So, you’d like a new tea kettle. How about this? You can use it in the morning to make your English Breakfast. All you have to do is… Er, first you, umm… Then twiggle the whatsit. Add some coal. And furgle the oojam. Easy.
These are samovars, the Russian for “self-boil.” Whatever their form, samovars provide the same function: warmth and caffeine. The 19th century Russian tea culture was built around the samovar. It is a mini-stove, using charcoal or wood. Water in its boiling chamber is heated through the chimney funnel at the center. This keeps the heavy black tea mix in the pot at the top warm. A faucet/spigot pours hot water to dilute this zavarka or brew a herbal drink.
There are innumerable varieties of samovar, made of silver, red, green and yellow copper, brass, a zinc-copper alloy called tompac, cast iron, steel and even gold. They set fashions in style, after their introduction in the 1840s, probably from Persia: eggs, barrels, cylinders, classical Greek urns, wild rococo designs with wreaths, mascara accents and flora.
Add in handles, pipes, spigots, vents, belts, covers and other functional and artistic embellishments and there is no such thing as a standard samovar.
If you take a quick scan through the two thousand listed on Ebay, you’ll rarely see the same design twice. (The prices are as varied, with plenty of attractive ones under $100.)
This silver and enamel from Russia and the tall silver steeple from Persia, show just how elegant and colorful samovars can be.
Tea came late to Russian society, It had been an occasional indulgence of the aristocracy from the 1640s, but the sole source was a tightly regulated 4,000 mile caravan route from a single city on the China-Russia border. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the price dropped, through the British exploiting geopolitics – i.e., war profiteering – to ship tea from China to the ports of Crimea. Then demand took off across all classes and areas of this vast country of twelve time zones.
The first samovar makers in Russia started operation in 1778 in their arms factory in a city, Tula, that became the Detroit of tea kettles. Samovar was ideally suited to the climate, housing and social structures of Russia, most obviously the brutally cold winters. In poor homes, the samovar was central, literally and figuratively. To lose the family samovar was humiliating, disruptive and symbolic. To own a fine and large one was a matter not so much of status as pride and sharing.
Used all through the day, the samovar didn’t need constant relighting and offered a space around which to huddle that became the central gathering point for family and hospitality. That gathering came with plenty of cakes, sweets, sugar lumps, pies, and honey.
Here’s an 1860s photograph from a wonderful ethnographic series of the Russian poor and peasants, by the Scottish-born William Carrick. The two men it shows were carrier workers in St. Petersburg, the primary job for moving items across the city.
You can probably deduce the weather and season. The samovar is a relatively large one, in a public tea room. The worker on the left is drinking from a saucer, a habit among some of the working class in England and Ireland and prevalent in Russia for an obvious reason: cooling the hot tea quickly.
The samovar is intriguing as an artefact but by far the most far-reaching aspect is its importance in helping build the sense of Russian national identity that began after the Napoleonic wars and led fairly inevitably to the Old vs New Russia movements, purges, assassinations, tortures. Improvised rebellions, imprisonment and palace intrigues and thus to the 1917 Revolution.
Russia’s writers played a substantial role here. The czars and their court were culturally isolated. Their everyday language was French. Pushkin’s poem-novel Eugene Onegin in effect “created” Russian native language literature, in 1825. The Romanov czars who ruled from 1613-1917 were originally Danish. The extraordinary, brilliant and commanding Catherine the Great was a German princess. “Great” hardly does her justice, especially after having started life as Sophia of Anhalt-Zberst.
The bulk of the population of the Russian empire had no real identity. In the early 1800s, half of its 40 million peasants were serfs, effectively slaves, and even nobles were in practice the property of the czar, with no permanent land title. As long as they retained favor, they owned farms and land, and the people who lived on them.
In the efforts to mobilize a sense of nationhood, the samovar became a convenient symbol of “Russian” even before tea spread across the classes and regions. It was made to stand for “This is what makes us Russian. It’s part of us, our heritage and our uniqueness.” It was very effective, even though dubious history. The samovar was a Persian vessel that came to Russian by happenstance.
It was also embedded in the culture of Kashmir. It is sad that the religious schisms were long ago ossified in a tea kettle of all things. Hindu samovars were made of brass and Muslim ones of copper.
Every one of the literary titans of the mid- to late-19th century embedded the samovar in their work as emblematic of Russian character and life. Tea is woven into the texture, pace and details of setting and society in the magnificent and still-exhilarating stories of Pushkin (“Ecstasy is a glassful of tea and a piece of sugar in the mouth”), Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky, far more so than even in Jane Austen.
The samovar became “Russian” largely through their influence. It is losing its centrality in Russia’s tea culture, just as the old British kettle has. It is heated electrically, for instance. Russia is a massive tea market. It is the largest importer of Indian tea, historically its main source of the heavy, low quality black tea that was suited to samovar brewing. That relationship collapsed until a very few years ago after the Soviet economy tanked. This came close to bringing down major parts of the Indian industry, especially the Nilgiris. Now, Russia and the CIS Federation of ex-Soviet Republics is a growing market for fine teas, mostly black. The samovar is not needed here.
And, of course, to the two main certainties of life – death and taxes – must be added “and Earl Grey.” Yes, two of the top five global brands market their Russian Earl Grey bags, an “international” blend. One promises the exuberance of springtime in St. Petersburg, from a tea from Central Europe.
This seems quite well-suited to the samovar, as fuel at the bottom rather than tea at the top. Mixed with charcoal and perhaps pine wood, it should burn quite nicely.
Meanwhile, if you want to own something Very Different and one-up every tea snob you know, you must look up the very attractive and even fun samovars available today.