If you’ve read any Russian literature, you’ve probably heard of the samovar, a traditional metal urn used to heat water for tea and other household purposes. Tea drinking is a social ritual in Russia, and the vessel’s cultural influence can be seen in a number of proverbs, such as “the samovar is boiling, you can’t leave now.” (It sounds much catchier in the original Russian rhyme.)
Samovars come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, from 100-pound industrial models to the diminutive “samovar-egoist” or “selfish samovar.” These small specimens warm just enough water for one person; some of the tiniest heat up less than a liter. They could be toted around by soldiers in the Russian Army, who needed to heat water for shaving, or used by anyone who wanted to savor a cup solo. (The selfish samovar’s slightly bigger sibling, the “tête-à-tête” samovar, was designed to provide tea for two.)
Whatever their size, traditional samovars heat water via an internal tube that may hold charcoal, pine cones, or wood chips. Modern versions use an electric coil. To make tea, Russians first prepare a pot of highly concentrated brew called zavarka, which is then diluted with hot water in individual drinkers’ cups. To keep it warm for the inevitable refills, the teapot containing the zavarka may be placed on the circular crown atop the samovar.
Samovars came into fashion in the late 18th century, with production centered in the city of Tula (which now boasts an entire museum dedicated to the vessel). Though few Russians use samovars at home today, they remain a cherished national symbol. As Dostoevsky once wrote, “the samovar is the most essential thing in Russia, especially at times of particularly awful, sudden, and eccentric catastrophes and misfortunes.”