Matryoshka doll (or Russian nesting or nested doll) is a doll made of wood that can be separated horizontally in half and holds inside another similar but smaller doll that in turn holds another similar smaller doll and so on.
Matryoshkas most commonly have 3 to 12 doll in one set. First matryoshka was made in 1890 in time of social unrest, emerging national identity for Russia and the development of Russian style. Its idea was to save tradition which was in danger to be lost. Matryoshka was made by Vasily Zvyozdochkin, who was turning craftsman and wood carver, from a design by Sergey Malyutin, Russian painter, architect and stage designer. Sergey Malyutin also painted them.
Inspiration for matryoshka came from a doll from Honshu, the main island of Japan but it is not certain which type. Some sources say that it was daruma doll while other say it was fukuruma nesting doll. Nesting toys are an idea that is thousand years old and they came from China. They were nesting boxes and they dated back to the Song Dynasty, around 1000 AD.
Matryoshka doll was presented to the world for the first time in 1900 on “Exposition Universelle”, world’s fair held in Paris, where it earned the bronze medal. After that, matryoshka dolls gained popularity and were being made in many places in Russia and shipped around the world. Dolls are made from lime, birch aspen or alder from the smallest doll to the largest. When finished, dolls are hand painted with gouache, a type of heavier watercolor.
Matryoshka dolls of one set are often designed to have one theme and traditional ones are painted to resemble peasant girls in traditional dress – “sarafan” which is Russian peasant jumper dress.
All matryoshkas are basically of the same cylindrical shape but can be painted differently. Each doll of one set is similar but yet different. They can differ in color, facial expressions, things that they hold in hands (like bread, salt, and basket of fruits or vegetables) or design of the clothes.
Today designs of matryoshkas have a wide range of designs and modern matryoshkas are painted in many different styles, from fairy tale characters to politicians including floral, religious theme, portraying of famous people, real or imaginary and even national landmarks. One of the most common themes during Perestroika was Russian leaders. Some matryoshkas are painted to look like household pets.