Out of Russia: Samovar slump spoils tea party in Sheffield of the Slavs

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TULA - Rare is the Russian who has ever worried about taking coals to Newcastle. Not one, though, would ever bring a samovar to Tula. At least not for the past century or so. Now might be time to start. The premier manufacturer of Russia's pre-eminent cultural artefact is going broke.

About 100 miles south of Moscow, Tula is a Slavic Sheffield, famous for its metalworks since the 16th century, when its fortress- like mini-Kremlin helped defend the southern flank of old Muscovy. Its guns built the Russian empire and its more ornate creations were presented as gifts by Catherine the Great to impress foreign emissaries. One story has England trying to compete by presenting a steel flea to show off Anglo-Saxon skills. Tula replied with a flea fitted with horseshoes.

Tula's real fame, though, rests on the far more useful samovar, an object so Russian it survived the entry into English intact - along with samizdat, with which it shares the root of sam or 'self' ('self- brewing' and 'self-publishing').

Russia's own language is studded with tributes to what, in its primitive form, is no more than a pot pierced by a vertical pipe for wood or charcoal. Pushkin spoke of tea and samovars as the greatest force unifying the people. But that was before copper prices went through the roof, the five-year samovar plan went out of the window and Russians started gulping coffee and cola. (The Agricultural Scientific Research Institute in Moscow reports a fall in tea sales to 90,000 tons last year from 136,000 in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power.)

The strain of life after Communism has been hard on an etiquette almost as mannered and elaborate, and certainly as leisurely, as tea drinking in Japan. 'Ideally, it should take three to four hours to drink tea properly,' explains Olga Pallunina, samovar devotee and curator of a museum at Tula's troubled state-run samovar combine, Shtamp

When Lenin came to power, there were 28 factories and dozens of small workshops churning out samovars. The most celebrated craftsman was Vasily Batashov. His handiwork, studded with jewels, crafted in silver and embellished with gold, cost a fortune. Count Tolstoy kept a tiny samovar on his table just down the road at Yasnaya Polyana. Tsar Nicholas II ordered mammoth ones.

But the samovar was also the point at which the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat met. Every household, says Ms Pallunina, had to have one. The poor would club together to buy a cheap model. Those with no one to share the ritual of tea could buy a special single's samovar - the bachelor's friend.

The Bolsheviks nationalised the factories but did all they could to spread the samovar even further. Production paused briefly when Hitler invaded in 1941 but picked up with gusto six months later. The army needed samovars too. Before perestroika, Tula's Shtamp plant produced more than two million a year.

It also made artillery, a line of work that made it, along with nearly every other factory in Tula, off-limits to foreigners. The military's share of production has now shrivelled to almost nothing from over 70 per cent. Gas cookers, fire extinguishers and drilling equipment take up some of the slack.

But not samovars. Only when the factory gets a firm order - like one in August for 8,000 - can Shtamp afford to buy the necessary metal. 'We live hand to mouth,' says Yuri Syabkin, deputy technical director.

He misses the old days. Three shifts a day have shrunk to one; instead of seven days a week the plant works only four. 'We don't see any real difference between privatised and a state factory,' says Mr Sebyakin. What he means is all are in trouble: mountains of debt, too many workers, too many goods delivered but never paid for.

Ms Pallunina is more upbeat. Surrounded by glittering samovars in her museum, she savours their elegance. 'Each and every samovar has its own aroma,' she gushes, rattling off favourite designs: Acorn, Jug, Pear, Cucumber, Florentine, Turnip. 'Everyone still has a samovar but their role has changed. They are kept like souvenirs. They sit in the corner like an old babushka.'

This might not help sales but the situation could be worse: 'When a family sells its samovar there is no hope left. It is the last to go. That really is the end.'