Following the collapse of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991, Soviet historical and cultural items that were virtually unheard of before the collapse were made known to collectors in the United States. Hundreds of Russian-made collectibles flooded Internet sites, and podstakannik quickly became one of the more interesting and sought after Russian collectibles.
Podstakannik literally means “a thing under the glass.” The glass is a drinking glass, stakan, of tea, and the thing under it, the podstakannik, is an open-bottomed silver or gold-plated tea glass holder that has an attached handle.
Alexander III, Russian Emperor who ascended the throne in 1881, made the use of podstakannik fashionable in Russia. Alexander, like many Russians, drank extremely hot tea to ward off the chills of Russian winters, and podstakannik’s primary purpose was to hold very hot cups of tea, protecting both the hand of the drinker and the table’s surface.
Just as sterling silver cigarette holders gave cigarettes an air of sophistication, so too podstakannik gave Russian tea drinkers a sophisticated air since it was definitely a practical but fashionable accessory.
Aristocracy and royalty used sterling silver and gold-plated podstakannik while common people drank their tea from podstakannik formed from common metals such as nickel or brass.
Since podstakannik tea holders were born for the aristocracy and evolved into an elitist tableware item, they quickly became miniature works of art. Many podstakannik holders have intricate designs cut into the metal, depicting famous people, architecture, history, cities, and other Soviet-era items, making the holders both socially and historically collectible. Collectors readily search for podstakanniks that bear Soviet propaganda symbols, such as hammers and sickles.
Not surprisingly, podstakannik as utilitarian drinking utensils were not practical since extremely hot tea heated the silver podstakannik and often the holder became too hot to hold, which is why handles were first attached, allowing the drinker to hold the podstakannik without touching it.
Podstakannik usage quickly grew in Russia. In the early 20th century, after Russia became the Soviet Union, podstakannik use became the fashion on trains since holders helped keep tea glasses from rocking and spilling in dining cars and sleeping cars where bare glasses might spill or fall and break, scalding passengers.
Nearly all podstakannik tea holders, at least authentic ones, were made in a factory in Kolchugino, Vladimir Oblast. The holders were made from nickel, silver, gold plated, and cupronickel, and the factory continues to produce the holders today.
Today’s cost for vintage podstakannik on secondary markets often seems too staggering for novice collectors. Gold plated holders run thousands of dollars, and sterling silver podstakannik often sell for $1,500 or more, even brass podstakannik are expensive. I recently saw a brass podstakannik with a depiction of Putin on the holder offered on eBay for $160. Enamel inlay podstakannik are beautiful, but expect to pay $2,000 or more for an antique holder with cloisonné inlay—beauty has its price.
The fashion of drinking tea from a podstakannik continued for nearly 100 years, until the 1960s, when Western influence began to change Russian traditions.
Today, podstakannik are collected by Russian families as souvenirs of a time gone by and as family heirlooms; however, it remains the “traditional” way of drinking tea in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, so new podstakannik are still being manufactured.