Samovars are a cultural symbol in Russia, as getting together and drinking tea around these ornate devices is part of Russian tradition. References to samovars are indeed commonly found both in Russian literature, like in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Russian art, like in Malevich’s painting “Samovar”.
But what is a samovar? The word literally means “self-boiler”, which is a direct hint at its function: to heat water, usually for tea.
How does it work? The largest part holds the water, which gets heated through a vertical pipe inside the body of the samovar and is then released through a spout. Originally, samovars functioned with wood or charcoal, while the modern ones use electricity. They are normally made of some type of metal (iron, copper, tin, even silver) and go from plain to heavily decorated kinds.
While the origins of the samovar are unclear and some claim it as a Russian invention, it was most likely imported from Persia around the 18th century and quickly gained popularity among the heavily tea-drinking population, which soon began to decorate it and transform it into an element of interior decor.
A curious fact is that people in Russia actually believed that the samovar has a soul, and it was common to say “самовар поёт”, “the samovar is singing”, which was based on the peculiar sounds produced by the body of the device as the water is boiled inside it.
Samovars are actually so typical in Russia that even trains have one at the end of every carriage. On trans-siberian trains, the samovar is actually some sort of social gathering place, where passengers meet to make tea, coffee or instant meals. Also, when traveling for days on a train, the samovar can be a real life-saver, both as a means to kill the time and meet people, and as a way to actually feed yourself or enjoy a hot drink in the morning. Well at least that’s how we survived!
“You see, you are made for each other! […] You’ll come to it in the end! […] There’s an attraction here—here you have the end of the world, an anchorage, a quiet haven, the navel of the earth, the three fishes that are the foundation of the world, the essence of pancakes, of savory fish-pies, of the evening samovar, of soft sighs and warm shawls, and hot stoves to sleep on—as snug as though you were dead, and yet you’re alive—the advantages of both at once!” – Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, part III, chapter 1.