What Is a Russian Samovar? Cultural Significance

Russian samovar
Russian samovar.

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The Russian Samovar is a large heated container used to boil water for tea. The word "samovar" literally translates as "self-brewer." Samovars are usually ornately decorated and are part of a traditional tea-drinking ceremony.

Throughout history, Russian families have spent hours at the table drinking tea and eating traditional Russian treats such as the пряник (PRYAnik)—a type of honey and ginger cake. This was the time for socializing and the samovar became a big part of the Russian culture of family time and hospitality.

Key Takeaways: Russian Samovar

  • Russian samovars are metal pots used for heating water to make tea. They contain a vertical pipe that heats water and keeps it hot for hours.
  • Some Russians believed that samovars had a soul and could communicate with people.
  • The brothers Lisitsyn opened the first large samovar factory in Tula in 1778, and samovars became popular from 1780s onwards.
  • Samovars have become one of the symbols of Russia around the world.

Russians believed that each samovar had its own soul because of the sounds that samovars produced when heating the water. As each samovar produced a different sound, many Russians believed that their samovar was communicating with them, just like the other house spirits that they believed in, such as the Domovoi.

Russian samovars
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How a Samovar Works

A samovar contains a vertical pipe filled with solid fuel which heats the water and keeps it hot for hours at a time. To make tea, a teapot with a strong tea brew called заварка (zaVARka) is placed on top and heated by the rising hot air.

When not in use for tea making, the samovar remained hot and was convenient as an immediate source of freshly boiled water.

There are three main reasons why the samovar became so popular both in Russia and abroad in the 18-19th centuries:

  • Samovars were economical. A samovar has a complex structure and usually consists of 17-20 parts. Altogether, the structure of samovars was an amalgamation of all the knowledge that existed at the time on preserving energy. The heating pipe was fully surrounded by the water that was being heated and therefore created the largest possible amount of energy without much energy loss.
  • Water softener. Additionally, a samovar softened the water during the heating process, with the limescale dropping to the floor of the container. This meant that the boiled water coming out of the samovar's tap was pure, soft, and had no limescale.
  • Easily monitoring of water heating. Due to the sounds that samovars make when the water begins to heat, it is possible to monitor the stage of water heating throughout the process. First, the samovar is said to sing (самовар поёт - samaVAR paYOT), then to make a particular noise called белый ключ (BYEly KLYUCH)—the white spring, before boiling (самовар бурлит - samaVAR boorLEET). The tea is made once the white spring noise appears.

Materials and Characteristics

Samovars were usually made of nickel or copper. The handles and the body of the samovar were made to be as ornate as possible, as it added to its value and promoted the factory that produced it. Samovars were sometimes also made of silver and gold. Different factories produced different shapes of samovars, and at some point, there were around 150 types of samovar shapes being produced in Tula.

The weight of a samovar also mattered, with heavier models being more expensive. This depended on the thickness of a samovar's walls as well as on the amount of brass that was used to create the ornate details on the surface. Thicker walls meant that a samovar would be used for a longer time.

Sometimes, certain factories created thin-walled samovars but used more lead when attaching the taps and handles to the main body of the samovar, which added to the general weight. The exact weight distribution had to be specified in the documents that accompanied each samovar but was often deliberately left out, leading to legal cases when disgruntled customers took the sellers to court.

Russian girl wearing a traditional clothes pours water out of samovar
MOSCOW, RUSSIAN FEDERATION: A Russian girl wearing a traditional outfit pours some water into a cup from a traditional Samovar boiler in front of Saint Basil Cathedral, on the edge of Red square in Moscow, 22 May 2004, during the International Tea Festival. ALEXANDER NEMENOV / Getty Images

Cultural Significance

The samovar became popular in Russia in 1780s and a large factory was opened in Tula by the brothers Lisitsyn. Whole villages could sometimes specialize in making just one part, contributing to the complex and expensive process of producing samovars.

Most families had several samovars that were easily heated with pine cones and twigs. Eventually, electrical samovars appeared and began to replace traditional ones.

Samovars continued to be used during the Soviet Union years, especially in rural areas. Nowadays, they have been mostly replaced with electrical kettles, but still have a strong presence as a souvenir item that is displayed in a prominent place in a home. However, there are still those who prefer to use electric and even traditionally heated samovars.

A large part of the samovar making industry is now directed at tourists and Russian history enthusiasts, and Russian samovars remain one of the most well-known symbols of Russia around the world.