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 at 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 or a fukuruma nesting doll, portraying a portly bald old Buddhist monk.
Savva Mamontov's wife presented the dolls at the Paris, France Exposition Universelle in 1900. The toy earned a bronze medal and it didn't take long before matryoshka dolls were being made in several Russian locations and shipped around the world.
INTERESTING MODERN DAY FACT from the Guiness Book of Wolrd records "The largest set of Russian dolls is a 51-piece set hand-painted by Youlia Bereznitskaia (Russia). The largest measures 1 ft 9.25 in (53.97 cm) in height, the smallest 0.125 in (0.31 cm) in height. The set was completed on 25 April 2003. When all 51 pieces are lined up together touching, they measure 11 ft 2.25 in length. To break this record both the number of dolls in the set and the height of the tallest must be broken"