With little advance warning, three great Russian traditions -- somavars, shoddiness, and shortage -- have collided here in recent months, bringing woe to shoppers and planners and work for the police.
The root cause seems to be that somewhere in the headlong rush to develop socialism, as the Soviet constitution calls the system, the planners misplaced the samovar, sturdy talisman of Russian hospitality through the centuries. Even the editors of the authoritative Great Soviet Encyclopedia have taken it so much for granted that there is no entry for "samovar."
For the record, this cheerful object is a portable water heater used to make tea. Heat from pinecone or charcoal fuel in a grate at the bottom rises through a metal tube, warming water in an urnlike reservoir, usually made of brass. Atop the metal chimney sits a small teapot with Krepki chai strong tea. Diluted in a teacup with water decanted by an ornamental petcock in the urn, the brew is drunk around a candy held between the teeth.
Pre-revolutionary samovars, carefully bearing the maker's sign, fetch high prices in the West, and are collector's items here. Foreign correspondents in Afghanistan covering the Russian invasion have spotted Soviets busily shopping Kabul's bazaars for well-made old Russian samovars or Afghan copies to take home.
This is because it is almost impossible to find a good Russian-made samovar in shops here. Modern plug-in electric models are of poor quality, shunned by shoppers despite the fact that no Russian home is really complete without its samovar.
Recently, according to the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, officials have found that samovars can be a good antidote to low morale and drinking among factory workers. It told how a steel mill chief, recalling the old days when Russians warmed themselves more from samovar than vodka bottle, installed 10 large new models in workers' rest quarters as an experiment. Pravda said illnesses among the workforce declined and morale improved as alcohol consumption went down.
Orders went out for more samovars from the manufacturers in Tula, a city 100 miles south of Moscow which is the traditional center of samovar-making.
The factories announced a crash program to produce 2 million high-quality heaters a year, a hugh increase, and Pravda reported a deluge of letters from readers asking where they can buy the kind of samovar that grandmother used to have.
However, as seems to happen here with depressing frequency, enterpreneurial greed reared its anti-Soviet head, this time in the person of one Shiltsov, "a very sociable person and a great admirer of the bottle," as the newspaper Socialist Industry wrote last week in describing this downfall as an object lesson for its readers.
As a driver for one of the Tula samovar factories, Shiltsov soon noticed that "a great number of samovats are sent to different corners of the country.He decided he should correct the system of sale of samovars." o
Soon, a factory manager in the Siberian city of Omsk opened a freight car from Tula looking for 336 large electric samovars he had ordered at a cost of 11,000 rubles to improve his workers' lot. sHe found "a vacuum" instead.
"Tula railroad workers didn't even try to check up, even though it looked rather strange that the car was much too light. The load of air traveled all through the country from Tula to Siberia. Shiltsov, repeated the operation a few times. Soon, he had so many samovars that it was possible to serve tea to half the population of Tula."
Eventually, his samovar sins were uncovered, the paper reported, and the lax rail workers also tracked down. Shiltsov got 10 years in prison for his troubles, but there still aren't enough samovars in Siberia.