Russian Samovars Make a Comeback

The traditional wood-burning kettle, designed in 1778, is prized for its decorative and historical significance

IN 1945, Red Army soldier Yakov Basin returned from the war to find that looters had stripped his house clean. Of all his family possessions, the only thing left was a samovar, lying dusty and forgotten in the basement.

Mr. Basin, then 30, spent hours polishing the traditional samovar, which literally means ''self-boiler'' in Russian. The wood-burning kettle was made from bright brass that shined quickly, a classical beauty with carved wooden handles on each side and an elegant ornate spout.

''I put it on the table in the living room, and all my friends commented on it,'' recalls Basin, a retired schoolteacher with a full head of thick white hair. ''Then my aunt gave me another samovar, so I had two. When more people told me how beautiful they were, I decided to start my own collection.''

Basin now has more than 150 samovars crammed on wall-to-wall shelves inside his three-room apartment in Tula, a sleepy town 120 miles south of Moscow. His collection is probably the largest private one in Russia, and even the renowned Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has its eye on it.

''Traditional samovars are coming back in fashion, not because of their practical value but because they help decorate [country houses] and estates,'' says Tatyana Vertsanova of the Tula Samovar Museum, which houses a less-impressive collection behind the red-brick walls of Tula's ancient Kremlin.

''Electric samovars are more affordable, and city folk prefer them,'' she says. ''But the New Russians are starting to prefer real samovars.''

Tula was dubbed the birthplace of the Russian samovar when the Lisitsyn brothers, Ivan and Nazar, made the first specimen in 1778. No Russian home was complete without one, and Tula eventually boasted 80 private samovar studios -- staffed mainly by freed serfs -- and 30 samovar factories.

But now Tula has just one factory that manufactures samovars, the former Gelenschmidt, now known as Shtamp. Although the aging facility has a strong samovar tradition dating back to 1919, it produced mainly weapons until 1989.

These days, Shtamp manufactures everything from arms to fire extinguishers to metal electric samovars with unsightly plastic cords, although samovar production has temporarily halted due to a lack of materials. In 1989 the factory made 1.5 million samovars; last year it produced only 150,000.

''The taste is much better when water is steamed inside a real samovar,'' Basin says. ''And when a samovar starts to whistle and sing, it makes a completely different impression than an electric one does.''

When guests gather, Russians traditionally drink around the kitchen table as they philosophize about life. But in daily life, it is the ritual of tea-drinking that unites Russians.

Old-fashioned tea-drinkers make tea by steeping a strong zavarka, a brackish brew of concentrated tea leaves, in a separate pot, which they then dilute with water boiled in the samovar. Made from brass, red or green copper, or silver, samovars accommodate wood or kindling in a special compartment inside the kettle itself.

The predecessor to the samovar, called a zbitnik, was used to prepare not zavarka but a strong mixture of different herbs and spices called zbiten, often spiked with honey or pepper. Sugar was neither granulated nor cubed; instead it was served in a foot-high rock hard pillar, which had to be scraped with a knife into the teacup.

''While the Japanese look inside themselves for enjoyment, Russians look outside themselves,'' says Olga Polunina, curator of the samovar museum at Shtamp, referring to tea-drinking traditions. ''With samovars, we are returning to our traditions.''

Many of Basin's samovars are fashioned in traditional shapes -- usually barrel-shaped or slightly oblong -- while others have been given special names to match their unusual designs, such as the swan, the bride, the locomotive, the Arabian vase, and the tulip.

In pre-revolutionary days, a bride was considered rich if she received a samovar as a wedding gift. Aristocrats sometimes had samovars with handles made from bone; peasants and serfs had cruder versions.

On Leonid Brezhnev's 75th birthday, he received a special gift from Tula: a samovar called ''World Peace,'' which featured the proletariat toiling away with hammers and sickles. Stalin earlier received one with an elaborate Lenin's mausoleum engraved on it.

And even President Reagan was presented with a Tula samovar called ''Russian Field'' during his 1988 summit meeting with Gorbachev, but he wouldn't accept it. It was later given to Britain's Queen Elizabeth during her first visit to Russia last year.

''Our ancestors used to say: Give a man from Tula a piece of iron, and he'll make a miracle,'' Ms. Polunina says.

''Every samovar is unique,'' adds Basin, pointing out favorite examples such as the spider, which has a round body from which sprout spindly handles and legs and a thin weblike spout.

''A samovar is not only an object, but a work of art. Every master gave his soul and his talent to make them,'' Basin says.

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