The Russian Samovar
Given Russia’s extreme climate, it is no wonder the samovar caught on quickly; a large container full of hot, steaming tea seems virtually essential to surviving the long winters of the frozen tundra. The samovar began to replace its predecessor, the brass teapot, sometime in the 18th century, though the exact date and origin of the first models are unknown. Despite extreme class discrepancies in tsarist Russia, samovars were the point at which all of society met. Models owned by the aristocracy were decorated in jewels and crafted with silver and gold, while the poor had to band together to buy a cheap brass model—yet everybody had to have one. Today the samovar has become a symbol of Russian hospitality and sociability as a central part of tea ceremony. Although they are no longer used as widely as they once were, samovars remain a quintessential object of Russian culture.
Currently residing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a rare and exceptional example of a Samovar, dated to the late 19th or early 20th century. Fashioned entirely of copper, brass, and wood, the samovar stands nobly and graciously in its place like a warm and caring mother in her finest jewelry and dress. Its accessories are covered with ornate embellishments: the handles resemble leaves, with a soft, decorative curl; the spigot and tap twist like vines out of a flower. On its head rests a shiny, dignified crown with a small, wooden peg on each side used to lift off its cap for refilling.
Tea first came to Russia when Tsar Michael I received it as a gift from the ruler of Mongolia. In those days, the noble class drank sbiten, a drink comprised of hot water, medicinal herbs, and honey. In time, however, tea won out over sbiten in popularity, and has since become the “de facto national beverage,” (Tea in Russia). The samovar developed about a century later as a more economical version of the teapot. Its design was quite simple: a large pipe running through the center of the body heated the water inside, while extra heat from this pipe was vented upward to warm a teapot full of highly concentrated tea. Samovars are traditionally fueled with slow-burning coal or pinecones to keep the water hot as long as possible. When served, the tea-concentrate was mixed in a 1 to 10 ratio (depending on taste) with hot water tapped from the facet located near the bottom of the samovar (“Russian Samovar”). Capable of holding enough tea for the day and keeping its contents warm all the while, it is apparent how the device became an important social mechanism for Russian tea culture as well as a staple object of Russian households.
After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks made numerous, fundamental changes to life in Russia, and little, including the samovar, escaped their critical eye. Many artists of the day also called for reform, like the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who asserted “that revolutionary forces had to mobilize the instruments of capitalism against capitalism itself… that bourgeois activities, in the hands of different masters, [could] serve revolutionary purposes” (Galassi). Revolutionaries had come to view the samovar (among other objects) as a symbol of bourgeois capitalism and culture (futurists had even before the revolution), and so, as Mayakovsky explained, these objects had to be transformed for the new revolutionary government.
Alexander Rodchenko, a constructivist artist and partner of Mayakovsky, played with this idea in a photomontage he created for one of Mayakovsky’s poems (see below). Rodchenko used images of samovars and other bourgeois artifacts to depict the transition of power that occurred in the revolution. The work is riddled with references to tea culture, from photographs and drawings of samovars to a sign that blatantly reads “another cup of tea.” This sign is held by three men standing over a group of indigenous people lying on the ground, apparently subordinate to the sign-holders. With the ridiculous command to drink “another cup of tea,” the situation pokes fun at the reality that tea culture had formerly symbolized bourgeois domination of poorer classes. In addition, two men—one in a cap famously worn by Red Guards, the main strike force of the Bolsheviks—are shown enjoying a drink of tea from mugs. This especially portrays how the Bolsheviks had converted the act of tea drinking to their own purposes, drinking “another,” or their own, freshly redefined cup of tea. Furthermore, the Bolsheviks increased production exponentially, lowering the cost of samovars and consequently diffusing them throughout the population (“Out of Russia”). The samovar had truly been adapted for revolutionary Russian culture.
Today the samovar is nowhere near as widespread as it was during the peak of the Bolshevik era when production exceeded two million per year (“Out of Russia”). Yet its cultural significance remains, and many people still have samovars in their house as keepsakes or decorations. In many ways the modern condition of the samovar is similar to that of the gramophone record. As the samovar improved upon the teapot long ago, the record was one of the earliest mediums for recording and producing sound after the phonographic cylinder. While today there exist many more efficient modes of carrying music that have made the vinyl record obsolete, records continue to be produced and are even on the upswing in terms of sales. Many still love records for their warm analog sound quality as well as for their nostalgic value, which is similar to the lasting love that exists for samovars. The samovar and the gramophone are also social devices. Just as families or friends once sat and talked around the record player, listening to an album all the way through, samovars were instrumental to social life in Russia. Through all of these cultural connotations, each object is vaguely reminiscent of a bygone period—whether of prerevolutionary Russia or a past musical generation—and calls upon those times with the warmth of a happy memory.
– Freddy Kamps, November 2009
Galassi, Peter, and Magdalena Dabrowski. “The Propagandizing of Things.” Alexander Rodchenko. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1998. Print.
History of the Tula Samovars – the Samovar and Tula are inseparable.” Russian Samovar: Manufacturing samovars – Coal samovars, Electric samovars, Exclusive samovars, Antique samovars. Web. 05 Nov. 2009. <http://www.shopsamovar.com.ru/hystory.html>.
Mack, Glenn (2005). Food Culture in Russia and Central Asia. Westport: Greenwood Press.
“Out of Russia: Samovar slump spoils tea party in Sheffield of the Slavs – Europe, World – The Independent.” The Independent | News | UK and Worldwide News | Newspaper. Web. 19 Nov. 2009. <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/out-of-russia-samovar-slump-spoils-tea-party-in-sheffield-of-the-slavs-1449248.html>.
Rodchenko, Alexander M. Maquette for an illustration for About This (Pro eto), a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky. 1923. Poster Copy of Original Photomontage. The Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York.
“Russian Samovar | AnastasiaCarroll.com.” In Russia. Web. 15 Dec. 2009. <http://anastasiacarroll.com/?p=403>.
“Tea in Russia.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 20 Nov. 2009. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tea_in_Russia>.