ALVR Blog:
Russian Teatime Traditions

Russian Tea Drinkers from chatterbox magazine
From “Russian Tea-houses and Tea-drinkers” in Chatterbox, 1867

How greatly tea is used in England by every class of society, we all know… But greatly as tea is used in England, it is still in Russia more common. From the palaces of the great and wealthy nobles, down to the wretched hovels of the poor peasants, tea is the universal beverage. – James F. Cobb

James F. Cobb noted the significance of tea in Russian culture in his 1867 article “Russian Tea-houses and Tea-drinkers” for the English publication Chatterbox. While Mr. Cobb noted that British tea culture has its own interesting history and customs, Russian culture is steeped in its own rich tea traditions.

Pictured right: Gilded silver teapot with the Imperial Eagle. St. Petersburg, ca. 1785Gilded Silver Imperial Teapot with Russian Imperial Eagle

Russian tea’s status as a national beverage was slow to brew. When it was first introduced in the seventeenth century, Russians were skeptical. This early tea was very different from the tea drunk today. The tea was in a brick form, which was smashed and mixed with grain and butter, and then consumed as both a meal and beverage.

In the eighteenth century, during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), tea consumption increased slightly, but it remained expensive and rare, confining its consumption to the Russian aristocracy who used it primarily for medicinal purposes.

Russian Cloisonné Enamel Teapot and Silver Napkin Ring with Imperial MonogramIt was not until late in the nineteenth century that tea became a national beverage consumed by all classes. By this time, the cost of tea had decreased by half, and thus more widely accessible. Also by this time, Russian tea, and its customs and material culture, became associated with national identity thanks to the work of the country’s most revered writers. Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Checkov wrote about tea as a part of everyday life, celebrating the samovar in particular as a symbol of Russianness.

Pictured left: Gilded silver and cloisonné enamel teapot. Moscow, ca. 1900

Some scholars speculate that the samovar is actually an English invention, as both the English and Dutch made the earliest vessels for brewing tea and coffee in the late seventeenth century. The first samovar likely came to Russia in the early eighteenth century, taken by Peter the Great as one of many aspects of western culture he hoped to emulate to modernize Russia. The technology of the samovar better suited a Russian home, which was heated with a large stove, instead of an open fireplace to easily boil water. It is not the samovar itself that makes Russian tea. Rather, the samovar dispenses boiled water for diluting the concentrated tea, which is brewed in a small teapot, or zavarka, as shown in the introductory illustration.

main view, Antique Russian Lacquer Tray

Pictured above: antique Russian lacquer tray depicting peasants drinking tea. By the Lukutin Factory, Moscow, 1888-1894.

By the turn-of-the-century, the invented tradition of Russian tea was an integral part of Russian identity. For Russians, the day began and ended with tea. In the morning it was enjoyed with sweet buns, plain rolls, or bread with butter and maybe a little cheese. A few hours after dinner was vecherny tchai, or evening tea consumed with various cold cuts, cheeses, small cakes and candied fruits.

Tea was enjoyed inside and out of the home. In the nineteenth century men congregated in teahouses according to their class, with ones for wealthy merchants and others for their carriage drivers. The gendering of Russian tea culture was delineated by these establishments and also by objects. Men drank their tea from a glass set in an elaborately ornamented metal holder, like the one picture below, while women drank their tea from a cup.

Antique Russian Enamel Tea Glass Holder

Pictured: Gilded silver and cloisonné enamel tea glass holder. By the 11th Artel, Moscow, ca. 1910.

Regardless of how much Russian tea customs are the product of nineteenth-century nationalism, beautiful works of art, like the tea glass holder and teapots illustrated in this post, attest to the significance of tea in Russian culture, past and present, even if that past is not so long ago.

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Cobb, James F. “Russian Tea-houses and Tea-drinkers.” Chatterbox. London, 1867.

Hardie, Anne-Marie. “Exploring the Origins of Russian Tea Culture.” The Daily Tea. August 6, 2015. Accessed August 12, 2015.

Jones, Catherine Cheremeteff. A Year of Russian Feasts. Bethesda, Md: Jellyroll Press, 2002.

Papashivily, Helen and George. The Cooking of Russia. New York: Time-Life Books, 1972.

Yoder, Audra Jo. Myth and Memory in Russian Tea Culture. Studies in Slavic Cultures. August 8, 2009.

