree. Another lick or two and the tree was deeply notched to steer its fall. Vasya and Misha took hold of the two-man saw and in seconds this well practiced team hastily stepped aside to watch the first tree of the harvest crash to the ferns below.
Five saw lengths measured 20 feet of trunk, and again they cut the tree, the saw dropping through the wood like butter.
What few branches there were got lopped off with the hand axe, and then began the most miraculous skinning of a tree I’ve ever seen.
Misha used the back of his hatchet to buckle up the bark at the very end of the tree. He then grabbed this tag of bark and yanked upwards, stripping up a length of bark as long as the tree itself as easy as you please. Another strip and another he pulled from the tree as Vasya rotated it, and in mere minutes nothing but a nude pole was left, white as a lily amongst all that green.
He shook his head, troubled, feeling of the wood. Despite my impression, the bark, he said, had not slipped from the tree quite as easily as it should have. The sap was rising a bit late this year. A week before, the area had experienced a cold snap; a foot of snow had fallen. Another week, and conditions would be ideal.
He searched out another tree and soon a couple more lindens were stripped bare and already into the drying process that would take no less than two years to complete before they would be ready to turn on a lathe, before they would be ready to become matryoshkas.
Roman and I took turns laboring with the saw—they had made it look so easy!-- lopping branches, stripping bark. We roamed a fair distance, felling one tree here, a couple more there, following Misha and Vasya, who sought out the choice trees that had reached an acceptable size, anywhere from six to sixteen inches in diameter. The larger ones were hard to find, having been taken in years past.
I quickly came to appreciate the relationship between the size and cost of a nesting doll. Obviously, the diameter of the tree dictated the final limits of the diameter of the doll. To make a large doll, one had to find and harvest a large tree—not an easy task, not to mention the greater difficulty in turning it on the lathe!
On the other hand, all trees tops tapered into a narrow shaft, which was useful for turning small figurines or the smaller pieces in a set of dolls. Everything down to a couple inches in diameter was taken; anything smaller than that didn’t warrant the work. What was to happen to the stripped trees now? I was certainly hoping we weren’t planning on dragging them any distance.
No, the naked logs would be left lying in the forest where they fell for up to a month, until a truck load was obtained. Misha and Vasya would return numerous times to these woods during the spring, cutting 50 trees a day, 600 in a season. At the end of the harvest, they would carry the lightened wood to the nearest logging road and hire a truck to haul it out of the forest and to their homes.
Did they not worry about someone stealing their stripped trees as they lay in the forest? I asked.
“For that, we have our hatchets,” Vasya replied with a wink.
Later, laughing with Misha about Vasya’s comment, about his fantastic peasant’s beard, and his ever-present flask of moonshine, Misha sobered up and explained that Vasya was not the only one in Maidan who could not leave the moonshine behind. Alcoholism was THE PROBLEM in Polkhovski Maidan, as probably in most Russian villages. Vasya was indeed a great fellow and hard worker, when sober enough to work. And Misha relied on him, and others, to be able to work as a team, but it was a continual frustration for him. Going on drinking binges that lasted for weeks at a time was not unusual for many in the Maidan crowd.
More than a turner in his own right, Misha is an organizer, a true kulak. His entrepreneurial drive moves him to hire and to delegate.
To keep his lathe turning even when he is working elsewhere, Misha hires Sergei, a young carver who does not yet own his own workshop. Misha did not need to tell me how hard Sergei worked; I saw with my own eyes how he labored at the lathe like a Trojan from sun up to sun down, day after day, silently turning hundreds of dolls. He would work at that pace for a couple of weeks, Misha explained, then go off and be idle for a week, drinking his pay. When the vodka ran dry, he’d return to work, chain himself to the lathe, and repeat this cycle, which was not atypical in Maidan.
To free himself further from the lathe, Misha prefers to work the Moscow market and take orders there for work that he will spread among his relatives and colleagues. His responsibility as organizer is to make frequent rounds throughout the village and be sure the work is getting done.
“My biggest job,” Misha confided, “is keeping my co-workers sober.”
Curing the Wood
Every house in Maidan has multiple stacks of linden trees lying, curing, in the yard. Each year’s harvest is retained in a separate stack so the carver might keep track of how many years the wood has cured. A minimum of two years is required for the wood to dry, though to wait three is advisable. And the wood must be used before it grows old in roughly 6 years of storage. This year’s harvest lies in the front yard where it came straight off the truck. In the back, another and another pile of linden poles. Finally, the cured wood is sawn in workable lengths of two to three feet.
Carvers who are unable or choose not to harvest themselves can buy the wood from others villagers who might have harvested extra. I chanced to encounter an older couple who had just received a truckload of linden. They were busy stripping it of its bark. While we had left the bark lying on the forest floor, this lady was neatly bundling the bark to burn in her stove. Some is retained for traditional basted crafts.
