The Samovar

April 15, 2009

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, Saint 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: cylindric, barrel-like, spherical and the most beautiful of them all, those resembling the ancient Greek vase called krater, as shown in the picture of samovar vaznoy.

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 cylindric 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. However, it was during this period that the largest samovar-manufacturer of the Soviet Union, the “Shtamp” (“Штамп”) company, was founded, in Tula.

The 1950s and 1960s brought significant changes to the world, and brought forth the invention of the nickelplated 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.

With the 2nd dawn of capitalism in Russia in the nineties, competition returned to the samovar industry as well. Recent spin-offs of the Shtamp corporation are now competing for their share of the samovar market with newly founded businesses.

Samovars also play a prominent role in Polish history and cuisine.


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