The name matryoshka, literally "little matron," is a diminutive form of the Russian first name "Matryona" (Матрёна) or "Matryosha.” The first Russian nested doll set was made in 1890 by craftsman and carver Vasily Zvyozdochkin, from a design created by Sergey Malyutin, a folk craft painter at Abramtsevo. The doll began to appear in a number of late Imperial children’s craft and education programs, which is why it is traditionally thought of as a toy.
The outer layer of the doll often represents a woman, dressed in a headscarf and a sarafan. A sarafan is a long, trapezoidal Russian jumper dress, worn by girls and women as part of Russian traditional folk and peasant costume. The figures inside the first doll may be representative of anything. The painting of each doll can be very elaborate. However, all the dolls often follow a theme, which may vary from fairy-tale characters to Soviet leaders.
In the West, matryoshka dolls are sometimes referred to as “babushka” dolls, babushka meaning "grandmother" or "old woman.” Some people believe that similar Japanese nesting dolls may have inspired the Russian matryoshka doll.