In his landlady’s sitting room, a pair of Polish cartographers were having a quiet, earnest argument on the ornate French sofa. They’d kept most of the lamps burning, so he left them to their latitudes and curled up on the ceramic stove to delve into the Yekaterinburg translation.

My friends, this is a post that starts out depressing and becomes snuggly and cheerful.

Close to ten years ago, I read Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, which depicts the lives and deaths of the impoverished residents of an overcrowded shelter. This play is a brutal indictment of Gorky’s Russia, of the state’s empty promises and the ugly little wars waged between and within social classes; it’s not hard at all to see the seeds of revolution in it. Perhaps because The Lower Depths is a play rather than a novel, the characters struck me more keenly than  Dickens’s or even Dostoevsky’s — Gorky’s characters have a visceral immediacy to them, an urgency that comes through even in translation. I came away from my first reading with the feeling of having transgressed on real people’s lives — as though I’d been a kind of voyeur, watching poverty porn through a peephole.

Long after I’d finished, one image in particular haunted me. The Actor, the stage directions note, is privileged to be allowed to sleep on top of the stove. In my American ignorance, I was horrified — I pictured him perched atop a little potbellied stove, curled up like a cat, so grateful for the warmth that he ignored the way his big limbs spilled over in all directions. How much must they be suffering, I wondered, if that’s supposed to be a privilege?

Years later, buried under an Upstate New York snowstorm, I remembered the Actor and his stove. By that point in the winter, I was spending most of my evenings draped over the bare ribs of my radiator, and the whole stove thing no longer sounded so far-fetched. Thus, I set out to learn more about why Russians slept on stoves.

 

The answer is apparently “because they were obscenely comfy.”

The ceramic stove (or pech’) is a sister to the German kachelofen and the Finnish kaakeliuuni or tulikivi, and close kin to the Japanese kotatsu. Its larger purpose is to warm the home, but it also serves as a status symbol and as a place for relaxation.

A spectacular example of a tile-covered Russian stove, in the peasant style with a space for sleeping on top. See more about these tiles and stoves below.

Image Source: The Blog of Portrait Artist & Writer Anne Bobroff-Hajal

In the nineteenth century, the ceramic stove was a central part of the ideal Russian home. Especially in upper-class households, these massive stoves were often beautiful and ornate, with gleaming fixtures and glazed tiles in a multitude of attractive colors. They were frequently designed to include seating or beds, allowing the residents and their guests to sleep or converse in comfort.

Изразцовая печь в Княжьем тереме. Ростов Великий. 1911 г.
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Image Source: From Russia with Love

Even the most workaday ceramic stoves were efficient heating sources for the household. Some sources say that a single tree could heat an entire house through a long, cold winter.