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Samovar vaznoy (vase-shaped). Tula, 19th century
Samovar vaznoy (vase-shaped). Tula, 19th century

A samovar Template:Audio (Russian: самова́р, literally "self-brewer") is a heated metal container traditionally used to brew tea in and around Russia, other Slavic nations, and Turkey. It is said to have been invented in Central Asia.

Samovars come in different body shapes: urn-shaped (shown in the picture), barrel, cylindric, 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, and the teapot placed on top. The teapot is used to brew the заварка (zavarka), a strong concentrate of tea. The tea is served by diluting this concentrate with (кипяток) kipyatok (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 economic permanent source of hot water in older times. Various slow-burning stuff was used for fuel: charcoal, dry pine tree cones. When not in use, the fire in the samovar pipe was faintly smouldering. When necessary, it was quickly rekindled with the help of bellows. A Russian high boot сапог(sapog) often served as such. For better flexibility, the sapog has folds at the ankle level, and a common habit of vanity was to make more of these folds than necessary, so that the sapog would resemble the windbag of an accordion. The sapog was put upside down on top of the samovar pipe and was worked just like bellows to pump the air through the pipe for better burning. Of course, there were special samovar bellows as well.

Samovar was an important attribute of a Russian household. Sizes and designs varied, from "40-pail" ones of 400 litres (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. Today electric samovars are available. In the West, they can be ordered from Europe or may be found in neighborhoods with heavily Slavic populations, such as New York's East Village or Coney Island in Brooklyn.


Brief history of the Russian Samovar

Samovar's precursor was сбитенник (sbitennik), an implement for heating сбитень (sbiten), a hot winter drink of honey and spice. A sbitennik looked like a metal tea kettle supplied with a heater pipe and legs keeping the hot metal off the table, just like a samovar's.

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. Lisitsin 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 1930s, 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. Anton Pavlovich Chekhov has even coined an idiom, which stands for an utterly wasteful effort: 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: cylindric, barrel-like, spherical and the most beautiful of them all, those resembling the ancient Greek vase called krater, see the picture.

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 passengers who need some hot water during a long journey. Titans have all sorts of automatic control of heaters, water temperature and 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 the period.

The late twenties and early thirties 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 fifties and sixties 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.

While the samovars on the railroads resisted electrification, the other prerequisite of communism postulated by V. I. Lenin ceased to exist in the nineties: the Soviet power2. The second dawn of capitalism in Russia brought the samovar industry back to its original shape. Recent spin-offs of the Shtamp corporation are competing for their share of the samovar-market with newly founded businesses.

Charcoal-burning samovar

Based on [1].

The parts of the samovar, from the bottom up, are as follows:

Nearly all samovars have a four-legged square-shaped foundation. This keeps the samovar from damaging the furniture with its heat. Above that, we find the "neck" of the samovar, or шейка, sheika in Russian. The neck thickens towards its top, where the ventilation chamber resides. This chamber has small intake holes along its perimeter in order to supply the combustion process with oxygen from the atmosphere. The foundation and the neck are together referred to as поддон, poddon.

At this point the actual boiler begins. Inside, we find a thick tube (in Russian труба, truba) which constitutes the combustion chamber. The bottom of this tube is separated from the ventilation chamber with bars to prevent the fuel from falling therein. This separation is called колосник, kolosnik in Russian.

Near the bottom of the boiler, a small faucet (кран, kran) protrudes from the tank. It consists of three parts: a small decoration at its stem (the репеёк, repeyok "thistle") that contributes to the rigidity of the mounting, the pipe itself, and an extremely simple valve with a handle (ветка, vetka). The valve is essentially a funnel with a hole. In the two extreme positions of the handle the valve is closed, while in the central position the water can pour through the hole. It is the weight of the valve and the handle that keeps the whole thing in place; you can simply pull it out upwards.

The hatch of the boiler has two small handles protecting your hands from the heat. These two handles are called "cones", or шишки, shishki. There are also small steaming holes (душники, dushniki) on the hatch. Their purpose is to prevent the samovar from exploding and to steam the teapot at the same time.

The whole construction is topped off by a crown-like teapot socket, often decorated with some ornament. This part of the samovar is called конфорка, konforka or камфорка, kamforka.

Finally, charcoal-burning samovars come with two accessories: a cap and a chimney extension for the tube. Both need to be placed onto the open end of the heating tube, though not at the same time.

Electric samovar

Based on [1].

Rather than enumerating all the parts of the electric samovar, we just highlight the differences from its smoke-puffing predecessor.

