Set of painted, hollow wooden dolls of varying size which fit inside each other. Famous and popular item of Russian folk art.
Surprisingly enough, they're hardly traditional but only date back to 1898 and copy a Japanese Buddhist design. The Japanese prototype they used was of a religious nature but the Muscovites who were first to copy them did not limit themselves to hagiography--in fact most matryoshki are jolly female figures and their name itself derives from the Russian word for mother. The way they fit inside each other would make one think they were a traditional fertility charm rather than a 20th century novelty. They're usually made from lime, birch or aspen. Since their presentation at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, they've been perennial favourites both in Russia and abroad.
Matryoshka sets contain anything from three to ten dolls, in rare cases as many as forty. The most common number of dolls is five. They're often decorated with geometrical patterns or floral designs but scenes from life and other subjects are not uncommon. Although the item itself is not Russian, the themes on the classic matryoshki are easily identifiable as traditional Russian designs.
Like every other folk art item, the matrioshka has an immense kitsch potential. More recently current events have provided unorthodox themes for matryoshki, subjects including a Bill Clinton matrioshka (with Monica Lewinski inside), the Beatles and O.J. Simpson. You can actually buy sets with five US Presidents, Soviet and Russian leaders or British prime ministers or even order one with your portrait or painted in the colours of your football team. This insidious cult object even began invading space when a set of dolls bearing the likenesses of the two Russian and one Belgian kosmonauts was sent up to the ISS on a Soyuz "taxi" mission in October 2002.