Hidden Histories: Mark Antokolsky’s Portal to Prominence


In mid-nineteenth-century Russia in the town of Vilna, there lived a boy named Mordekhai, but everyone called him Motke. He loved working with his hands, filling makeshift sketchbooks and any available surface with scenes and figures, including walls, tables, and chairs. Even his family’s tavern door was not free of his hand, where he drew a fully armed soldier to frighten away drunkards.

Motke was called leimene hand (clay hands) or leimener geilom (clay statue) for his clumsiness when helping with the family business. Little did anyone know how much these pejorative nicknames prophesized, as those clay hands would one day breathe life not only in clay, but also wood, marble, and bronze.  Art history knows him not as Motke or Mordekhai, but Mark Antokolsky (1843-1902), the most famous Russian sculptor of the nineteenth century.

Antokolski by Repin 1914

By Ilya Repin, 1914
From Wikimedia Commons

Antokolsky was one of a very few successful Jewish artists in Russia from the nineteenth century. In Russia it was more difficult for Jews to achieve artistic success than in other countries. Artistic pursuits were also not welcomed within the Jewish community. Intellectual training was traditionally revered, unlike art, and all handwork trades, which were looked down upon.

Art was considered frivolous, and figure drawing in particular was taboo. Antokolsky’s parents tried to discourage his artistic inclination, which they regarded as sinful, and his father often beat him for making “idols.” Eventually they relented, and his father arranged for him to apprentice with various artisans. The young sculptor was unhappy with all of them, until he became the pupil of the wood carver Stassel’krout, remaining his apprentice for three years.

His work so impressed the wife of Vilna’s governor-general that she helped him travel to St. Petersburg to receive a stipend from Baron Horace Ginzberg to attend the Imperial Academy of Arts. In 1862 he was the first Jewish student to be accepted at the Imperial Academy of Arts, but only as a volnoslushatel, meaning someone who can attend class but not be put on the official student list.

A combination of such luck and talent laid the foundation for Antokolsky’s success. Starting in the 1860s, a relaxation of restrictive laws, among other factors, made it easier for Jews to acquire artistic training in Moscow and St. Petersburg. At last, artistic portrayals of Russian-Jewish life would no longer be confined to the ethnographic domain, as Jews appropriated their own image.

Antokolsky had one foot in the Russian and European art world and another in the Pale of Settlement, which was a world in and of itself. Though he deviated from tradition in pursuit of art, he would not sacrifice his strong Jewish identity for success. He remained observant by not working on the Sabbath and enthusiastically attended High Holiday services. His Jewish heritage inspired much of his work. In 1864 he received a silver medal for his wood carving Jewish Tailor. This honor was a significant turning point in the representation of Jews in art, as this was the first time in Russian sculpture that an image of a Jew was presented in a dignified manner and not conforming to stereotypes. The prominent art critic Vladimir Stasov praised the work, saying it represented “a launching of the new and true sculpture,” also remarking, “Before Antokolsky, not a single sculptor in the whole of Europe had endeavored to portray scenes of Jewish national life and to become an explorer of these innovative landscapes.”

One Jewish subject depicted by Antokolsky is the seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). This portrait, on view here at A La Vieille Russie, was part of a project called the Friends of Mankind, a group of historical and biblical figures Antokolsky admired for their devotion to truth and kindness. Ever devoted to historical accuracy, Antokolsky meticulously researched his subjects and Spinoza was no exception. He pieced together every little biographical detail he could find and was frustrated with the discrepancies encountered in many portraits.  He also went on a trip to Amsterdam to “peep in the environment where Spinoza came from and to breathe in the air there.”

Marble portrait of Baruch Spinoza by Mark Antokolsky

Antokolsky felt a strong inner bond between Spinoza and himself, as Spinoza’s dual identity paralleled his own: they both challenged tradition, becoming outsiders within and outside of their communities. A descendent of marranos (Jews who converted during the Spanish Inquisition but practiced Judaism secretly or later returned to it), Spinoza was raised in a deeply religious household and educated to become a rabbi. However, he became drawn to secular subjects, particularly philosophy, and began to question aspects of his faith. Accused of betraying Judaism and becoming an atheist, he was excommunicated in 1656 at 24 years old, and later exiled from Amsterdam. Although he never abandoned Judaism and changed religions, his unconventional views were threatening to a Jewish community still recovering from the Spanish Inquisition and concerned with reviving and maintaining traditions.

