THE DISTINCTIVE FORM of the Russian drinking vessel known as the kovsh dates back thousands of years. The earliest kovshi were crafted of wood, though not surprisingly, Ivan the Terrible's personal kovsh was cast of solid gold. These vessels were used to hold mead (honey wine), kvass (a brew fermented from black bread), and braga (a light beer). Kovshi came in many different sizes, the largest of which could be nearly 2 feet in length and hold up to 2 or 3 vedros (each vedro, or bucket, equaled two and a half gallons). Small, individual-sized kovshi served as dippers for ladling the drink from a large kovsh. For presentation, the kovsh handles were often hooked decoratively along the edges, the way punchbowls and cups are sometimes displayed in our own times.
The art of making kovshi found its greatest expression in seventeenth-century Russia. The wooden vessels were beautifully painted, most often with forms from nature--tendrils, flowers, and berries. Many also had abstract decorations carved right into the wood. Until the late seventeenth century, the kovsh was a largely utilitarian object, but then it became a token of merit or remembrance. Such kovshi generally exhibited the tsarist double-headed eagle and included an inscription to the recipient. A family might present a kovsh to the Church na pomin dushi, to ensure that a deceased loved one would be remembered and prayed for. These more lavish vessels were often encrusted with precious stones.
In the early eighteenth century, under Peter the Great's westernizing reforms, Russia's age-old drinking vessels began to give way to European forms such as goblets and shot glasses. Traditional vessels like the kovsh, charka, kubok, and stopa that the Russians had used for centuries gradually fell out of use, a process accelerated in the nineteenth century by the rise in metal, porcelain, glass and earthenware production. However, during the late-nineteenth-century Slavic Revival, the kovsh and other old forms of decorative art once again found a place on the table. These kovsbi were made of metal, often elaborately decorated with hammering or chasing, or covered with cloissonne or niello.
The traditional kovsh has a flat bottom and most often appears in the shape of a bird or waterfowl, with either one handle (representing the head) or two (representing head and tail feathers, in which case it is known as a skopar). The avian shape reflects the Russians' kinship with nature. Ducks were seen as a link among the heavenly, earthly, and underground realms, since they live on the earth, fly in the sky, and swim in the water (which leads to the underworld). In pagan mythology ducks, geese and swans pulled the chariot …