Originally published in two parts in July and August 2012
Russian Poet Boris Sadovsky once said about the great Russian samovar, “being a purely Russian phenomenon, it is beyond the understanding of foreigners.” This perhaps helps explain why the samovar story is shrouded in mystery. This quote may also resonate with foreign readers of Russian literature who will have undoubtedly been perplexed and bewildered when they have stumbled upon this tea-making equipment in the everyday lives of their favorite Russian characters, as in the heated philosophical debates that took place between Bazarov and others in Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. This post pays homage to this unique tea-making device by shedding light on its origins and its current place in modern society.
The samovar is, quite simply, a metal container used for heating water and making tea. The word “samovar” can be literally translated as “self-boiler,” being derived from two Russian words – “sam” meaning “itself” and “varit” meaning “to boil.”
The origin of the samovar is, however, slightly more complicated. From the Russian standpoint, a few versions have emerged. One account states that samovars were first built in Tula (a town about 110 miles from Moscow) by the Lisitsyn brothers in 1778. Another account states that Peter the Great carried the first samovar to Russia from Holland.
However, whether the samovar is truly a Russian invention or not does not seem to bother the Russians since they have readily embraced the creation in their daily lives and incorporated it into their national identity. It is not a stretch to say that it was the Russians who made samovars Russian.
Leading this charge was the great Russian Poet Alexander Pushkin, whose writings were among the first to establish the ritual of chaepitie in the Russian national consciousness. Other literary giants followed suit, and soon samovars started appearing in almost every Russian novel.
The Russian public, in turn, were highly receptive to the samovar “invasion,” incorporating the samovar and its use into their day-to-day conversational vocabulary. “Puffing like a samovar” is used to describe someone slightly out of breath and calling someone a “little samovar” means that he or she is always getting heated over something.
The Distinctive Samovar Tea Experience
But what is so unique and different about the famed samovar tea?
One is its preparation, which involves brewing a concentrated tea solution, zavarka, in a teapot, to be placed on top of the samovar. Each cup then consists of about one quarter to one third of this concentrate, diluted with hot water from the samovar itself. Tea made using a samovar tastes stronger and more potent than tea made using conventional methods – robust enough to jolt you to your senses!
Second is the experience. Samovar tea sessions are synonymous with warmth and coziness. This is especially so when people crowd around the piping samovar during the cold and harsh Russian winter days.
Samovars warm people’s hearts and open up their souls. These are the times when most of Russia’s literary heroes spar with their wits and people engage in serious conversation. Such an experience is similar to that of the Japanese or Chinese tea-drinking culture, involving not just tea drinking, but socializing elements as well. Through samovar sessions, friendships, camaraderie, and strong family ties are born. Hence, the samovar goes way beyond just tea appreciation. It plays an important role in fostering community and conversation by providing a long-lasting supply of warmth and caffeine.
Samovar tea drinking is part and parcel of Russian life and key to understanding the quintessential Russian soul. I recall my experience when I was in the parks in St. Petersburg during the Maslenitsa celebrations. Despite being sufficiently equipped with a thick jacket and a woolly shapka (the Russian fur hat you always see in those cold war spy thrillers), I found the harsh cold Russian winds still unbearable. But just when I was ready to call it a day, the sight of samovar steam puffing away at a distance was akin to finding an oasis in the desert! At that instant, I could understand why samovars are highly prized in Russia. A cup of simple chai next to the warm samovar in winter time was priceless, just like an old Russian saying, “where there is tea, there is paradise.”
“Once upon a time in Russia there really was a carefree, youthful generation that smiled in joy at the summer, the sea and the sun and chose Pepsi.” This is the opening line of Victor Pelevin’s (the literary zeitgeist of Russia in the post-Soviet era) famous novel Generation P. While this should not be understood in the literal sense that Russians are choosing Pepsi over tea, there are signs that point in that direction.
Samovars are increasingly regarded as mere artifacts that belong in a museum, relegated to the dustbins of history. Russian urbanites also seem ready to exchange their slow, but aromatic cups of samovar tea for the convenience associated with instant tea bags. My hozaika (landlord) was guilty of that. He piled heaps of sugar into his chai made from tea bags, to which I exclaimed with horror, “Eto nye chai, eto sladki voda!” (this is not tea, it is sugar water!).