Ivan the Terrible by Mark AntokolskyAntokolsky’s portraits of important figures in Russian history are also highly regarded, two of which are for sale here at A La Vieille Russie. One such portrait is a ceramic bust of Ivan the Terrible. Ivan was produced in a variety of media, including marble, plaster, and silver. Majolica was a rare medium for Antokolsky. Originally executed in bronze in 1871, the portrait won Antokolsky many honors, and he became famous overnight. To become so renowned in one’s own lifetime is a significant accomplishment for any artist, and accompanying this instant fame was a gold medal and the title of  Academician. The portrait impressed Tsar Alexander II so much that he commissioned a copy for the Hermitage, now in the Russian State Museum. As with all his works, Antokolsky meticulously researched Ivan’s life and character, also spending four months in the Kremlin Armory studying designs for the throne and costume.

Another notable historical portrait in our collection is a bronze of Nestor the Chronicler, the eleventh century Kievan monk credited as the author of Primary Chronicle, or Tale of Bygone Years, the only written record of Russia’s early history. Antokolsky thoroughly read the Chronicle as he worked on the portrait, and the plain wooden table, clothing, and Nestor the Chronicler by Mark Antokolskyother features reflect his loyalty to historical accuracy. The first version of Nestor was made in bronze in 1890 and was over five feet tall. It was originally in the Hermitage and moved to the Russian Museum in 1897.

Due to a combination of health problems and anti-Semitic aggression, Antokolsky moved abroad, first to Rome in 1871 and then Paris in 1877, but his heart remained in Russia and he returned periodically. He continued to receive honors, including a gold medal at the 1878 Exposition Universelle, and again in 1900. In 1893 he was named a full member of the Imperial Academy of Arts. He died at the age of sixty-one in 1902, at last returning to the land of his birth, and is buried in St. Petersburg. The young clay hands who once left his mark on his family home, grew up to leave his mark on the world.

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Ambromowicz, Hirsz, et al. Profiles of a Lost World: Memoirs of East European Jewish Life Before World War II. Wayne State University Press, 1999.

Glants, Musya. Where Is My Home?  The Art and Life of the Russian Jewish Sculptor Mark Antokolsky. 1843-1902. Lexington Books, 2010.

Goodman, Susan Tumarkin, ed. Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Change 1890-1990. Prestel-Verlag/Jewish Museum, 1995.

Hidden Histories:
Roubaud’s Ethnographic View of Jewish Life in Imperial Russia

Franz Roubaud Village Merchants
Franz Roubaud (Odessa 1856-1928 Munich)
Village Merchants: Street of Jarmolinzi in Podolien
Oil on canvas: 33.5 x 59 inches (85 x 150 cm)
Signed and dated lower left: F. Roubaud 1897

This painting, Village Merchants: Street of Jarmolinzi in Podolien, by Franz Roubaud, depicts a village scene in the Podolia region of Ukraine, which, along with other lands formerly part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, became part of the Russian Empire in the late eighteenth century.

The scene befits the title, showing townspeople peddling wares and conducting business transactions. Nearly half of Podolia’s Jews were involved in commerce. The village’s muddy street and modest buildings beneath a grey sky imply the hardships of everyday life.

As viewers we are removed from the scene, observing from a distance, a perspective that matches the marginalization of Jews in Russian society. Jews were restricted to the periphery of the Russian Empire, in what was called the Pale of Settlement. It was initially created to impose commercial restrictions on Jews and generally to prevent integration with the rest of Russia’s population.

In sum, Jews were outsiders, seen as the “other,” and this perception factored into their artistic representation. In Roubaud’s rendering of this village, he was an outsider looking in. He was not Jewish, the son of a Frenchman living in Russia. Renowned for painting grand, panoramic battle scenes, like A Tale of the Caucasus:

Franz Roubaud  A Tale of the Caucasus
Franz Roubaud (Russian, 1856-1928)
A Tale of the Caucasus
signed and dated 'F. Roubaud/1907.' (lower right)
oil on canvas 56¼ x 77½ in. (142.8 x 197.2 cm.)

Village Merchants stands apart from Roubaud’s oeuvre. In this brief break from the battlefield, Roubaud participates in a tradition of non-Jewish Russian artists depicting Jews in art. Starting in the nineteenth century, Russian artists became interested in Jewish life, illustrating their subjects under an ethnographic, as well as artistic, lens.

