Russian Samovar


A samovar is a heated metal container traditionally used to heat and boil water in and around Russia, as well as in other Slavic nations, Iran, Kashmir, and Turkey. Since the heated water is usually used for making tea, many samovars have an attachment on top of its lid to hold and heat a teapot filled with tea concentrate. Samovars are said to have been invented in Central Asia, though their origin is a matter of dispute. For example, some argue that it is purely a Russian invention given that the samovar appeared in Iran not later than in 18th century, and it bears the same Russian name "samovar".

Though traditionally heated with coal or charcoal, many newer samovars use electricity and heat water in a similar manner as an electric water boiler.

Samovars come in different body shapes: urn- or krater-shaped, barrel, cylindrical, spherical. A traditional samovar consists of a large metal container with a faucet near the bottom and a metal pipe running vertically through the middle. The pipe is filled with solid fuel to heat the water in the surrounding container. A small (6 to 8 inches) smoke-stack is put on the top to ensure draft. After the fire is off a teapot could be placed on top to be kept heated with the passing hot air. The teapot is used to brew the zavarka, a strong concentrate of tea. The tea is served by diluting this concentrate with boiled water from the main container, usually at a ratio of about 10 parts water to one part tea concentrate, although tastes vary.

It is particularly well-suited to tea-drinking in a communal setting over a protracted period. The Russian expression "to have a sit by samovar" means to have a leisurely talk while drinking tea from samovar. This compares with the Japanese tea ceremony, but only superficially.

In everyday use it was an economical permanent source of hot water in older times. Various slow-burning items could be used for fuel, such as charcoal or dry pinecones. When not in use, the fire in the samovar pipe was faintly smoldering. When necessary, it was quickly rekindled with the help of bellows. Although a Russian jackboot could be used for this purpose, there were bellows manufactured specifically for use on samovars. The samovar was an important attribute of a Russian household. Sizes and designs varied, from "40-pail" ones of 400 liters (100 US gallons) to 1 litre (1 US quart) size, from cylindrical to spherical, from plain iron to polished brass to gilt.

In modern times, the samovar is mostly associated with Russian exotica and nostalgia, though they are also quite popular with Iranian immigrants and their descendants. Today electric samovars are available.

In the late 18th century, a Russian gunsmith, Fedor Lisitsyn, set up a small workshop south of Moscow, in the city of Tula, the heart of the Russian defense industry. Lisitsyn and his two sons were laboring in their time free from making arms and ammunition on a rather unusual device, which had been hitherto handcrafted by individual craftsmen in the Ural region solely for personal use: the charcoal-burning samovar.

Lisitsyn's workshop was the first to produce samovars industrially and had tremendous success. Shortly afterward, many competing samovar factories were starting operations nearby. By the 1830s, Tula established itself as the capital of samovar-making.

During the 19th century, samovars gained increasing popularity in major cities, such as Saint Petersburg and Moscow, and became inseparably bound to the Russian way of life. Classics of Russian literature, like Pushkin, Gogol and Chekhov, regularly mention samovars in their works. Chekhov even coined an idiom: to take one's own samovar to Tula. This phrase is still understood and occasionally used by most Russians, with a meaning similar to carry coals to Newcastle in the West.

In the second half of the century, samovar manufacturing took root in Moscow, St. Petersburg and some industrialized parts of Siberia and the Ural region. However, Tula retained its leading and standard-setting role in this trade. By that time, four shapes of samovars became traditional: cylindrical, barrel-like, spherical and the most beautiful of them all, those resembling the ancient Greek vase called krater.

The beginning of the 20th century was marked by various attempts at innovation. The traditional heating method was challenged by petroleum, kerosene, gas, and other means of heating. However, these models proved unpopular, due to the odor of the fuels and the dangers of inflammation and explosion.

Railroad companies in Russia recognized the practicality and popularity of samovars, and fitted long-distance sleeping cars with them. Luxurious cars of the Trans-Siberian railroad were first to adopt this custom. Gradually, the samovar in a railroad car was replaced by the boiler of potable water known as титан (titan) in the Soviet Union. Usually the titan is located at the end of the hallway, next to the conductor's closet, for the self-service of any passengers who may need some hot water during a long journey. Titans have all sorts of automatic controls, including temperature and water level (a notable advance over a samovar) with the counter-aesthetical beauty of the technical revolution. Samovars were retained only in luxury cars under the immediate supervision of the conductor.

During World War I and the subsequent turmoil of revolution and civil war, the design and the production technology of samovars were largely simplified and made fit for the military. Roughly welded cylindrical samovars devoid of decoration are characteristic of this period. The late 1920s and early 1930s saw Stalinist collectivization and industrialization. Small samovar-making workshops were integrated into vast factories or disbanded. Quantity took priority over quality.

The 1950s and 1960s brought significant changes to the world, and brought forth the invention of the nickel-plated electric samovar.

The hitherto undisputed reign of the charcoal-burning samovar came to an end. The gentle flavor of smoke proved to be insufficient in the face of such benefits as the ease of use and convenience, reduced tea-brewing time and the ease of cleaning, let alone the longevity provided by the nickel-plating that protects brass from corrosion. Catering facilities and households embraced the new technology swiftly; only the railroads remained faithful to the smoky, charcoal-fueled, traditional samovar.

The period of Brezhnevian stagnation did not leave any marks on the samovar. In fact, only the Olympic games of 1980, during which an incredible amount of samovars were sold to visitors from abroad, affected the samovar: it gained international recognition and became a symbol of Russia.

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