Матрёшка (Matrioshka) is no doubt the most popular souvenir one can get from Russia. These funny and wonderful nesting dolls are known all over the world.
Although the concept of nesting objects was already present in Russia, it is not until 1890 that the first matrioshka was born out of the imagination of Sergey Malyutin, a folk craft artist who worked in Абрамцево (the Abramatsevo estate), owned by industrialist and patron of arts Savva Mamontov. After seeing a set of Japanese dolls, Malyutin asked токарь по дереву (wood turner) Vasily Zvyozdochkin, to carve the dolls that he painted himself. Ten years later, Mamontov’s dolls won the bronze medal at the World Exhibition in Paris.
Matrioshka is a set of cylindrical wooden figures of different sizes that fit one into another. Each set consists of 3 to 10 dolls, but can contain a lot more depending on the ability of the turner. It requires a lot of skill to make those nesting dolls. They were usually carved out of липа (lime tree) or берёза (birch).
Because the first matrioshkas were created as забавные игрушки (amusing toys), the painters paid much more attention to the expressions on the face than to the clothes.
Each set follows a particular theme, like этнические представления (ethnic representations), персонажи из сказок (characters from fairy tells) or члены семьи (members of a family). During the perestroika, it became quite usual to have matrioshkas representing the leaders of the Soviet Union, and more recently you can easily find those dolls representing almost anybody, from political leaders of the world to sportsmen.