Franz Roubaud portrait
Roubaud, 1916
Reproduced from Hans-Peter Bühler, Jäger, Kosaken und polnische 
Reiter Josef von Brandt, Alfred von Wierusz-Kowalski, 
Franz Roubaud und der Münchner Polenkreis. (Georg Olms Verlag, 1993), 142

Roubaud began his studies in Odessa, whose significant Jewish population clearly left an impression on the artist. From 1878-1883 he studied at the Royal Bavarian Academy of Arts in Munich, developing his skills particularly under the guidance of the Polish artist Josef von Brandt. Roubaud produced his initial sketch for Jarmolinzi in 1882, which features a close study of the buildings, though devoid of townspeople:

Franz Roubaud 1882 sketch Jarmolinzi
1882 Study, 11.4 x 8.2 in. (29 x 20.8 cm)
Reproduced from Hans-Peter Bühler, Jäger, Kosaken und 
polnische Reiter Josef von Brandt, Alfred von Wierusz-Kowalski, 
Franz Roubaud und der Münchner Polenkreis. (Georg Olms Verlag, 1993), 134

From the time of this sketch to the painting’s completion in 1897, Russia’s Jews experienced heightened persecution. They were targeted as an easy scapegoat for the 1881 assassination of Alexander II, inciting several pogroms (mob violence) across the Podolia region. This violence, in addition to new economic restrictions enforced by the government, made life increasingly difficult. These factors inspired significant emigration, mostly to North America.

Other aspects of Jewish life have also inspired artistic expression. Contemporaneous with Roubaud’s 1897 painting, the Yiddish author and playwright Sholem Aleichem wrote about life in the Pale of Settlement. In 1894, he penned Tevye and his Daughters and other stories, later inspiring the musical Fiddler on the Roof, which premiered on Broadway in 1964.  The musical’s title and original set design were inspired by Marc Chagall. In the final act, Tevye and his family have been expelled from the fictional village Anatevka and flee to more welcoming shores, singing words familiar to many at the turn of the twentieth century, “soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place, searching for an old familiar face.”

Roubaud’s painting does not reflect such chaos and vulnerability, but a quiet existence. Jewish life in Russia is a multifaceted subject, and Roubaud’s window is but one view.

The next few blog posts will further examine Jewish subjects in Russian art, as well as Russian Jewish artists. While this post explored Jewish subjects in ethnographic art, our next post will highlight Jewish subjects in Russian art by one of their own, the most famous Russian Jewish artist of the nineteenth century, Mark Antokolsky.

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A Wood Relief of the Moscow Kremlin

Wood Relief of the Moscow Kremlin

The Moscow Kremlin is a historic, fortified complex at the heart of Moscow and is the best known of the Russian Kremlins or fortresses. The word kremlin comes from the word krepest, meaning fortress. The existing Kremlin walls and towers were built in the late 15th century, and for centuries, the Moscow Kremlin has been a favorite subject of Russian artists because it was the seat of power for the Tsars and the dictators that followed.

This panoramic view, rendered in rust, deep greens, beige, and burnished gold, is glimpsed over the sea-green Moskva River. This folkloric carving features gold, onion-domed churches as well as the Ivan the GreatBellTower. The Tower marks the exact center of Moscow and is said to resemble a burning candle. Completed in 1600, it stands 81 meters high, and until the Russian Revolution, was the tallest structure in the city. Its 21 bells would sound the alarm if an enemy was approaching.

Also of note is the Spasskaya Tower, the main tower with its telltale clock, known as the Kremlin clock, which has been in place since at least the late 16th century.  The Tower’s stylized double-headed eagle finial places this carving in the Tsarist era of the late 19th or early 20th century.

The carving is in its original frame and Cyrillic picture plaque identifying the scene as the Moscow Kremlin. In the nineteenth century, romantic nationalism swept across many European countries. Given this trend, it is only fitting that a work of Russian Folk Art would choose an iconic Russian landmark as its subject.

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ALVR Blog: Consider the Kovsh

Enamel and Gilded Silver Kovsh

Pictured above is an ornamental ladle called a kovsh, a type of Russian drinking vessel in the shape of a duck. Traditionally, various vessels were intended for different beverages. Kovshi, which come in a range of sizes, were intended for drinking kvass or beer. They were also used for drinking mead, a honey based drink that varied in flavor from using different fruits and berries. Silver kovshi were used for white mead, while golden kovshi were used for red mead.

