World Cup Russian nesting dolls are everywhere, but how do you make a real matryoshka?
SEMYONOV, Russia -- There are nesting dolls everywhere in Russia. Nesting dolls that look like kings or queens, nesting dolls that look like Vladimir Putin, nesting dolls that, of course, look like soccer players.
But most of them are fake.
Now, by that I don't mean that they're not dolls or that they don't nest. They do. But the dolls that tourists can buy in the markets or at souvenir stands are generally cheap imitations of the real matryoshka, which are made from a specific type of wood (linden) and then handcrafted, sanded, sealed, painted and fired so that they're sturdy and can be used for serving food.
If your doll feels flimsy or gritty, or is painted to look like the greatest bands of the 1980s, it is not real.
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Since I am often fascinated by seemingly mundane bits of trivia, I asked around and learned that most of the authentic nesting dolls are actually made (and painted) at a factory in this small town, Semyonov, which is about a 90-minute drive from one of the World Cup cities, Nizhny Novgorod. So when I was in Nizhny for a game one day last week, I went to see how a real Russian nesting doll is created.
The short answer? Carefully, and with a striking combination of assembly-line production and diligent precision. The factory, which has nearly 700 employees, has a small production floor filled with about two dozen machines. Some are giant sanders, which smooth the wood after it is peeled and cut into cylinders. Others are drills, with different-sized bits that move forward and back, hollowing out the wood into the nesting doll shape.
Workers guide each pass of the drills -- which spew ribbons of wood as they bite -- and tap sawdust out of the cup that is formed. A separate router bit creates the ridge that allows top and bottom pieces to fit together. Once a doll is fabricated, it is sanded again. Dolls are referred to by numbers, which are based on how many dolls would fit inside of it. So a size "6" matryoshka means that five more figures would fit inside it to make a nesting doll.
One of the men working the machines estimated that they produce about 300 dolls during an eight-hour shift. Giant barrels of dolls are then sent down to the painting rooms, which are downstairs on ground level. There, about 20 women sit at tables -- most put their feet on tiny step-stools -- and hunch over doll after doll, whisking brushes through paint and turning the wooden dolls into pieces of art.
It was really striking to watch the transformation. The traditional matryoshka is primarily red, yellow and black (with small accents in green or other colors), and a typical workflow goes like this: The first artist uses a thin black brush to mark the outlines of the doll's face and body. The second artist fills in the larger areas of red and yellow, like the doll's clothes and hair. The third artist then does the details, adding flowers and other features that are unique to that particular design.
Most of the women were friendly, if focused. One of them told me that she had been working at the factory for about 10 years (though she looked to be in her late 20s) and said it could certainly be monotonous. But depending on what kind of orders the factory has, the artists get different assignments on different days, depending on what level of skill they are rated to have (the lower the level, the less creative the task).
The biggest problem? "My back hurts sometimes," the painter said, but she added that overall, she likes the job. "I was always good at drawing and painting, even as a little girl," she said. "And, in this area, to work on the matryoshka is an honor."
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.