It’s difficult to imagine anything more sacred to a Russian peasant’s household than their stove. Massive, sometimes the size of half the house, the stove - or petch - was akin to a house within a house. They used it for making food, for heating the house, storing dishes, drying clothes and even to give birth on (and die on) - and, in certain regions, it even functioned as a bath. Last, but not least, it would also be used for sleeping on.
The stove was the most coveted sleeping area in the house. Not everyone in the family had access.
The stove wasn’t always used for sleeping on. At first, in the 8th-13th centuries, the device was heated “black”, meaning there was no chimney, with the smoke exiting only through the door or the small windows underneath the ceiling. But, by the 15th-16th centuries, with the appearance of fire-resistant bricks, stoves got their first pipes, leading to new functionality.
Russia, Nizhny Novgorod Region, 1996.Moshkov Nikolay/TASS
The entire construction of the stove served one common aim - to make the most effective use of the heat. Therefore, the long cold winters that Russia is so famous for, could only be survived thanks to the stove’s design: even during the most bitter winter frost, it could maintain a warm temperature in the house on a single fire throughout the day. Its walls were 25-40 centimeters thick, which ensured effective and equal heat accumulation and spread. Even if a fire was started during the day, the stove would stay warm until evening.
The place for laying on was called the perekryshka. It was the top layer of brick, just under the ceiling, which stored all the heat from within. That space would be fashioned with all manner of cloth and blankets to make a sleeping spot. A person would also be able to sit atop it, with just enough headroom. In winter, with regular fire maintenance, the temperature would stay at a comfortable 25-27 C.
Laying atop the perekryshka - the warmest and comfiest of places - was a privilege, not a right. First of all, you couldn’t really fit a whole family there: a typical family had many children. The size of the biggest perekryshka on record could maybe fit five-six people. But, for the most part, one could only fit two people at a time.
The place was usually intended for the most respected or senior family member - the head of the family, or an elderly person. It would also be used for taking care of the sick, as it was considered to have healing properties. Premature infants would also be taken care of there.
All other family members could only use the top area at others’ discretion, while themselves sleeping on the so-called polati - special shelves sandwiched between the stove and the walls. Polati (which is related to the modern Russian word for “shelf” - polka/polki) were also quite warm, although not as comfortable as the coveted perekryshka.
Russian stoves were an expensive luxury, and quite complicated in design. Therefore, as soon as a more compact alternative appeared, they began to be a thing of the past. This process began sometime in the mid-19th century, when the Russian household started getting more compact, brick-based Dutch ovens. You couldn’t sleep on one, but they were much easier to maintain.
One can still catch a glimpse of the old-style Russian stove in some villages and settlements.
Meanwhile, some people - although very rarely - still go through the trouble of installing one in their homes, albeit more modern, but still stylized to look like the ones in the days of old.
The average price for such a contraption, as in the past, is quite high - a small classic model will cost you 80,000-210,000 rubles (approx. $1,000-1,600), while the price of a more complex model, including a chimney and ladder, can reach upwards of 700,000 ($9,300). And owners of these do claim to still use them for sleeping, believe it or not!
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