The Turnery: Approaching the Lathe
Myth that all pieces are carved from one piece of wood.
Carver approaches a larger lot, say 100 at a time.
Tools: lathe w/ balance bar, four types of chisels(pipe, spoon, knife, hook—each approximately 2 feet long and heavy!), set of handmade wooden calipers particular to a size of nesting doll (a drawing or photo w/ arrows & explanation).
Tools are homemade by village blacksmith, etc, from car axles, available resources. Wooden calipers also home made by carver and one-of-a-kind.
Order: 100 5pc./6” nesting dolls, traditional Maidan form
Making the top of doll #1: From this stick, he will first rough out 10 or so top halves of the outer (1st or largest) doll.
1) Uses largest measuring tool from desired set of tools to Select a stick of the proper diameter—a hair larger than the diameter of the doll will be. Use hand axe on the chopping block to trim down one end of the stick, paring off any obtrusive knots. The stick is then hammered into a doughnut of wood on the lathe. If it is not straight, it must be taken out and jammed in again so that it will spin perfectly without wobble. Turns lathe on and horrific whirr fills the small turnery.
2) smoothes the whole stick w/ the pipe chisel so that it becomes perfectly round. Chips fly everywhere!
3) Using his mulit-purpose caliper, he marks the proper length of the product, takes up his knife chisel and, w/ precision movements, carves the outer form of the doll. If it is an item from his standard repertoire, he need not measure often other than with his eye.
4) Places a series of wooden “washers” or spacers on the spoon chisel as required by the particular product, then digs into the center of the end of the spinning stick to make a hole nearly all the way to the top of the doll.
5) Using the hook chisel, he scrapes out the insides of the doll right to the very shell of the wood. A doll with many pieces requires a paper thin wall and expert precision on the part of the carver. With this step, the inside of the top will be completely finished.
6) He then goes back to the outside and, using the knife chisel, rounds the head of the doll a bit smoother and cuts the top, still rough and unfinished on the outside, from the stick.
7) Steps 2-5 are then repeated until the entire stick has been turned to rough nesting doll tops for doll #1, the pile of them lying to the side of the lathe. The nub of wood left over is knocked out of the lathe and tossed into the pile of scrap wood to be burned in the stove come winter. Another stick of similar diameter is inserted and more tops are made, and so on, until roughly ten sticks have been carved into 100 top halves.
The carver turns his attention to carving the bottoms and mating the two portions to make a complete, hollow doll. A stick of the same diameter as was used to carve the top portion is carefully chosen and inserted into the lathe, Steps 1-3 (above) are conducted so that the desired shape is attained for the outside of the bottom half of a doll. The very end of the stick is tapered down a bit—this will become the top lip of the bottom half of a doll. The inside is still solid at this point.
4) Now it is time for the magical mating of top and bottom to begin! While the crude bottom is spinning on the lathe, the carver selects a top half and holds it against the bottom, over the tapered end of the stick, for just seconds. The wood squeals and smoke starts rising from the friction where top and bottom are pressed together; when the top is pulled away, a black ring, burnt on the spinning stick, remains. This black ring is Maidan’s magic mark indicating just where the two pieces will join and where the lip of the bottom half needs to be carved. For the moment, the top is set aside and the carving on the bottom proceeds.
5) Just as in step 4 above, the correct spacing of washers is put on the spoon chisel (most likely, a few are removed, as the bottom of the doll will not be as deep as the top), which is then used to bore a hole into the bottom of the doll.
6) The hook chisel is used to expand this hole and hollow out the inside of the bottom. Enough wood needs to be removed so that a smaller doll will eventually be able to fit inside.
7) Once the lip is thus formed on the bottom half, the same top used to burn the ring (it, too, will have a burnt ring along the inside rim—you can see this on nearly any nesting doll made in Maidan) is fit onto the bottom. The carver may need to make a slight adjustment to the bottom’s lip to get the fit right, but with any luck, the top is soon tightly mated to the bottom and spinning along with it, a closed, hollow doll.
8) Now that the inside of the doll has been finished and the top joined tightly to the bottom, the remaining task is to smooth the outside of the doll. The knife chisel is drawn the length of the doll from foot to head, shaving off a slight layer of wood, making the top indistinguishable from the bottom. The level of expertise of the turner will be revealed in how smoothly the doll is finished. Done artfully, the finished doll will feel smooth as soap, as if finely sanded. A novices work will need to be sanded by hand before painting.
