The Matryoshka Doll

Its torso is shaped like a colossal peanut. Its head is round with a glimmering face painted upon it with thick guache, covered in colorless yacht lacquer. The Matryoshka doll, Semenovskaya nesting doll, [Матрёшка] bears the scent of damp old wood. When I took it off the shelf this morning, a cloud of dust erupted from underneath it. The doll is wrapped in a shawl of paint. Her sarafan is covered in flowers trailing down the curves of the wood. 

I did not get this doll during the five years in which I lived in Russia. My father brought this back from one of his business trips just a couple of years ago so we could remember our childhood years, during which we played with dolls just like these. In September of 2010, I was sent off to my first day of kindergarten at my new school in a new country with a new language. I spoke little to no Russian; perhaps I knew a few simple phrases that my father taught me when I was even younger. The first day of kindergarten consisted of getting to know the teachers and playing with the abundance of toys in our little classroom. You name a toy; it was there: barbies, teddy bears, life-size young girl dolls whose hair we braided, a whole corner in which there was a mini plastic kitchen with all the appliances you could think of. It all seemed so familiar. Maybe this new place wouldn’t be so horrid. Then something round and shiny caught my eye; I found a Матрёшка. I had no idea what it was, so I sat down to investigate it just like any child in my position would have done. I began to take out each Matryoshka from the previous one, one by one, I ended up with about 16 matryoshka dolls in a line. I remember sitting there in the middle of the room on the rainbow patterned fluffy carpet with what must have been a look of wonder plastered on my face. Sooner or later, one little girl named Katya wandered over to me and started speaking to me in fluent Russian and pointing to the dolls. I must have looked confused because she brought over the teacher who explained to her that I didn’t speak fluent Russian because I had just moved here from the U.S. Her face was more baffled then mine was when unpacking doll after doll after doll. She ran off to play with the other girls she already knew, and if it is possible for 6year olds to gossip, then they were doing precisely that. When I wasn’t looking at them, I could feel their eyes piercing through the back of my head, waiting for me to do something strange or odd. By the end of my first school year, I was fluent in Russian and could barely remember my life in the U.S. In the eyes of my classmates however, my past life never quite faded away.

The top and bottom half of the Matryoshka seem to fit together perfectly, yet when I try to open the doll, the linden wood emits a hideous shriek as if I am stabbing at its heart. The two halves do not fit together. The sturdy base of the doll is quite broad, and the intricate top half is too narrow. The doll stares at me with her big blue eyes and rosy cheeks, a countenance of pure innocence. 

My first year at The Brearley School was memorable, to say the least. Especially the day after the election of 2016. The students filtered into the Stark homeroom on the sixth floor of 610. I slowly migrated to the back of the room where my desk was, greeting my peers along the way. They were undeniably friendly, yet I was still definitely the new girl. At the beginning of the year, upon hearing that I lived in Russia for five years, they all took a different stance in approaching me. Some of them commented on how “interesting” or “cool” it was that I had lived abroad. But no matter how much I repeated it, they didn’t grasp that I was born here, I went to preschool here. I even almost went to Brearley for kindergarten before we moved away. To them, I was “the Russian girl,” other than the new girl and the tall girl, which I was used to being. The morning after the election, I didn’t feel Russian. I was not happy with the outcome; I was not rooting for some foreign interference. But that didn’t stop my classmates from circling me like vultures over a corpse. “Did you ever meet Putin?” “Do Russians like trump?” “Do you know if the Russians helped Trump?” Did they forget that I had been walking on the same concrete, breathing the same air, and speaking the same language as they had been for the past two years? The teacher asked everyone to settle down.

While I write this, I take breaks. I leave my desk and pick up the matrëshka. I open and close her a few times before my sister yells at me for giving her a headache. The shriek of the wood is truly unbearable, yet it is mesmerizing. The doll was built as one whole, but somewhere over her lifetime, her halves stopped fitting, she is neither at home in her top half nor is she at rest in her bottom half. She can no longer be one doll; she is two separate pieces: two memories that don’t fit. Two lives that cannot connect. A little girl that can never entirely unite her pasts into one person. She is not at home in either of her halves. Varvara, Katya, and Masha were the names of those three girls who whispered incessantly behind my back. Were they acting cruelly? Would I have done the same? Is it an instinct to isolate those who are different from us? How can we be so sure of who we are that we can judge others for what we think they are? If I were to judge someone for not being like me, what would my criteria be? Are they not Russian enough? Are they not American enough? Everyone seems to have a gate around them, determined not to let in anything strange or unknown. But we all have pieces. We won’t be at ease with ourselves or with others until we make peace with our parts. If I can look at myself and know who I am, if I can recognize all the pieces that make me unique, not strange, then I will have made peace with myself. 

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