A matryoshka doll, also known as a Russian nesting doll, or Russian doll, refers to a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another. The name "matryoshka", literally "little matron", is a diminutive form of Russian female first name "Matryona" (Матрёна) or "Matriosha".
The first Russian nested doll set was made in 1890 by Vasily Zvyozdochkin from a design by Sergey Malyutin, who was a folk crafts painter at Abramtsevo. Traditionally the outer layer is a woman, dressed in a sarafan, a long and shapeless traditional Russian peasant jumper dress. The figures inside may be of either gender; the smallest, innermost doll is typically a baby turned from a single piece of wood. Much of the artistry is in the painting of each doll, which can be very elaborate. The dolls often follow a theme; the themes may vary, from fairy tale characters to Soviet leaders. The matryoshka dolls are often referred to as "babushka dolls", "babushka" meaning "grandmother" or "elderly woman".
The first Russian nested doll set was carved in 1890 by Vasily Zvyozdochkin, designed by Sergey Malyutin" who was a folk crafts painter in the Abramtsevo estate of Savva Mamontov". A Russian industrialist and patron of arts. The doll set was painted by Malyutin. Malyutin's doll set consisted of eight dolls—the outermost was a girl in a traditional dress holding a rooster. The inner dolls were girls and a boy, and the innermost a baby.
Zvyozdochkin and Malyutin were inspired by a doll from Honshu, the main island of Japan. Sources differ in descriptions of the doll, describing it as either a round, hollow daruma doll, portraying a bald old Buddhist monk, or a Seven Lucky Gods nesting doll.
Savva Mamontov's wife presented the dolls at the Exposition Universelle (1900) in Paris, where the toy earned a bronze medal. Soon after, matryoshka dolls were being made in several places in Russia and shipped around the world.
A set of matryoshkas consist of a wooden figure which separates, top from bottom, to reveal a smaller figure of the same sort inside, which has, in turn, another figure inside of it, and so on. The number of nested figures is traditionally not less than five, but can be much more, up to several dozen with sufficiently fine craftsmanship. Modern dolls often yield an odd number of figures but this is not an absolute rule; the original Zvyozdochkin set, for instance, had an even number. The form is approximately cylindrical, with a rounded top for the head, tapering toward the bottom, with few or no protruding features; the dolls have no hands (except those that are painted). Traditionally the outer layer is a woman, dressed in a sarafan. The figures inside may be of either gender; the smallest, innermost doll is typically a baby lathed from a single small piece of wood (and hence non-opening). The artistry is in the painting of each doll, which can be extremely elaborate.
Matryoshka dolls are often designed to follow a particular theme; for instance, peasant girls in traditional dress. Originally, themes were often drawn from tradition or fairy tale characters, in keeping with the craft tradition—but since the 20th century, they have embraced a larger range, including Soviet leaders.
Modern artists create many new styles of nesting dolls. Common themes include floral, Christmas, Easter, religious, animal collections, portraits and caricatures of famous politicians, musicians, athletes, astronauts, "robots," and popular movie stars. Matryoshka dolls that featured communist leaders of Russia became very popular among Russian people in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, some Russian artists specialize in painting themed matryoshka dolls that feature specific categories of subjects, people or nature. Areas with notable matryoshka styles include Sergiyev Posad, Semionovo (now the town of Semyonov), Polkhovsky Maidan, and Kirov.
During Perestroika, the leaders of the Soviet Union became a common theme of matryoshkas. The largest, outside figure was that of Mikhail Gorbachev, followed by Leonid Brezhnev (Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko almost never appear due to the short length of their respective terms), Nikita Khrushchev, Joseph Stalin and finally the smallest, Vladimir Lenin. Newer versions start with Vladimir Putin and then follow with Dmitry Medvedev, Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin. Some include Putin, Medvedev, Yeltsin, Gorbachev, Brezhnev, Khrushchev, Stalin, Lenin, and finally Czar Nicholas II, a total of 9 dolls.