It is a rare object - or to be more precise – a toy, which has become a symbol for a whole period in the life of this country. This status has been unwittingly granted to a toy manufactured by the “Straume” factory, the Baiba doll, dressed in a stylized Bārta regional folk costume. The Baiba doll for many people associates with the artificiality of Soviet life, bad taste and distorted national values. However, twenty years after the regaining of independence, the attitude towards a number of domestic items from the Soviet era has changed. They have been raised to the level of kitsch, stylish artefacts, which hold sentimental proof of a part of one’s life, and are also used as examples – a type of springboard for more creative national design, which is more appropriate to the mentality of our people. However, as paradoxical as it may seem – at least for now – nothing has outdone the Baiba doll in terms of popularity or recognition. Furthermore, criticized or praised, even with a moth-eaten traditional shawl and plaits picked at by children, the Baiba doll has now become a collectable item, and the demand for the toy and its price continue to increase. Because of this, one must ask – how has this mass-produced item managed to maintain the leader position in collective memory?
Here we may need to take a look at the history of ethnographic dolls. The manufacture of dolls was first begun in Germany and France in the 1870s, along with the boom in manufacturing and the increase in choice in general. Doll making was also at a high point in the Russian Empire: this is demonstrated by the fact that the first collection of dolls with stylized folk costumes of inhabitants of Russia’s provinces were produced in the Moscow workshop “Bērnu audzināšana” (in 1880. This business was directed by Anatoliy Mamonotov, the brother of famous art benefactor and collector Savva Mamontov . This family contributed greatly not only to the preservation of folk art, but also to the promotion of the ethnographic style amongst professional artists, inviting them to create new artistic versions of many items in a folk art style, including toys. These were undeniably unique items, often very expensive, and they could only be afforded by wealthy members of society. In the early 20th century ethnographic dolls became an unusual fashion item – even the children of Tsar Nicholas II played with these dolls, possibly in this way demonstrating their democratic attitude to their subjects.
The next era in ethnographic doll making to consider was during the years of independent Latvia. It is known that in Latvia dolls were made in small workshops, mostly made of fabric and wood. There is no accurate information where and when the first dolls dressed in Latvian folk costumes were made. As is seen in examples that have survived from the 1920s-30s, in most cases imported, commercially manufactured dolls were used, which were dressed by the owners in home-made folk costumes. Individual hand crafting guaranteed a certain authenticity even if the ethnographic costume was not one hundred percent precise – the attitude of the maker and their attempt to display their patriotism in the form of a toy is impressive. In any case it is definitely a conscious step to swap stylish, fashionable and industrially manufactured doll’s clothing for something made in an ethnographic style. On a larger scale, a doll in ethnographic clothing served as a sign of belonging to its country and its people, even for refugees, during the time of forced migration. It is no wonder that to this day for many Latvian families over the world, over a number of generations, a Latvian doll is considered to be a symbol of Latvia and evokes memories of the homeland.
Here it is fitting to remind ourselves of another type of ethnographic craft which has displayed incredible endurance under any political conditions. These are small dolls made of woven or crocheted wool, which were made during the years of independent Latvia, and by Latvians living in their new countries of residence, and also became a souvenir which was in demand during the years of Soviet rule. Of course, there cannot be any reference to ethnographic precision; however, colour combinations similar to folk costumes and other significant details have been preserved. Thus, these dolls also fulfil the functions of a national symbol.
During the years of Soviet rule, completely different responsibilities were delegated to dolls in folk costume, when a collection of dolls in stylized folk costumes of the nations of the USSR became an obligatory constituent of every toy store. One should remember that children in Soviet society were not raised as individuals, but as obedient members of a collective commune, who through play had to learn about the Soviet life style, values of socialistic work and behavioural stereotypes, including tolerance, love and friendship with representatives of other Soviet republics. Ethnographic dolls were manufactured in each republic, and these were given a typical name of each particular culture. For example, the doll in a stylized Ukrainian folk costume was called Oksana.
