Olympics, Controversies, and the Mysteries of Soviet Tea Glass Holders

   As the 2018 Winter Olympics closed in South Korea on Sunday night, my mind wandered to the artefact collection at Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV). This connection might not be one most people would naturally make, so let me explain...

   In 2016, Roland Sawatzky, Curator of History at the Manitoba Museum and MHV’s former Senior Curator, spotted a set of six metal tea glass holders (also called “Podstakannik”) at a sale at First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg. Noting their unique style and obvious roots in the Soviet Union, he donated them to the artefact collection at MHV. This is where our story begins.

   Although they have earlier roots, glass holders took on a new kind of significance during the Soviet era. Tea in Russia was often served in glasses rather than cups. To provide stability and enable a tea drinker to enjoy the beverage comfortably without touching the hot glass, holders with handles were designed, into which the tea glass was inserted.

   During the Soviet era, these tea glass holders, and the prominent cultural place they occupied in Soviet society, were used by the Soviet government as prime advertising space. All six of the Podstakannik in the Sawatzky donation showcase various achievements of the Soviet era.

   All of them feature a design of grapes and foliage stamped onto the silver-plated copper and nickel alloy. The fronts of four out of the six depict an image of a globe above a branch with leaves on the left and a satellite on the right. In the centre of the globe is the Kremlin, with satellites (including the famous Sputnik 1) shooting upwards towards a crescent moon. The front of another of the glass holders features the image of the Soviet hammer and sickle in front of a building with light beams crisscrossing the sky.

   It is the sixth and final Podstakannik which connected this year’s Olympics and its related controversies to MHV’s artefact collection. The front of this one features the prominent image of the Olympic rings in front of the iconic Olympic torch. Above this there are a star and a flag bearing the year 1980. That was the year Moscow hosted the Summer Olympics and another year of Olympic controversy involving Russia, characterized perhaps most memorably by the US-led boycott of the games as a protest against the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

   Although their history contains some gaps, we do know that the tea glass holders residing at MHV belonged to Heinrich Hamm, whose family was a part of the “Great Trek” out of the Soviet Union in 1943-1945. While they made it to Germany and received permission to immigrate to Canada, the family’s history states that Heinrich and his older brother Woldemar were separated from their parents as they were getting ready to board the ship, ready to emigrate.  Woldemar was shot and Heinrich was captured by the Soviets and shipped off to Siberia, where he was forced to work in a gold mine. He was finally able to come to Canada in 1965.

   The mystery about these tea glass holders is how they came to be in Heinrich’s possession. From analyzing the design on the four holders celebrating the space achievements of the Soviet Union, we can assume that they could have been manufactured as early as the late 1950s. It would therefore be feasible that Heinrich could have had them in his possession when he came to Canada. Others, however, like the one decorated with the 1980 Olympic rings, was clearly produced long after he left the Soviet Union. We can only guess that perhaps he received this Podstakannik (or even all of them, for that matter) from friends still living in the Soviet Union. Some artefacts don’t give away their secrets that easily.

   These six artefacts have been in MHV’s collection for over two years now, but what brought them to our attention again recently was an unsolicited package we received in the mail a few weeks back. The package contained two tea glass holders with the identical space-themed design as the four in the 2016 Sawatzky donation. What makes these two unique, however, is that they came in their original, mint-condition packaging. Additionally, one of the boxes included a small slip of paper, a type of “Certificate of Authenticity,” also in pristine condition. The certificate indicates that the glass holders were produced as limited editions and that the item inside the box was #411 and was purchased in 1986. While these artefacts still require more research, their addition to the collection helps contextualize the earlier tea glass holders from the Sawatzky donation and help us better understand some of these modern artefacts.

   As a side note, we generally prefer not to receive artefacts  without prior consultation (as in the case above). It is usually a very complicated process to connect with the legal owners, and we need to get a history of the object in order to know if it would fit in our collection. So if you have something you would like us to consider for our museum’s collection, please give us a call and ask to speak to one of the curators. We would be more than happy to discuss your object with you.

Calendar of Events

March 4, 7:00 PM – Vespers Service

March 30 - Closed for Good Friday

May 1 - Opening day for the Livery Barn Restaurant and the Outdoor Village

Image Caption:

Three of the tea glass holders in MHV’s collection. On the left is the one from the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow and on the right, the one with the Soviet hammer and sickle (both from the 2016 Sawatzky donation). In the centre is one of the space-themed tea glass holders, with its original packaging, which recently arrived at MHV.

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About the Author

Barry is the Executive Director of the Mennonite Heritage Village. While he does not consider himself to be a historian, he places a high value on the preservation and interpretation of the Mennonite and pioneer stories that help people of all ages understand and appreciate their heritage. Learn more about the MHV.

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