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Toys of Old Russia

Cockerel. Sergiev Posad
Games and toys are as old as anything in the human world. They emerged at the dawn of human civilization and were important instruments in the processes of socialization, upbringing, development, and education of human beings.

The games, rituals, and festivals brought a measure of emotional and substantive order into the seeming primeval chaos of being. The toys grew to become indispensable wares of everyday life bringing to it some orderliness and harmony. When a human being was born he was accompanied with a toy and he died accompanied with a toy. It is not easy, for instance, to identify the toy utensils found in the archeological digs of the burial sites as play things or items required for funeral rituals.

The most ancient toys discovered on the Russian territory date back to the second millenium B.C. These are the earthenware rattles, utensils, hatchets, and human figurines. The ancestor worship cults presumed that the dead had a magical power and could provide support and guidance for the living. The figurines were manufactured for attracting and hosting the souls of the dead. These figurines were the earliest dolls.

The ancient toys were typically made of the two materials most common in Russia, that is, wood and clay. The earthenware rattles, miniature household utensils, human figurines, and whistles shaped as birds, horses, and other animals have been found in the Slavic burial sites of the 6th - 7th centuries and in the archeological digs of the 10th-14th century strata in the old Russian towns of Kiev, Novgorod, Ryazan, Moscow, Tver, Kolomna, Radonezh, Zaraisk and Dmitrov. Wooden rattles, balls, boats, figurines of birds and horses, and other articles dating back to the 12th century have been found in the towns of Staraya Ladoga and Novgorod, and in the archeological digs along the Oyat River. These days, hundreds and even thousands years later, we are encountering the types of toys that emerged in ancient times.

The more developed a civilization is in material terms, the more sophisticated are the toys produced by it. The centers of traditional toy manufacture typically coincided with the centers of traditional earthenware crafts and woodworking trades. The craftsmen manufactured various utensils and other useful articles in the workshops while women and children made toys from the same materials. In the distant past toys had many uses, magical, domestic, and artistic. The magical use of toys in rituals was of a primary importance at the earliest stages of human civilizations. The artistic attributes were of primary importance, too.

The public interest in toys typical for different nations and times has been rapidly growing in the recent period. The ever-accelerating tempo of the contemporary life makes the humans realise that their childhood experiences and impressions have shaped the most intimate components of their personalities. However, access to them is tightly Hocked by the barriers built by education, social conventions, and adult life experiences that are not easy to leap over. The interest is manifested by the increasing number of exhibitions, gallery shows, sale drives and other events presenting a wide variety of toys ranging from traditional folk art play things to custom-made porcelain dolls and including such specialized exhibitions as, for instance, a show of all kinds of Barbie dolls.

The contemporary Russian culture is unique in that it simultaneously sustains age-old folk arts and crafts and modern art trends which stem from and develop folk traditions. Craftsmen are manufacturing folk toys in traditional styles and materials while the best custom-made toys can be regarded as masterpieces of modern art.

In June, 2001 the Foundation of Folk Arts and Crafts of the Russian Federation located at 7 Leontievsky Lane in Moscow held a large exhibition entitled "Russian Toys. Past and Presenf. The exhibition featured traditional Russian toys made of wood, ceramic, birch bark, straws, and rags in styles that originated in ancient times.

The well-known patrons of arts, the wealthy merchant families of Morozovs and Mamontovs, were especially interested in folk arts and crafts. The family of Anatoly Mamontov settled in the leontievsky Lane in the second half of the 19th century. In the eighties of the 19th century his brother, Sawa Mamontov, a rich industrialist and an ardent arts-lover, supported a circle of modern painters, musicians, and sculptors, based at his country estate of Abramtsevo. He generously funded their attempts to revive what they referred to as the "Russian" style in arts, primarily in decorative arts and furnishings. Similar aspirations guided his brother Anatoly when he opened a so-called "workshop-store " Children s Education" in Us house in the Leontievsky Lane. Popular items in the workshop were the so-called ethnographic dolls dressed in holiday costumes typical for different regions and various ethnic groups of the Russian Empire. It was in this 'workshop at the turn of the 20th century that the wood turner Vassily Zvez-dochkin (1876-1956) made the first matryoshka doll (a series of hollow dolls, one inside the other) and the professional artist Sergei Mafyutin painted it The prominent industrialist Sergei Morozov (1863-1944) bought a part of the house and the workshop and provided funding for establishing the Arts and Crafts Museum in it. The museum inherited from the workshop "Children's Education" the tradition of collecting and studying all types of Russian toys with the aim of continuing and expanding their manufacture. The curator of the toy collection and the manager of toy manufacturing workshop was the artist and arts teacher Nikolai Eartram (1873-1931) who was a recognized expert on toys. He supervised preparations for the exhibitions entitled "Toys of the Past and Present1 and "How Toys Are Made" held at the Arts and Crafts Museum in 1909-1910.

A number of publications on the history of Russian toys appeared in that period including a collection of toy articles entitled "Toy, Its History, and Significance" (1912). It was only then that the toy was recognised as a work of decorative folk art, it became fashionable to collect toys, art experts started describing and studying toys, and artists turned to designing and making traditional and new types of toys.

The first decade of the 20th century was a period of reawakening of the Russian toy art. The development of the toy trade and art was centered on the Yolk Arts and Crafts Museum where Nikolai Eartram was the toy collection curator and consultant for the folk toy craftsmen from the Moscow region towns of Sergiev Posad and Eogorodsk and the professional artists interested in toy design (including V.A. Vata-gin, IS. Efimov, LI. Oveshkov, and many others).

The toy collection of the Arts and Crafts Museum was nationalized in 1918 and the Toy Museum was established by the governmental decree in Moscow. The museum was one of the most popular museums in Moscow. Nikolai Bar-tram was its director until 1931 when the Museum was relocated to Sergiev Posad. It is functioning now as the Toy Museum of Art and Education. The wooden toys are very ancient in origin. The traditional centers of the toy trade in Russia are the Northern Russia, the Volga region, and the Moscow region.

In late 19th-early 20th century the villagers in the remote regions of Northern Russia still observed the ancient traditions and customs in their everyday life. The age-old ethnic roots can be perceived in the carved and painted ornaments on the wooden articles manufactured by Russian craftsmen and in the earthenware and wooden toys. In early 20th century it was in such Northern villages that one could still find in use the primitive toys known as "panics". These were figurines of humans, birds or animals roughly hewn from wood blocks. The word "panic" is derived from the Nenets word "pant" for tree root or stem. The principal feature of these toys was that they were solid chunks of wood. One can easily see that their prototype was the ancient idols worshipped by the aboriginal tribes before they were converted to Christianity.

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