Although many people perceive nesting dolls as centuries old Russian craft, the first Russian matryoshka appeared only at the end of the 19-th century.
The end of the 19-th century in Russia was a period of great economic and cultural development, a period of rising national identity. A new artistic trend known as 'Russian style' appeared. Many famous artists (Vasnetsov, Vrubel, Roerich, Serov, Maliavin, Korovin, Maliutin, and others) were possessed by the idea of reviving Russian national traditions in arts.
Savva Mamontov (1841-1918), a famous industrialist and a patron of the arts, established art studios in his Abramtsevo estate near Moscow to support the trend. Professional artists worked along with folk craftsmen who preserved aesthetic and age-long skills of folk art. Special attention was paid to the revival and development of folk peasant toys.
Anatoly Mamontov (1839-1905), the brother of Savva Mamontov, owned 'Children's Education' workshop in Moscow where toys for children were made and sold. A publisher, translator and owner of a printing-house, collector of Russian paintings as well as his brother Savva, Anatoly was a remarkable and active person, who was always surrounded by professional artists, artisans and folk craftsmen.
Anatoly Mamontov offered jobs in his studio to highly qualified creative toy makers who had initiative and technique. There were various samples of toys from different countries in the workshop to broaden toy maker’s outlook and to develop their creative fantasy. Oriental art and Japanese fine and applied art in particular was very fashionable at that time.
It is believed that Sergei Maliutin, a painter from a folk crafts studio in the Abramtsevo estate of Savva Mamontov, saw a set of Japanese wooden nesting dolls from the Island of Honshu representing Shichi-fuku-jin, the Seven Gods of Fortune. The largest doll was that of Fukurokuju - a happy, bald god with an unusually tall chin - and within it nested the six remaining deities. (Interesting that the Japanese believe that the first doll of such a type on the Island of Honshu was made by an unknown Russian monk.) It is not clear where he saw the nested dolls – one of the possibilities is that this happened at the exhibition of Japanese Art opened in December 1896 in St. Petersburg. According to other sources, the first Russian matryoshka is dated 1890 meaning that Maliutin had seen the Japanese prototype before the exhibition.
Inspired, Maliutin drew a sketch of the Russian version of the toy. The first Russian nesting doll was carved by Vasiliy Zvezdochkin in the toy workshop in Sergiyev Posad and painted by Sergei Maliutin. It consisted of eight dolls; the outermost was a girl in an apron, then the dolls alternated between boy and girl, with the innermost – a baby. The dolls were poked and painted with gouache and covered with varnish. Maliutin also illustrated books for children at that time. That is why illustrations and the first samples of matryoshkas have a lot in common.
Perhaps, Maliutin and Zviozdochkin didn't think that the first Russian wooden doll within smaller dolls made by them would become the traditional Russian art with worldwide popularity. The concept of nested objects had been known in Russia before and was applied to carved wooden apples and Easter eggs - the first Fabergé egg (1885) had a nesting of egg, yolk, hen, and crown.
In 1900, Maria Mamontova, the wife of Savva Mamontov, presented the dolls at the World Exhibition in Paris and the toy earned a bronze medal. Soon, many other places in Russia started making matryoshka dolls of various styles.