Originally dolls in folk costumes were made in small workshops throughout the entire territory of the USSR. The bodies were made from fabric with a cotton-wool filling, while the head, hands and legs were made of painted compressed sawdust. With the development of domestic chemical manufacturing in the early 1960s, these body parts, and a little later the whole body of a doll, began to be manufactured from plastic. At this time small cooperatives were combined into larger concerns, including the Riga Doll Factory, which was under the jurisdiction of the Authority of Machine and Metalwork Manufacture of the Latvian SSR National Economy Board. This was the next step towards the development of a more unified mass production. Up until the 1960s, costumes for ethnographic dolls were sewn by hand, which is demonstrated by the embroidery and costume decoration, but in the 1970s embroidery was replaced with imitation, which was achieved with the popular screen-printing technique. This can also be seen on the Baiba doll and her colourful, stylized folk costume of the Bārta district of the Kurzeme region, the most well-known item manufactured by the “Straume” factory or (in its full name) the Experimental Production Section of the Riga Factory for Electric and Mechanic Domestic Appliances.
The Baiba doll was made completely of moulded plastic. Her plaits were also made of a synthetic material. Cotton and wool fabrics were used in her folk costume; the embroidery detail was replaced by printing in black-and-white and colour. Screen-printing was also used on her head wreath, which was also decorated with a row of silver spray-painted plastic balls. Irrespective of all of this so-called “stylization”, the ethnographic elements and ornament proportions in the doll’s costume were preserved authentically enough. Precise details are also characteristic of another doll. Many have already forgotten that Baiba was not the only Latvian doll produced by “Straume”. A much less recognized doll was Baiba’s “sister” Aina, who was dressed in a stylized but recognizable Latgallian folk costume from the Augšzeme district.
As is noted on the “gem” of Soviet era packaging - a typically brown/grey printed cardboard box, held together with metal staples - the “sisters” are intended for children aged between 3 and 10 years, and have both been awarded a stamp of quality. In reality, however, the dolls, particularly Baiba, were delegated a clearly defined function of souvenir representation. The Baiba doll has remained today in the memories of the older members of society: the image of her with bright blonde, thick synthetic plaits – a desirable, but not always attainable item. The barrier to this was the very high price for this exclusive toy. Baiba could be bought for 11 roubles, while the Aina doll was even more expensive – 14 roubles – which not every Soviet citizen could afford. One would like to assume that the price of the doll was a conscious ideological step: firstly, dolls in folk costume served as an export item, while due to their price tag, they could successfully fill the shelves of Soviet stores even when all other toys became deficit items and quickly disappeared from the shops. Even if someone bought the Baiba doll, it was treasured, because a toy which had been bought for such a large sum of money could not be given to the child to play with every day. In this way, completely accidentally, Baiba became a symbol. She could be seen every day on shop shelves. She could be criticized, or be a source of wonderment. Now it seems that little Baiba had at least two completely opposite, both conscious and unconscious functions. A doll in a folk costume demonstrated national belonging and at the same time confirmed the unshakable friendship of Soviet peoples, while in reality it was a foreign body, a type of withering element, a concession to the feelings of the past, because a new, unified citizen was created in society – a Soviet citizen, for whom “the homeland was not a home, not a street, but the whole wide Soviet Union”. It is no accident that we have called the “Baiba” doll an icon. On some subconscious level, on a level of hidden, internal energy, the doll was a real icon despite its generalised folk costume, Soviet design and ridiculous stamp of quality. It was a source of preserved, unshakable Latvian identity – an “umbilical cord” to our most ancient cultural heritage, which today we attempt to preserve in a desperate and not always successful way.
It is paradoxical that today, when we put such a large emphasis on the authenticity and individual handwork in national craft, that something in these new products does not always convince completely. Yes, everything is ethnographically accurate, including in the “Saules meita” made by Ieva Nikoleta Dāboliņa, in which a unique collaboration of folk art masters has taken place – weavers, seamstresses, craftswomen, leather pastalas makers and jewellery makers. Dolls on sale at the internet shop www.originali.lv are in similarly convincing regional folk costumes, which, irrespective of the price (27-50 Lats) definitely possess their own inimitable magic. However, who knows why, but all of these national dolls do not instil a feeling of unity, at least not for me personally. I am not calling for a single national costume, however, but perhaps initially we should try to create a new iconic standard of Latvian beauty which corresponds to the demands of contemporary design in the form of a Latvian doll, so that when it is seen, hearts open and join together with people in far and near regions of Latvia. Like it or not, irrespective of all of the criticism and scorn, the Baiba doll as an icon, symbol, brand or sign continues to serve as an example of real popularity.
Thanks to the private doll museum of Ināra Liepa for assistance in the writing of this article. www.dollart.lv