They were originally made of wood and some early kovshi were made of tightly woven cloth.  In the 16th century, they began to be made in silver and increasingly assumed a ceremonial status. The kovshi in our collection are nineteenth and early twentieth century pieces of the Old Russian style, seen in the multicolored enameling inspired by sixteenth and seventeenth-century patterns. A yearning for a Russian art unmarred by Western influence contributed to what became the Russian Revival in the 1870s and 1880s. Interest in exploring early Russian artistic traditions provided craftsmen with a rich body of sources for creating beautiful, distinctly Russian works of art. Cloisonné enameling is but one example; another is trompe l’oeil, discussed in this blog post. While many such pieces were ornamental, a few could function as punch bowls or salts depending on their size.

These pieces illustrate how time and again the functional and artistic merits of the decorative arts can be appreciated both independently and harmoniously.

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World War I Era Fabergé

Faberge copper pot

At the time of the Great War, the sons of Russian nobility wrote to their mothers that they had food at the front, but had nothing to cook it in. In response, their mothers commissioned cookware by Fabergé, not knowing of any other sources.

For the centennial of World War I, we present one such object: a copper and brass soup pot lined in pewter, with the imperial warrant and “K. Fabergé/war/1914” stamped in Cyrillic on its underside. Simple and utilitarian, lacking ostentation and splendor, it is an object unexpected from the jeweler’s workshops.

Fabergé adapted to the drop in orders and wartime austerity measures by making items out of less expensive metals like copper and gunmetal. However, some of these items merely feigned austerity and there are some silver objects ‘gilded’ to resemble copper and brass.

Nonetheless, Fabergé contributed much to supporting the war effort. Early in the war Fabergé offered his workshops for making munitions, but did not begin doing so until a year later when he finally received a response to his offer. His silver factory in Moscow produced hand grenades and casings for artillery shells and his Petrograd workshops made syringes and other smaller items.

Fabergé lost much of his workforce to conscription and pleaded with the authorities to allow twenty-three to remain who were particularly vital to the business, including the only master enameler remaining.

Fabergé wartime objects like this soup pot represent a turning point in history. The revolution and civil war that followed ensured there would not be a return to the opulence of preceding centuries. And so this soup pot, a Fabergé piece stripped of the gilding, enameling, and fine jewels long associated with that name, is made out of practicality rather than ornament, marking the end of an era.

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Nicholas & Alexandra, a Romanov Romance

1901 photograph of Nicholas and Alexandra of Russia

Photograph from the Illustrierte Zeitung, 1901, via Wikimedia Commons

“I never saw two people more in love with each other or happier than they are,”

wrote George, the Duke of York, to Mary in England regarding the wedding of the Russian Tsarevich Nicholas II and Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt.

Some of the greatest love stories exist in history books, and the romance of Nicholas and Alexandra is quite the page turner, set against the tumultuous backdrop of the Russian Revolution.

They first met at the ages of 12 and 16, when Alix’s sister, Ella, married Grand Duke Serge, the younger brother of Tsar Alexander III. The two could not help but exchange glances.They did not see each other again until five years later, when Alix spent six weeks in St. Petersburg and they began spending more time together.

The romance, at first, was not without conflict, as the shy and awkward Princess did not make the best impression on Russian society. Nicholas’s parents, Alexander III and Empress Marie, expressed anti-German sentiments, instead having their sights set on the daughter of the Comte de Paris, Princess Hélène. But Nicholas only had eyes for Alix.

Princess Alix, torn about giving up her Lutheran faith to become Russian Orthodox, tearfully turned down Nicholas’s first proposal. Her hesitancy to abandon her faith did not last long, however, as she conceded the next day, at the convincing of her father, her grandmother, Queen Victoria, and, ultimately, her own heart.

Among the most touching aspects of their story, is their correspondence. Not long after their betrothal, Alix discovered Nicholas was keeping a diary and began writing her own entries. These included prayers, poetry, and other notes, including,

“I am yours, you are mine, of that be sure. You are locked in my heart, the little key is lost and now you must stay there forever.”

After their wedding she wrote,

“Never did I believe there could be such utter happiness in this world, such a feeling of unity between two mortal beings. I love you, these three words have my life in them.”

Such a happy and affectionate marriage lasted the rest of their lives. While they met a tragic end, in the words of Alexandra, they would

“meet again in the other world and remain together for eternity.”

(Quotations from Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra).

