I have been wanting to write about Matryoshka dolls for some months. The start of the Russian-Ukraine war prompted me to explore the symbol and irony of these dolls. The war seems far away and yet we have learnt through the Covid pandemic that we all are interconnected and what happens in one area affects others, and in the end, we are all infected and affected.
I am grateful for a gift of the matryoshka dolls from St Petersburg, a reminder of the cultural heritage of Russia. Matryoshka dolls were designed in 1890 by Sergei Malyutin who was a folk craft painter. Matryoshka is related to a Russian word for Mother and Mother Russia. The dolls were traditionally made from linden wood, turned on a lathe and painted, often by women. The Mother figure, a simple peasant woman with black hair and a painted red tunic, is home to seven smaller dolls that are nested inside her, representing family and children. Matryoshka dolls symbolize maternity, family unity, collectivism and warmth as expressed in the Russian culture. The Mother image in the dolls has been broadened to include other family members such as Fathers, and some dolls even have faces of politicians.
The symbol of a Mother in these matryoshka dolls is a holding space, which is both a protective and engaging space for children. The Mother figure is a strong symbol of protection and a clear voice, that says, “if you want to get to my children, you first go through me”. Mothers are known to fiercely protect their children, more so in times of crisis and stress. And when Mothers join together, their courage to protect their children can be astounding and sacrificial. The collective voice of Mothers can change the minds and actions of others who intend to harm children.
The Mother figure in the Matryoshka dolls offers a holding space for children to grow. This is a space of showing up for a child in different experiences. It is also being a presence for a child to rant, make mistakes, work things out and learn about life with support. A holding space does not come with demands, doing for, controlling, or taking away from, but rather offers a kind and understanding companionship. The skill of the artists who make these dolls is to create a good enough fit from smaller to bigger dolls into the space of the Mother. A holding space or good enough fit is nonjudgmental and not controlling; for example, it might be expressed in saying ”we all learn through our mistakes, how can we resolve this one?”. When we offer a holding space for our children, we open our hearts to their story and respond with compassion. This no easy task in an age of expectation and pressure on children to perform and show results. We are learning through research and evidential experience that children grow and learn when they feel safe and given the space to learn through their experiences with support and compassion of parents and encouraging adults .
Stacking cups and nesting eggs are similar toys to matryoshka dolls and often a favourite for children over one year. They form one of the first mathematics lessons about size and how shapes fit into each other. The Matryoshkas dolls add a philosophy to the math logic with the interconnections between units, for example individuals in families, families in communities, and countries on the earth. These ‘toys’ have much to teach us all through play and some reflection.
Let us ‘show up’ or be a compassionate presence for our children.
Let us teach our children about peaceful ways whilst unlearning those that bring harm to others. In this way, we help to create a better world for all
Let us learn to respect Matryoshka Mother who embodies a symbol of warmth and unity for her children.
Let us be mindful of our interconnectedness when playing with children using stacking toys.
I have different roles; occupational therapist, mother, wife, friend and sister. I am curious about life and how little children grow to their potential with the support of parents, families and the wider community.