The monastery produced wooden toys as far back as Sergius's time, for local kids and visiting royalty. In the 19th century the town became the center of the matryoshka workmanship, and now many rare nesting dolls and other wooden toys are on display and for sale at the town's Toy Museum (Wed-Sun, 10am-5pm). If you have time and energy, wander south of the monastery around the Kelarsky Pond, a popular spot for amateur artists in summer.
A matryoshka or a Russian nested doll (often incorrectly called a Babushka doll - babushka means a grandmother) is a set of dolls of decreasing sizes placed one inside the other. It's a derivative of the Russian female 1st name Matryona - a very popular name among peasants in old Russia. The name in turn is related to the Latin root mater (mother), so is closely connected with motherhood and the doll has come to symbolize fertility.
A set of matryoshkas consists of a wooden figure which can be pulled apart to reveal another figure of the same sort inside. It has in turn another figure inside and so on. The number of nested figures is usually 5 or more. The shape is mostly cylindrical rounded at the top for the head and tapered towards the bottom, but little else - the dolls have no hands (except those painted). Traditionally the outer layer is a woman dressed in a sarafan. Inside it contains other figures that may be of both genders, usually ending in a baby that does not open. The artistry is in the painting of each doll which can be extremely elaborate.
Matryoshkas are often designed to follow a particular theme, for instance peasant girls in traditional dress, but it can be anything from fairy tale characters to Soviet leaders.
Matryoshkas date from 1890 likely to have been inspired by souvenir dolls from Japan. However, the concept of nested objects was known in Russia, having been applied to carved wooden apples and Easter eggs - the 1st Fabergé egg (1885) had a nesting of an egg, a gold yolk, a hen and a small ruby pendant, now lost.
The story goes that Sergey Malyutin, a painter from a folk crafts workshop in the Abramtsevo estate of a famous Russian industrialist and arts patron Savva Mamontov, saw a set of Japanese wooden dolls representing Shichi-fuku-jin (the 7 Gods of Fortune). The largest doll was that of Fukurokuju (a happy, bald god with an unusually long chin) and within it nested the 6 remaining deities. Inspired, Maliutin drew a sketch of a Russian version of the toy. It was carved by Vasily Zvezdochkin and painted by Malyutin at the Children’s Education Workshop-Salon in Abramtsevo. It consisted of 8 dolls: the outermost was a girl holding a rooster, 6 inner dolls were girls, the 5th doll was a boy, the innermost – a baby.
In 1900 M.A. Mamontova, Savva's wife, 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.
During Perestroika state leaders became a common matryoshka theme. Starting with the largest, Mikhail Gorbachev, then Leonid Brezhnev (Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko almost never appear due to the brevity of their respective terms), then Nikita Hrushchyov, Josef Stalin and finally the smallest, Vladimir Lenin. Newer versions start with Dmitry Medvedev and then follow with Vladimir Putin and Boris Yeltsin.