A set of matryoshkas consists 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 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. In the west, Matryoshka dolls are often mistakenly referred to as "babushka dolls", babushka meaning "grandmother" or "old woman".
The first Russian nested doll set was carved in 1890 by Vasily Zvyozdochkin and 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 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.