Lesson from a Russian Nesting Doll

Hidden layers are for dolls, trees, and ogres

Hand-painted Russian nesting doll. Made in Russia.

The Backstory

There may come a day when I can retire (or maybe not, ha!) and tackle certain bucket list items, like my in-laws did as they travel the world.

One of their trips they took was a river cruise in Russia and visited places like Moscow and local towns along the river. Along the way, as you’d expect on a trip like that, they picked up souvenirs… the typical books about Russian children’s stories, locally crafted toys, tchotchkes, and clothing.

But, one souvenir was a toy that originated in Russia in 1890 by Vasily Zvyozdochkin. You read about them, see them in cartoons, and wonder what authentic ones look and feel like… my in-laws gifted my family our very own set of handmade, Russian nesting dolls — a.k.a. the Matryoshka doll.

The Object

Standing at a towering 3 inches, these nesting dolls immediately captured my attention.

What’s the first thing you do when someone hands you one of these things… you take it apart!

I think it’s some kind of human instinct — we get something; we deconstruct it. Opening these things satisfies some kind of weird curiosity.

The curiosity isn’t satiated until there are no more moves, and I’m left with a pile of tops and bottoms. While there are many styles and layers that nesting dolls can have, this set has a series of 5 dolls existing within one another.

Each doll is hand-painted, coated with a glossy sealant-like finish, and fits perfectly within itself. This set features a woman’s face that appears as if she’s getting younger and younger, as the layers are opened to reveal the next one inside. While the painting quality isn’t the best or the most accurate, that’s actually what gives it its the charm and authenticity… not painted by a machine or sprayed on using a template.

What really is clever about these dolls is just how precise each layer fits within itself. It seems so simple and easy, but Lord knows I would have the hardest time doing it!

The Lesson

When skimming a story about nesting dolls, it’s easy to jump to the typical, self-improvement jargon — evaluating what’s inside yourself, what makes you tick, exploring and unlocking your full potential, and all the personas we have as we interact with different people.

It’s also easy to use the onion metaphor or Onion Model like Shrek did when explaining ogres to Donkey, “Ogres are like onions… layers… onions have layers; ogres have layers.” (cakes and parfaits do too, according to Donkey).

But, what if there was another angle to the Onion Diagram and how we interpret layers of something?

In the case with the nesting doll, the artist made the next doll appear to be younger than the one before, so as you take them apart, you experience a younger and younger version of the same person.

Time. I suppose the same concept applies to tree rings… another layer builds upon what’s there and encases the past. You don’t get to easily see what’s inside the tree, until it dies.

A nesting doll has the luxury of being able to be taken apart to see what’s inside; so do onions, cakes, and parfaits. But trees can’t be taken a part, and neither can people. The nesting doll can also be put back together again!

The Take-aways:

  • Complicated things don’t get less complicated; they get understood
  • “The past is only a guidepost… not a hitching post.” ~ Thomas Holcroft
  • Whatever happened in the past was meant to be; otherwise, it would not have happened
  • Respect the past, but reject status quo

Here’s a pretty cool quote I found a long time ago…

A young man was asked by a woman to guess her age. “I have several ideas,” 
he admitted with a smile, “the trouble is that I don’t know whether to make it ten years younger because of your looks or ten years older because of your intelligence.

Smart young man. The next time you travel the world and experience layers, dig a little deeper and understand the past.

Nesting doll bottoms fit inside one another perfectly.

Written by Shaun Holloway.