9) Finally, the doll is cut from the stick at the foot. Before setting it down, the turner marks the doll with a pencil, drawing a line across the joint from top to bottom. This marks how the top must be lined up with the bottom to make the perfect fit— just as it was carved. In this alignment they must be painted to avoid the trouble of an ill-fitting match. There is another bit of magic about this fit: if a doll is fit well, one can actually feel the top “stop” into correct position as one twists the top over the bottom. The top magically knows its proper resting place seems to “snap” into position.
This process is then repeated until 100 top dolls are finished. Then the turner begins the tops for the next doll down in size, and so on. When doll #2 is finished, the turner may double check his accuracy and make sure the doll fits properly inside doll #1. If his set of calipers is well made, and he carves accurately, he shouldn’t experience any trouble with the fit.
The process is the same for the other dolls in the set, until the final doll is tackled: Sasha. Sasha is the easiest to carve, not needing to be hollowed out. She is carved to be a small, solid figurine.
Soon, 100 each of all 5 dolls in the nested set are complete. All made by the same hand and the same handmade set of calipers, these dolls should mix and match universally among themselves. (They could not be expected to mix and match with the dolls of any other carver, however.) The family works together to nest the party of dolls and paint them, or take them to the market.
The Classic Zagorsk Matryoshka
The Zagorsk matryoshka wears a sarafan and shawl decorated with a simple dotted floral pattern, sometimes adorned with berries. Painted with gouache, her dominant colors are bright blue, red, and green. Her hair is often dark, her eyes blue, and her contours are drawn precisely with fine strokes of black. Her form tends to be elegant and slender. Overall, she appears quite refined in comparison to her country cousins from Semenov and Polkhovski Maidan.
Though the city’s name was changed back to Sergiev Posad, the style remains “Zagorsk.” Founded in 1947, Sergiev Posad’s Factory of Toys and Souvenirs carries on the Zagorsk tradition and is the largest producer of the classic Zagorsk matryoshka today.
The Semenov Matryoshka
Woodworking has always been among the most prominent trades in the vast upper Volga woodlands. The forests surrounding the city of Nizhni Novgorod, east of Moscow, abound in European linden trees, the ideal wood for carving figurines, tableware, toys, and the like. It follows naturally that the villages in this area are full of turners, highly skilled craftsmen who grew up around the lathe and whose children are turning their own toys by the age of twelve.
The nesting doll made her way to Semenov, one of the crafting villages in the Volga area, in 1922. Rather than simply copy the dolls made in Sergiev Posad, the Semenov turners changed her form slightly, simplifying her curves, and their wives painted the dolls in an ancient style unique to their village. After drawing heavy black outlines, the village ladies use aniline dyes to dress their dolls predominantly in yellow and red, then adorn them with Semenov’s signature red rose. The shawl is decorated with a distinctive pattern of spiraling dots produced by “stamping” with a rolled wad of fabric dipped in ink. This primitive, graphic style, stemming from ancient Russian folk art, gained world renown as “THE” Russian matryoshka during the Stalin era, and remains the most familiar nesting doll to us today.
Soviet powers organized Semenov’s cottage industry in 1931, establishing a large-scale toy workshop, the Semenov Painting factory (Semenovskaya Rospis’). It remains the largest single producer of nesting dolls today.
The Polkhovski Maidan Matryoshka
Also in the Volga region lie the quiet crossroads of Polkhovski Maidan, a village long devoted to the hand production of wooden toys. The matryoshka did not take long to wander the short distance south from Semenov to Maidan, but arriving there, she was transformed once again. The men of Maidan turned a doll with higher shoulders and straighter hips, nearly cylindrical about the waist, while their wives and daughters painted her in a rainbow of cheerfully bright, bold colors: pink, orange, green, blue, purple, and red. The Polkhovski Maidan matryoshka is clearly related in style to her Semenov sister, is also painted with aniline dyes (mixed with peasant moonshine!), and also wears a rose. The Maidan rose, however, is tied to local legend. As the story goes, Alena, an inspired young lady from Maidan, led an uprising against the czar, was burned mercilessly at the stake, and buried near her home. The Maidan rose is said to have grown upon her grave, and thus found its way into the motifs of the village’s work, a symbol of Maidan’s independent spirit.
The proud constitution of the Polkhovski Maidan peasant did not favor the Soviet government’s attempts to organize the cottage industry there. The “Red Sunrise” workshop soon fell to ruin, leaving the peasants the pleasure of working for themselves, in their own workshops, without time clocks and quality control committees. So it is today—all Maidan matryoshkas come from independent households. And the productivity of Maidan lathes is tremendous, providing the lion’s share of unpainted nesting dolls supplied to artists across Russia and the world.
Area Nesting Doll Tips
None of these area nesting dolls are signed, dated, or otherwise marked by the artists; they are considered the production of the entire village or workshop and left unsigned according to tradition.
Babushka nesting dolls painted with aniline dyes (Semenov, Polkhovski Maidan) will fade in direct sunlight.