Hand-crafted Matroyshka dolls a perfect Russian souvenir

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There are places in the Olympic host country that glitter, dazzle and amaze. In Russia, the most famous things are big, bold and beautiful. But in a country so huge, it is something quite small that everyone seems to want.

The famous Russian nesting doll, called the Matroyshka, is the number one souvenir in Russia. You will find them everywhere, in every color and everything painted on them. Athletes, political leaders, movie stars and rock singers are painted on the wooden dolls.

While they are for sale in Russia's big cities, the famous Matroyshkas have humble beginnings. Drive several hundred miles from Moscow to the village of Polkhovsky Maidan and listen. Craftsmen are using power tools to turn lime trees into treasure.

"It requires a lot of preparation to cut the trees, to dry the logs. Then, we have to cut it. It's a lot of work," said 50-year-old Michael Masyagin. "Every wood has heart. And, the heart should be in the middle. If it's on the side, it's not good for Matroyshkas."

At this home, making the famous nesting dolls is a family business.

"I started when I was 9 or 10 years old. And now, I am 45," said Vera Masyagin. "My mom worked at the factory for 20 years and I came to visit her and I made my first Matroyshka at the factory. My mom painted them."

The women of the house use brushes and paints to bring life to the dolls.

"I start with the face, eyes, nose, mouth. Then, I paint the skirt. Then, I paint a flower. A wild rose. Then, I make the kerchief," said 22-year-old Julia Masyagin. "I try to make an expressive face. I let her smile. I want her to have expressive eyes. I don't do it for me. I do it for others."

Masyagin's daughter says there is a distinct difference in the craftsmanship and painting that her family creates than the nesting dolls made in a factory.

"If you just look at two different Matroyshkas, you probably can't differentiate how they were made. When they work at the factory, there are people who paint face better, there are people who can paint clothes better. And, they divide the work between each other," said Julia Masyagin. "I put more soul into it because it's mine from the very beginning. (In the factory), they don't think about quality. They think about quantity. They try to make as many as possible. For me, quality is more important."

"We know that foreign tourists like to buy Matroyshkas so we started to make more and more. We send them to Moscow. People all over Russia," said Michael Masyagin. "We do certain types of Matroyshkas. For example, we never paint presidents, czars, celebrities on Matroyshkas. They do it in Moscow."

The family can make 100 Matroyshkas a week. It turns out, business is best in times of peace.

"When it's peaceful in the world, we sell a lot of Matroyshkas and when there is war and crisis and instability, we don't sell too much," said Michael Masyagin. "It seems to me that production of Matroyshkas is connected to a stable situation in the world."

Masyagin says he learned the craft from his father and grandfather who created kitchen utensils and sold them for food.

"We tried doing it when we were teenagers. At first we made barrels, children's toys. Then, we started making Matroyshkas. Great interest in Matroyshkas started 20-30 years ago. But in St. Petersburg, they're very popular because of all the foreign tourists. You live in the United States. We'll make the Mastroyshas and send them to you."

This region of Russia is so proud of its place in Matroyshka history, there is a museum devoted to the dolls.

"The first Matroshkya came from Japan," said Anna Danshina with the Veznesensky History Museum. "He lived not far from Moscow. When he came from Japan and brought the souvenir, it consisted of seven pieces, because seven in Japan means a family. When wife of the man saw this doll, she suggested making a Russian doll. He went to his workshop. They made souvenirs for children. They had a doll of eight pieces. The first was mother. The next was sons and daughters. With this souvenir, Elizabeth went to Paris and someone exclaimed, ‘Oh my gosh, great!' So, we've had Russian Matroyshka. The first doll was made in the 19th Century, more than 100 years old."

"When the first Matroyshka is being born, it's a baby. It wants to be warmed up. That's why the next one is a bit bigger. And the largest Matroyshka is mother. She keeps them in her body."

While the traditional images of Russia are built to impress, it seems the smallest symbol has had the biggest impact. Born in a village, created by hand, the Matroyshka seems to fit perfectly inside the Olympic host country.

"Russia is proud of this souvenir. It's simple. It's kind. It's nice to look at them and play with them. Every doll in unique. They're handmade which means they keep the soul of the person. I believe Matroyshka will live forever in Russia," said Danshina.