The terms matryoshka doll, babushka doll, and Russian nesting doll all refer to the same item. The feature that makes a matryoshka doll unique is that the doll actually consists of many dolls nested within one another. All but the smallest doll have a top and a bottom half that come apart to reveal the next smaller doll. One matryoshka doll may consist of up to 20 dolls. They are a symbol of Russia and of the Russian culture, but have become popular worldwide.
The matryoshka doll was originally created to be a child's toy, but the creation of these dolls has become an art form. The first doll is said to have been created in 1890 in New Moscow. The largest doll of this kind was created in 1970, was 3.2 feet (about 1 meter) tall, and consisted of 72 nested dolls.
The most common design for this kind of doll is that of a woman wearing a Russian costume. The matryoshka doll normally represents a mother since the word "matryoshka" is derived from the Latin word "mater," meaning mother. Matryoshka dolls are considered symbols of fertility and of motherhood, as each "mother" contains a "daughter" who, in turn, becomes a "mother" as well.
Matryoshka dolls are manufactured from wood, and lime wood seems to be the most common. Other kinds of wood used are balsa, alder, birch, and aspen. The size and source of the wood generally dictate the size of the doll because a matryoshka doll has to be made from a single piece of wood. This ensures that if the wood contracts or expands, the dolls will still fit inside each other.
The craftsmen who manufacture these dolls have to be very skilled. It is the norm for no measurements to be taken during the manufacturing process. The dolls are made by turning on a lathe, and the only additional tools used are chisels and knives. In the past, the skill of the turner was determined by the thickness of the matryoshka's shells, the thinner the shell, the greater his or her skill.
Once the turning process is complete, the dolls are oiled to prevent cracking and are then painted with a starch-based glue. The glue not only seals the wood but also acts as a primer when the dolls are painted. Initially, opaque, water-based paint was used to paint the designs, but today, the paint used is similar to the paint artists use on canvas. The designs also vary from one artist to the next, and matryoshka dolls can feature the traditional Russian woman, characters from fairy tales, or even religious figures.