Strange as it may seem the matryoshka, or Russian nesting doll originated in Japan.
The Japanese contend that a Russian monk who had settled down in Japan made the first matryoshka. His doll, made from a piece of wood, was a stylized representation of a Russian woman in traditional costume. He was obviously missing his distant homeland, and the doll reminded him of his mother or sister.
Another theory suggests that the matryoshka originated from a porcelain figurine of the well-meaning, yet cunning Buddhist sage Fukurumu. Alexei Mamontov, a Russian entrepreneur and the owner of a large shop for children, imported that nesting doll from Honshu Island in the late 19th century to impress the woman he loved.
Appreciative of all things beautiful and unusual, Russians made the doll their own by adding some new elements to the original idea. Vasily Zvezdochkin, a toys-maker working for Mamontov, refashioned the original male figurine into a female shape and made another eight doll of a smaller size to fit one inside another. Sergei Malyutin, a designer, painted a blue-eyed Russian beauty with a beguiling smile, wearing colorful rustic dress on the doll. The new doll was named "matryoshka," a diminutive of Matryona, which is a Russian female name deriving from the Latin "mater," or mother. The name was commonly associated with the image of a healthy, cheerful mother.
Displayed at the 1900 World Exposition in Paris, the Russian matryoshka won international renown and became an ambassador of Russian culture to the outside world. The triumph of the doll in Europe triggered a production boom in Russia. Mamontov distributed examples of the matryoshka to every master in Sergiyev Posad, an old craft center outside Moscow. Later, the doll was produced in Maidan and Semyonovsk, in the Nizhny Novgorod region, and in Nolinsk, the Kirov region. Local masters introduced new color schemes to the original doll. Schools were created in each of these communities to teach younger generations how to make the dolls.
Matryoshkas are traditionally made of lime or birch wood. The trees cut down in early spring, while still full of sap, and kept outside for at least one year. The wooden dummies are painted with watercolors, gouache, or tempera. Today, the surface of the doll may also get a layer of special film to mimic gilding. Liquid gel is sometimes used to create more elaborate artistic designs. Various color schemes and design patterns are used. A matryoshka-maker's greatest ambition is to fit as many smaller figures as possible into the main doll. The 1.5 meter matryoshka made at Semyonovsk in 1998 was long considered to have the largest number of "children"--72. But now, it has been trumped by a 90 centimeter doll that has 75 smaller dolls nesting inside that was made in Maidan.