Magazine

Feature: Samovars and superstitions

Date posted: 12 Aug 2014Author: STC Production: Children of the Sun

The cast and crew of Children of the Sun have been swotting up on some of the finer points of 19th century Russian life. Here’s some of what they’ve been discovering…


ON TEA

Tea was the drink of choice in 19th century Russia, and the mechanics of brewing and serving it were looked after by the household samovar. At its most basic, a samovar is a heated metal container, similar to a modern electrical urn, but its importance to the Russian household meant it was often an ornate feature (the one on the stamp pictured at right is a restrained baroque version).

Traditional samovars were heated by a small slow-burning fire in the base of the samovar with a tube carrying heat up through the water. The fire would smoulder gently for a long time and could be rekindled using bellows (an old boot could be used to improvise bellows).

The Merchant's Wife by Boris Kustodiev

A notable feature of Russian tea culture is the two-step brewing process. Firstly, a very strong tea (Russian: заварка) is brewed in a small teapot. This teapot sits on top of the samovar to stew and keep warm.Then, each person pours a quantity of this concentrate into their teacup and mixes it with hot water from the tap on the side of the samovar. This allows tea of varying strengths according to one's taste. Sweeteners such as sugar cubes, honey or jam would then be added individually.

Jam was often used to sweeten tea, cherry and strawberry jam being particularly popular. The jam used is thick and syrupy with sweet lumps of fruit amongst the syrup – rather different to our set jam.

People from lower classes often drank their tea from the saucer. The tea would be prepared in the cup and then tipped into the saucer to cool and allow for faster drinking.

 

ON CUSTOMS

Knocking on wood is practiced in Russia as in Australia and other countries. However, Russians tend to add a symbolic three spits over the left shoulder and often knock three times as well. Traditionally, it was said one was spitting on the devil (who is always on the left).

Accidentally breaking a glass is good luck, a fact we are glad to hear given the amount of tea consumed during the course of Children of the Sun.

Russians would avoid shaking hands over a threshold as tradition holds that this action will lead to an argument.

Before leaving for a long journey, travellers and all those who are seeing them off must sit for a moment of silence before leaving the house. This custom is most memorably observed in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Often this custom is reasoned as being a time to sit and think of anything one may have forgotten.

 

ON NAMES

Naming conventions are a distinct part of Russian social etiquette. Russian names are comprised of:

  1. first name – the person's given name (eg Alexei)
  2. middle name – the patronymic, a version of their father's first name formed by adding '-vich' or '-ovich' for a male and '-avna' or '-ovna' for a female (eg the son of Maxim would have a patronymic of Maximovich while the daughter's patronymic would be Maximovna)
  3. last name – the family or surname (eg Peshkov)

Thus, this person’s full name would be Alexei Maximovich Peshkov. In formal situations, people would use all three names. Friends and close acquaintances tend to refer to each other by their first name and patronymic. Close friends and family call each other by their first name only.

 

Children of the Sun, 8 Sep - 25 Oct, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House