The first -- and most important -- difference is the look and the purpose of the thicker part of the neck: instead of ventilation holes, one finds one big electric socket on its perimeter; in the place of the empty ventilation chamber of the charcoal-burner, the electric samovar has a packed electric compartment.

The most apparent difference, however, is arguably the lack of the characteristic tube. The huge spiral of an electric immersion heater is what occupies the tube's place.

Inside the ventilation chamber, which you can access by unscrewing the nut at the bottom of the samovar, you will find the connections of the heating coil. The coil itself is insulated from the spiral's body (and thus the samovar itself) by a set of ceramic rings. The coil with the white insulator rings resembles the backbone of some fish, if you pull it out of the heater.

The last important distinguishing feature of the electric samovar is the position of the steaming holes; The lack of the tube allows for a more convenient place right at the center of the kamforka.

Some samovars have a special floating device near the heater, which turns it off if the water in the tank does not engulf the spiral entirely. This design, however, did not prove very popular, since it has an additional moving part, which, in turn, constitutes yet another point of failure. Thus, it caused more problems than it solved. Generally, Russian technology assumes dumb machines and smart humans, not the other way around. The only moving part in a samovar should be the valve of the faucet.

Use of the samovar

Based on [1].

Charcoal-burning samovars are strictly outdoor equipment. Even today you can encounter them at rural garden-parties in remote, cozy dachas.

The first thing to do with a samovar is to clean it thoroughly and fill it up with water through its open hatch. A samovar shining bright in the sunlight is a sign of hospitality and good manners of the party's host.

Now, it is time to load the device with fuel. Instead of charcoal, Russians often use dry pine-cones. Cones add a hint of resin's flavor to the tea.

No matter whether you use charcoal or pine-cones, you've got to ignite the fuel somehow. The traditional way is to use pieces of bark from a birch-tree. In the Soviet era, Pravda, the newspaper of the Communist Party, was popularly used. Paper in general should work.

As soon as the igniting substance and smaller pieces of the fuel catch fire, you need to pump on the upper end of the tube, in order to help the fire burn. The canonical pumping device is a Russian infantry boot. Finally, attach the chimney extension and wait until the water boils.

Controlling the oxidation process is somewhat simpler than controlling a nuclear reactor, though the principles are similar. In order to abate the fire, put the cap on the tube instead of the chimney. If, however, you want to stimulate the heater, apply the pump.

Electric samovars can operate indoors. Their operation is much simpler, since the only thing you need to do to start one heating is to plug it into the AC outlet. To stop it, you pull the plug out. Whether or not the samovar has a water level switch as was previously mentioned, always make sure that the heater is fully immersed in water when turned on.

Samovars in North America

Based on [1].

In North America, charcoal-burning samovars can be used exactly the same way they are used in Russia, except, perhaps, that you should warn each participant of the garden-party, preferably in written form, about the dangers of scalding themselves, to eliminate the risk of being sued for injury.

The operation of Russian electric samovars is somewhat more involved, given the differences in the AC grid. First off, the frequency differs: as opposed to the Russian 50 Hz, North America operates at 60 Hz. This difference does not affect the samovars in any way.

The difference in voltage is more salient. Ohm's Law states R=U/I and the definition of electric power: P=UI.

From these two equations it is apparent that the heating power of the same resistance at half the voltage is one fourth of the original value. Assuming the samovar's heating coil linear and the losses negligible, it would take four times as long to boil the water in the same samovar in America than it took in Russia. Fortunately enough, non-linearities work to your advantage.

The last obstacle is the difference in connectors. You can overcome it either by replacing the plug with an American one, or by utilizing a so called "outlet adapter". Don't forget the ground!

The brave and impatient can hack up the samovar to operate just as fast as it does in Russia. In order to achieve the same power at half the voltage, you'll need one fourth of the resistance. Now, recall the definition of resistance in terms of dimensions: R=rl/A, whereby l denotes the length of the resistor, A its cross-section and r is a constant that depends on the properties of the material. The volume of this resistor would be V=lA.

In order not to affect the longevity of the spiral, you'd better preserve the volume of the heating element, while decreasing its resistance. If you take a look at the two above formulae, you'd notice that halving the length and doubling the cross-section would achieve exactly the desired effect. So, pull the spiral out, remove the insulation, fold it in two, and stretch it to the desired length before putting the insulation back. If you cannot stretch the spiral without risking its integrity, you can prolong it with a thick copper-wire.

External links:

  • [1] Russian Tea HOWTO (, covered by GFDL


2. During the electrification of the Soviet Union, Lenin once said "Communisim = Soviet Power + Electrification!" See Russian joke for some more humor related to that phrase.

da:Samovar de:Samowar nl:samovar pl:samowar ru:Самовар


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