Samovar: Brewing tea the Russian way

A samovar is a heated metal container for boiling water and keeping it hot. It was the electric tea kettle of centuries past. This device is a crucial part of Russian tea culture.

Kustodiev - Merchant's Wife
The Merchant's Wife by Boris Kustodiev

What is a samovar?

An English gloss of the word samovar would be something like 'self-boiler.' The main part is a chamber that holds the water and has a heating element. The heating element was usually pinecones rather than charcoal or coal because they were easy to find and very slow burning.

Since samovars were most commonly used for making tea, there was a cup in the top portion that held concentrated tea. Hot water was added to dilute this concentrate and there was a spigot from which the tea could be poured.

Samovars were made in a wide variety of styles. Most were made of nickel or copper, but some were made of iron, brass, bronze, tin, silver or gold. The shape could be barrel-like, cylindrical or spherical and some were shaped like urns.

19th century Russian samovar
Photo by Dimitri

History of the samovar

The samovar was introduced to Russia in the mid-1700s from western Mongolia along with tea. Tea and the self-boiling pot quickly gained an important place in Russian culture. Within just a few generations, nearly every home in Russia, no matter how humble, had at least one or two samovars in use.

At the time, tea was as much a social lubricant as vodka in Russia. To sit by the samovar meant to have a leisurely conversation over cups of tea. Also like vodka, hot tea was a great way to stave off the bitter winter temperatures.

Devices similar to the Russian samovar have been found throughout the Middle East and Eastern Europe and today still, there is an equally rich samovar tradition in Turkey and Iran.

Russian samovar

The samovar today

Nowadays, although every Russian home has a samovar, they are not as widely used. Electric tea kettles are often used instead, as modern electric versions of samovars. In country homes (дача, ‘dacha’), families will still use the traditional samovar for parties or receptions.

To Russophiles and Russian emigrants alike, the samovar symbolizes Russia, and so there's a thriving antique samovar market with some pieces selling for thousands of dollars. They're especially valuable since neither two are completely alike.

It's also a great souvenir, but you may have trouble getting it home. Aside from being a heavy and unwieldy luggage item, all but brand new samovars can be difficult to take out of Russia without a special permission. Still, many emigrants managed to smuggle their family samovars out of the country when they left.

Interesting facts about samovars

  • The exact origin of the samovar is unclear but it probably originated in the Middle East. Artifacts that resemble samovars have been found in areas stretching from Egypt to China. The oldest to date was discovered in Azerbaijan and dated at 4,000 years ago.
  • Some believed samovars to have souls because of the musical 'singing' sounds they made, and it is still common to say that a 'samovar is singing" (самовар поёт)
  • When a samovar was not being used, the fire was kept smoldering in the pot and would be rejuvenated by a bellows when it was needed. Sometimes a Russian jackboot (сапог, ‘sapog’) was used instead.
  • Even though samovars were produced in factories after industrialization, certain parts had to be made by hand. There were twelve stages to the process of making them and often each stage was handled by a separate village.
  • In times of war, bullets and arms were made by melting down samovars. In times of peace, samovars were made by melting down swords, bullets, guns and cannons.
  • The city of Tula is famous for samovar production. Rich in copper and other ore deposits, it's famous for its long history of metalworking. There's a Russian proverb that says something like, 'You don't bring a samovar to Tula.'
  • There’s an abundance of jokes and proverbs related to samovars. For example, while a Russian might very well bring coals to Newcastle, they would never bring a samovar to Tula (‘В Тулу со своим самоваром не ездят’).
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