Tea first came to Russia by camel caravan in the first half of the 17th century, when in 1638 Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich received tea leaves as a gift from a Mongol ruler. The difficulty of the caravan journey, as well as high Russian tariffs, meant that tea was initially very expensive and was only enjoyed by Russian royalty and the wealthiest members of aristocracy. It was not until the mid-19th century that Russian merchants were permitted to import tea by ship from Canton, which allowed prices to fall and imports to rise. A significant tea culture gradually emerged among all classes of Russian society, where tea was considered a sign of hospitality, taken with family and guests in the form of a tea-drinking gathering known as chai-pitie.
Of central importance to the Russian tea ceremony is the samovar, a heated metal container used to boil and dispense water for the teapot. Tea is steeped in a small teapot for a very long time to create a highly concentrated brew, known as zavarka. The brew is diluted in a cup with freshly boiled water from the samovar, and taken with sweeteners such as jam and honey, or drunk with a sugar cube held in the mouth. The chimney on this silver samovar is a common feature, on which the teapot is placed to keep it warm. As the central gathering point in the 19th century Russian home, samovars reflected the social status and wealth of their owners, and were made from precious metals of intricate workmanship, as well as cheaper materials with painted decoration. This samovar has an inscription in Swedish on the back reading ‘Minne fran Petrograd’ (‘Greetings from Petrograd’).