This has been bugging me since I first got here, because I don't like not knowing how things work. I first saw a Russian stove in the Volkonsky's home in Irkutsk - it is a massive thing that goes right through the centre of the house, so that its corners stick out into multiple rooms.
|So... I'm not the world's best photographer, but the big white thing is part of the stove.|
The stove is designed to solve Russia's biggest problem, i.e. that it gets a bit nippy in winter. So how do you heat a building using the minimum amount of fuel and fuss? As you know, the problems with open fires are two fold; firstly, most of the heat goes out the chimney and is wasted; and secondly, feeding the fire is a full time job. A Russian stove gets around this by channeling the hot air through a labyrinth of brick passages in the stove. The heat is transferred to the bricks, effectively creating a heated wall in one part of the room. The bricks stay hot for a long time and radiate heat at a lower temperature than say, metal would, so you don't need to constantly feed the stove. In fact, you only need to fuel it twice a day. There is little smoke generated because the fire in the stove is so hot - hot enough the turn iron red. According to russianstove.com (yes, there is such a place, and it claims to be the most interesting page on the web), the stove has an effective range of 20 feet. The only downside is that you might kill yourself with carbon monoxide, so you first have to open all the dampers (little doors on the stove separate from the main door for fuel) to let enough air in to burn the wood down to coals with no blue flame showing, and only then shut them all and go about your normal business.
Of course, bricks take hours to heat up, so this type of heating is only suitable for climates where you are going to need to continually heat a space for a very long time. Like say, from November to April.
Traditionally, there might be a bed above the stove called a лежанка (as in "приятно думать у лежанки"), and in peasant houses people used to take baths inside them, because they made their stoves big enough to fit a grown man inside. This is a bit too much like Hansel and Gretel for my taste, but maybe I am just paranoid.