Russia has made great contributions in terms of promoting a global tea appreciation culture. It would really be a waste and a pity if the great samovar journey ends here, in Russia. The great samovar tea culture is especially significant to Russia as it experiences its post-Soviet hangover. A good cup of samovar-brewed chai helps jolt the senses and will facilitate Russia’s march towards a bright future ahead.
As the famous French Food Critic Brillat-Savarin once said, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.” I believe this can be similarly applied to what you drink, and, in particular, tea. A fine cup of samovar tea rewards one’s patience with both a delightful taste and a warm, cozy, communal tea experience, one which is impossible to get from an instant tea bag. This is something that the Russians have created that the world has greatly benefited from and the Russians themselves should be very proud of.
Traditional teahouse in the mountains of Masuleh, Iran
You find yourself strolling along the streets in the mountain village of Masuleh, Iran one early December morning. You are cold and thirsty after an early morning winter walk. You are on the lookout for tea, and a quick bite. From the corner of your eye, you spot a local teahouse. Thrilled and excited, you head in.
It is a small and cosy place, populated with a few old men sitting quietly at their seats, sipping hot tea. Local Iranian tea! You grin to yourself. As you wave to the waiter to place your order, to your amazement, sitting right in front of you is a giant samovar, puffing away. What is a Russian samovar doing here, in this part of the world?
It turns out that, like the Chinese, the Russians did not keep the joy of samovar tea drinking within their empire. They gave samovars as gifts to foreign dignitaries – a showcase of Russian culture and splendor, in what can be termed “samovar diplomacy.”
Samovars were cultural ambassadors for the Russians during the Tsarist regimes. In Iran, it was first presented to the governor of Gilan, Persia, in 1821. This perhaps explains why I found a samovar at a random teahouse in Masuleh, Iran.
However, it was not really random after all since samovars can be spotted almost everywhere in other parts of Iran. They were, in fact, a common sight in many of the houses I visited. The locals told us that they were usually given as gifts to newlyweds, an acknowledgement that samovars were a highly prized possession.
However, the Iranians did not import just the samovar. Tea-drinking habits also got absorbed. In the olden days, Russians drank their tea by rolling a cube of sugar in their mouths while sipping tea from samovars. While this has been lost in contemporary Russia, it has been well preserved in Iran.
Samovar a la Turk
The Iranians weren’t the only samovar converts. The Turks similarly embraced the Russian samovar in a big way. Perhaps reflective of Turkey’s fast-moving economy, Turkish samovar designs were bolder and embraced a more modern aesthetic appeal.
I made another interesting observation in Turkey. During my trips to the local bazaars, I found something that had an uncanny resemblance to the Russian samovar. They call it a caydanlik, which is essentially two teapots stacked on top of one another and placed on top of the stove.
Electronic Samovar in a university in Istanbul, Turkey
Like the Russian samovar, the pot on top contains a strong tea concentrate while the one at the bottom boils the water. You make tea by pouring some tea concentrate from the top pot into a cup and then diluting it with boiled water from the bottom, which is exactly how the Russian samovar works.
While I have no idea how the Turkish caydanlik came about, I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with the Russian samovar.
Whose Samovar Is It Anyway?
Though the samovar is neither an Iranian nor a Turkish invention, the locals in both countries have embraced it as if it were their very own. They have re-interpreted the value of samovars in their own societies, giving birth to a larger samovar community.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter who created the samovar. What is perhaps more important is its continued ability to draw tea drinkers from around the world together to huddle next to the grand samovar to enjoy their next cup of tea.
This post was originally published as an article in the Spring 2012 Edition of 103rd Meridian East Magazine (Volume 13), pp.43-54. Republished with permission.
Photo “Familien von Kroghs tevarmer i sølv / The family von Krogh’s silver samovar (1897)” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer “Municipal Archives of Trondheim” and is being posted unaltered (source)