Tea in a Time of War


In a theater last week I encountered a very poignant example of tea as cultural signifier. First a little background: The film, Katyń, by Andrej Wayda is about the massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers in the Katyń Forest in 1940. In the late stages of World War II both the Nazis and the Soviets produced propaganda films describing the massacre as a crime committed by the other. Until 1990 it was almost universally believed that Germany had been responsible, but ultimately evidence was revealed that corrected the historical record to show that the men were executed under an order by Stalin. Some of the Poles who had family members killed at Katyń knew or suspected the truth, but under the rule of the USSR they had no opportunity to speak.

The importance of retaining Polish identity and traditions is a running theme throughout the film, but it was particularly effective in a scene involving tea. The relevant scene in the film takes place some time before the massacre, shortly after Germany and the Soviet Union, through the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (also called the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact), simultaneously invaded Poland from opposing sides. Immediately following this invasion, thousands of Polish officers were taken as prisoners. This scene takes place a couple of months after their capture, but some months prior to the massacre. The families of these officers waited for news, and expected that the men would be released.

The scene begins when a Soviet officer – one of the other occupants of a home where Ann, the wife of one of these captive officers has taken refuge with her sister, her child, and her sister’s child – brings a large samovar into the room where the two women and their children are staying. He tells them that the samovar may be able to give them some comfort. They look, but no movement is made toward it.

He then asks that Ann go with him into the other room. She does, and on the table in this other room are two traditional Russian tea glasses filled with tea: podstakannik (ornate metal holders with handles), with glass inserts. The officer speaks of the tea and laments that it has grown cold. He then entreats Ann to marry him, advising her that as the wife of a Soviet officer she will be safe, whereas her current status as wife of an imprisoned Polish officer places her in a perilous position with the occupying Russian forces. She refuses his offer, emphasizing that her husband is still alive. But her rejection is far bigger than the choice of one man over another – it is the choice to retain her Polish identity.

In a simultaneous decision which reveals much more than a refusal of hospitality, Ann does not drink the tea on the table. The glasses remain untouched during the entire scene. The significance of this act is in her refusal to embrace Soviet culture, even at the expense of her own personal safety. Just moments later the danger becomes imminent, as Soviet soldiers come to the house with a warrant for the arrest of the two Polish officer’s wives. Ann is able to evade capture, but she does so by hiding, not by embracing the culture of the Soviets. In a later scene Ann is seen drinking a cup of tea with her mother-in-law – from an English-style bone china cup and saucer, which is typical of how Poles traditionally enjoy their tea. Her refusal of the officer’s tea in the earlier scene is not rejection of tea itself, but of the essentially Russian trappings around the particular tea offered her by the Russian officer.

I doubt that anyone questions the deep cultural significance that the samovar has taken on for the Russian people.The same basic type of brass samovar is also used in Turkey, Iran, Israel and Afghanistan, but nowhere else is it quite as much an icon of national identity. It was important in Tsarist Russia, to the Soviet Union, and remains not just an important appliance for the preparation of tea, but also as a symbol of Russia herself, throughout several centuries.

podstakannikThe podstakannik is also quite an important tea-related object in Russian culture. The distinctive combination of holder and crystal glass is perhaps less recognizable to people outside of Russia than the blue and white of Lomonosov Porcelain, but the tradition of using glasses instead of cups and saucers is very Russian. Note: The following excerpt from the source referenced above uses the term “coaster” to refer to the podstakannik.

“Apart from fulfilling its purely utilitarian functions, the coaster, especially one made of silver, began to play the role of an object that made the man’s daily life more attractive. In this respect it can be compared to the cigarette-case, which likewise became widespread since the 19th century. Both are related to each other by the use of the same materials during the manufacture (precious and nonprecious metals), working techniques (casting, stamping, filigree), stylistic features of ornamentation and a very significant point – the items’democratic nature: the coaster, just like the cigarette-case, could be seen in the hands of an aristocrat, official, serviceman, merchant, boss or his subordinate, professor and student. A silver coaster and a cigarettecase alike belonged to the most sought-after gifts. Colleagues gave them as presents to their fellow workers, patients handed them over to doctors, students presented them to teachers, relatives got them as keepsakes during family feasts; such gifts were also made to close friends or beloved men.”

And adding even a little more weight to the premise that tea holds great cultural significance to Russians:

“We can even assume that the podstakannik was invented by Russians. This is proven not only by the tradition of endless Russian tea parties, which are not regulated by the fixed time or rituals, but also by the fact that the glass coaster as a subject of the tea table laying pattern very rarely occurs worldwide in special collections or reference sources. As for Russia, all is different. You can see the great-grandfather’s coaster in many families despite all ups and downs of the Russian history of the past century marked by interminable displacements of popular masses along vast expanses as a result of wars, forced resettlements and development of new regions. The cherished tea glass coaster remained a symbol of the sweet home, stability of daily life, and inviolability of the kinship relations.”

Any objects and traditions of national/cultural identity can be used as a means of suppressing other national/cultural identities and traditions, and tea can be an important element of this. I am incapable of viewing any specific preparation of and/or consumption of tea without reading great cultural import into it. Tea culture is only one of an enormous range of aspects of culture laden with significance, but obviously it is one that I find particularly interesting.

A coincidence involving the tea-culture observation in the film was that I had been reading about Russian tea traditions earlier that day, mostly about samovars, but also including the use of podstakannik in homes and on trains. So I was particularly attuned to the significance and particularities of the Russian ways of tea.

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  1. I enjoy my podstakanniki for the very simple reasons that they have a rather masculine character, and that they are unusual enough that they don’t carry any cultural baggage with them. Oh: and they never spill.

    As an American who drinks tea, I am operating against a cultural bias that views this as rather a weak or even effeminate affectation, which is evidenced by the English-style, delicate porcelain with dainty flowers; and doilies; and afternoon teas with petit-fours and watercress sandwiches on crustless white bread. Formal manners, monacles, and raised pinkies can’t be far behind. Overcoming this preconception is necessary, I think, before the average American man would bother drinking tea.

    My Russian teacups are what I use to drink practically all of my tea, unless the glasses are in the wash.

    • I have no tolerance for the pastels, floral patterns and doilies aesthetic myself (which might be obvious to anyone who reads me), and I have even less patience with the association of delicate femininity with tea. I can’t even stomach the thought of using a tea cozy.

      So I am entirely in support of subverting those associations through more masculine tea wares, so I applaud your efforts. Plus the podstakanniki must be pretty damned well-designed since they were used on trains.

      • If you look in my kitchen, you’d see such a hodgepodge of tea things. Perhaps it’s because (again, being an American male) it feels like an affectation to completely adopt a British tea style, as much as it would for me to put on kimono and immerse myself entirely inside the Japanese tradition.