Biggest fans of Russia's dolls-within-dolls are nations often at odds with Moscow

Amid all the bluff and bluster over East-West relations, one imperturbable Russian figure keeps smiling. Indeed, she has for the past century, and by some accounts 1984 marks her 100 th birthday.

She is a matryoshka, the colorful doll-within-a-doll-within-a-doll that, perhaps more than any other form of folk art, has come to symbolize Russia.

With their heads almost always covered with a peasant kerchief, usually wearing an apron and often holding forth a bouquet of flowers, matryoshkas venture forth in their tens of thousands each year from Russia.

It is generally believed that the inspiration for matryoshkas came from the colorful nesting wooden eggs that the peasants of Russian made for centuries at Easter to symbolize rebirth - and from a set of wooden Japanese dolls that came into the hands of the noted Russian art patron, Savva Mamontov, at some point in the late 19th century.

Mr. Mamontov commissioned a woodworker and an artist to make a Russian version of the dolls. The result was eight nesting figurines, ranging from a portly peasant woman carrying a rooster to a baby in swaddling clothes. The name matryoshka came from Matryona, a popular name among peasant women at the time.

The original matryoshkas were sold as children's toys, and demand became enough to support a small factory in Zagorsk, a village north of Moscow. Zagorsk and two other towns in Russia remain the principal centers for making the matryoshkas today, but the dolls are produced in other parts of the Soviet Union as well.

The dolls first became popular outside Russia when they won the gold medal at a toy exhibition in Paris in 1900. Since then, countless thousands of them have been sold to tourists or exported.

Even today, the biggest customers are those countries whose governments are often at odds with Moscow - England, France, West Germany, Italy, the United States, and Japan.

Matryoshkas come in sets as small as two and as many as 70. (The latter was a special creation made expressly for an exhibition.) Most are made from larch or that most Russian of trees, birch.

Matryoshkas, it should be pointed out, have often changed their garb - and even their gender - over the years.

They have masqueraded as characters from Russian literature and plays, as helmeted czarist generals, and as pious religious figures.

For a brief period in the 1960s, they even donned the space suits of Soviet cosmonauts and nested inside a wooden rocket.

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