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Collecting Animals РFaberg̩

Faberge Golden Quartz Lion

On your expedition to our menagerie, you will find an assortment of Fabergé animals. These hardstone carvings do more than mimic nature, but capture the personalities of individual animals.

Fabergé applied this attention to detail to a number of hardstone animal portraits, most notably his famous commission from King Edward in 1907 to replicate all of the domestic and farmyard animals of the British royal family’s Sandringham estate. Wax models were made from life, amounting to more than a hundred different figures. Fabergé received many commissions for portraits of adored domestic pets, his clientele appreciating such commitment to accuracy.

Fabergé’s lapidary studio broke away from the dry realism of traditional hardstone carvings, remaining loyal to detail but imbuing his creatures with whimsical charm. First, a wax model was made. Then, stones were selected based one what best conformed to a particular animal’s characteristics and sculptor-stonecarvers carefully noted poses and often exaggerated certain features. A reputation for this sort of attention to detail significantly distinguished Fabergé from his competitors.

Fabergé’s animal creations were quite representative of the animal kingdom, comprising domestic and farm animals, wild creatures, and insects and reptiles. You’ll find a selection here, in Animals As Art: Wearable and Collectible.

Trompe l’oeil Silver

tromp l'oeil

Trompe l’oeil, meaning ‘fool the eye,’ is a term traditionally applied to paintings exhibiting such photographic detail as to make the viewer believe they are actually seeing the object(s) depicted. When used to describe these late nineteenth-century works of Russian silver, the term refers to the way these pieces simulate birch bark wood. Objects decorated to look like wood were quite popular in Russia in the second half of the nineteenth-century, as craftsmen sought to mimic the “bast” shoes made of woven birch bark worn by the peasants.

Romanticizing the peasantry is a frequently occurring theme in the arts, particularly the nineteenth-century. This especially rang true in Russia following Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Suddenly there was tremendous interest in the music, arts and crafts, and daily life of the serfs.

A yearning for a Russian art unmarred by Western influence contributed to what became the Russian Revival in the 1870s and 1880s. In addition to studies of serf life, there was also an interest in exploring earlier Russian artistic traditions, providing craftsmen a rich body of sources for creating beautiful, distinctly Russian works of art.

Trompe l’oeil  was an international trend, being also in fashion in America during this period and produced by notable firms like Gorham and Tiffany. However, this 1871 birch box and 1882 milk jug, coupled with a number of other exceptional pieces, leave no one fooled as to the mastery of this genre.



Kvas, a mildly alcoholic drink made from bread, has a long history of being a drink of the common people. The recipe involved soaking leftover dark bread in hot water and left to ferment for a few hours, adding honey, fruit, or sugar for sweetener as desired. Kvas was cheap to make and the yeast provided nutritional benefits to an otherwise limited diet, so becoming a staple for the Russian peasantry.

In the 19th century it became more popular than in earlier times, even enjoyed by the nobility on occassion. The degree of ornament applied to these kvasniki, pitchers for kvas, hints at the newly elevated status of the beverage. Of the askos form, modeled after ancient Greek goat-skin containers, they recall a renewed interest in classical art. In the second half of the nineteenth-century, applied decorations like flowers or bright red coral, as seen here, became fashionable. These decorative yet functional vessels attest to how a simple beverage transcended class boundaries, to the extent that the Russians, in the words of Pushkin, “like fresh air they loves kvass”.

The Smirnoff Shtof

Smirnoff Shtof

This shtof, the Russian word for vodka bottle, features the Russian Imperial Eagle and the dates 1877, 1886, and 1896, marking the increasing prestige the Smirnoff distillery achieved, including the right to use Russian coats of arms, becoming Purveyor to the Tsar, and the numerous awards received for quality and variety at international exhibitions between 1874 and 1897. The back of the bottle features the inscription “SUPPLIER TO THE IMPERIAL COURT, PETER ARSENTEVICH SMIRNOV”

Vodka, derived from the Slavonic word for water, voda, acquired a particular status living up to this root meaning. It has been said that vodka was “the elixir of life, the living water” of the Russian people, becoming both socially and economically vital.

The blue glass of the bottle plays on these water references, perhaps intending to speak to the superior purity former serf Pyotr Smirnov sought when he began distilling vodka in 1864. The quality of his product, coupled with his marketing genius and the strategic shaping of his personal image, allowed Smirnoff to become Russia’s most prestigious vodka brand. Today, the brand is equally highly regarded in the United States, providing Americans with an elixir of life of superior quality.