Samovar (RSFSR/Afghanistan, ca.1925)


Samovar (RSFSR/Afghanistan, ca.1925)

This samovar of brass-plated nickel was manufactured at the Tula cartridge works in the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic at some point in the mid-1920s. For the past thirty years it has sat on top of a tallboy in the dining-room of my parents’ house in Kent, a familiar and largely decorative feature, although it has occasionally been taken out into the garden and lit to provide tea on a summer afternoon. There is nothing especially remarkable about it as an object: Tula has dominated samovar production in Russia since the late 18th century, an industry which grew and throve alongside that of armaments, Tula’s other speciality. The two have an obvious affinity, with similar ores and metallurgical skills being required for the manufacture of samovar bodies and chimneys, and gun barrels, shell and bullet casings. As its name suggests the Tula cartridge works where this samovar was made is primarily an ammunition factory – set up in 1880 to make ammunition for the Berdan rifle, it produced millions of bullets and shells in both world wars and still exists today. During the NEP period it became part of a ‘Trest’ – a quasi-state enterprise - before being fully nationalised in 1929. There is little to distinguish this Soviet samovar from its Tsarist predecessors: it has the same barrel-shaped body and scrolled, decorative handles and spigot used for samovars since the mid-19thcentury. Only the engraved ‘C.C.C.P.’ surrounding the manufacturer’s stamp indicates its Soviet origin.

The connection to Central Asia comes through my late father, John Morrison (1949 – 2017), who was a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Moscow from 1978 to 1983. He purchased it in Kabul in January 1980, while he was covering the aftermath of the Soviet-backed coup which overthrew and assassinated Hafizullah Amin and installed Babrak Karmal in power, and the early stages of the Soviet invasion which would ultimately kill or wound over 50,000 Soviet soldiers and at least one million Afghans. My father returned with the samovar in his luggage, flying to Moscow via Tashkent, where he told me he was struck by the total obliviousness of the population to what was happening just beyond the Amu-Darya, thanks to a total news black-out. Later when we left the USSR we were allowed to take it with us as we had a certificate proving my father had purchased it in Afghanistan – otherwise it would have counted as an ‘antiquity’ and been barred from export.

What was an early Soviet samovar doing in Kabul? This is not hard to explain. Of all the exports of technology from Russia to Central Asia in the 19th century, the samovar was by far the most popular and widely-adopted, spreading well beyond the empire’s borders among the enthusiastic tea-drinkers of Persia and Afghanistan. The great benefit of the samovar was that it allowed a constant supply of boiling water with a considerable saving on fuel compared to heating it in an open kettle or qazan. They were already widely disseminated across the region even before it was conquered by Russia – as early as 1836 the Russian envoy I. V. Vitkevich reported seeing a Russian samovar for sale in a stall at Vabkent, near Bukhara. In 1858 the embassy led by Count N.P. Ignat’ev to the Amir of Bukhara and the Khan of Khiva included a samovar among the gifts it presented to these rulers. Visiting Bukhara in 1870, L. F. Kostenko noted that the famous Lab-i hauz was already surrounded by tea-houses (chaikhanas) with ‘constantly boiling samovars’, while at the storming of Andijan in 1875 a Russian officer noted that in the deserted bazaar ‘the samovars were still boiling in the chaikhanas’ – indeed Sergei Abashin has argued that it was the samovar that transformed the chaikhana into the centre of Central Asian sociability. It also had significant environmental consequences as it greatly increased the demand for charcoal made from saxaul, since one limitation of the samovar was that it could not burn dried dung (kizyak).

As technology developed in the Soviet period, samovars became less important as domestic items, but they have retained their centrality for the chaikhana: across all of southern Central Asia it is the presence of a huge samovar smoking and steaming outside that is still the marker of a really good tea-house.

Alexander Morrison is Fellow and Tutor in History at New College, Oxford. He is the author of Russian Rule in Samarkand 1868 – 1910. A Comparison with British India (2008) and The Russian Conquest of Central Asia. A Study in Imperial Expansion 1814 – 1914 (2021). He is also the editor (with Aminat Chokobaeva and Cloe Drieu) of The Central Asian Revolt of 1916. A Collapsing Empire in the Age of War and Revolution (2020)


‘Spisok podarkov’ 1858 GARF F.730 Op.1 D.297 ll.26-7

A. N. Abashin, D. Yu. Arapov & N. E. Bekmakhanova (ed.) & authorial collective
Tsentral’naya Aziya v Sostave Rossiiskoi Imperii (Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2008) p.200

Artemy Kalinovsky A Long Goodbye. The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), p.1

L. F. Kostenko Puteshestvie v Bukharu Russkoi Missii 1870g (St Petersburg: A. Morigerovskii, 1871) p.88

M. Mikhailov ‘Pokhod v Kokand v 1875g.’ (Tashkent: Otdel’nyi ottisk iz Turkestanskie Vedomosti, 1884) p.17.

Beatrice Penati ‘Managing Rural Landscapes in Colonial Turkestan: a View from the Margins’ in Explorations in the Social History of Modern Central Asia ed. Paolo Sartori (Leiden: Brill, 2013) p.96

Alexander Trapeznik: "Samovars: The Art Of Tula Metal Workers." New Zealand Slavonic Journal 46 (2012): pp.91-107. 

‘Tul’skii Voennyi Zavod’ in S. B. Ivanov (ed.) Voennaya entsiklopediya (Moscow: Voennoe Izd., 2004) Vol.8 p.145

I.V. Vitkevich ‘Zapiska, sostavlennaya po rasskazam Orenburgskogo Lineinoga Batal’ona No.10 Praporshchika Vitkevicha otnositel’no puti ego v Bukharu i obratno’ in Zapiski o Bukharskom Khanstve ed. N. A. Khalfin (Moscow: “Nauka”, 1983) p.97