Epiphany in the Orthodox Church falls later than that of the Western Churches (6th January) due to the different calendars that have been used by the two churches. In the Russian Orthodox Church, Epiphany (also called the Theophany) on 19th January.
Epiphany marks the day when the Three Wise Men visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. As the wise men, or kings, carried gifts, in some Christian cultures presents are exchanged at Epiphany rather than on Christmas Day - for example, in Catholic Spain.
In Russia, some Orthodox Christians celebrate Epiphany by going for a swim in the freezing waters of their nearest lake or river. A hole, sometimes in the shape of a cross, is cut in the ice, and believers take a quick plunge to cleanse themselves spiritually in preparation for the year ahead.
Tolstoy had a serious gambling problem in his youth. Far from being unusual, such a problem was accepted as almost inevitable for a young man from an aristocratic background, although Tolstoy's habit was considered extravagant, even by the standards of the day. In order to make good these debts of honour Tolstoy was repeatedly forced to sell parts of his inheritance - which involved selling both land and the serfs who worked it. At one point he lost so much at cards he was forced to sell the grand old house at Yasnaya Polyana, his family's estate, to a neighbour. His neighbour took the house apart and moved it to his own land (where it has not survived). The shame of losing his house this way stayed with Tolstoy for the rest of his life.
Tolstoy is using Pierre as a mouthpiece for the sort of philosophical questions that he himself struggled with all his life. At this point Pierre is an example of the superfluous man.
In Russian nineteenth century literature, the 'superfluous man' developed as an important literary figure. Superfluous men struggled to find a place in life, or a point to their existence. They are idealists, incapable of decisive action, and are instead given to much Romantic moping and philosophical musing. The earliest example in Russian literature was Pushkin's Eugene Onegin; Turgenev went on to make the form explicit in his Diary of a Superfluous Man. Ivan Goncharov took the idea to extremes in Oblomov, when he created a character so passive and superfluous it takes him about fifty pages to get out of bed. There is a political as well as a psychological point behind the superfluous man, which is to question the health of a society that turns young, intelligent men into useless outcasts. The superfluous men are the ancestors of the angry, radical intelligentsia who appear in later literature. Turgenev's Bazarov in Fathers and Sons can be seen as a kind of hybrid between these two types.
It was common for books to have pages that were left 'uncut'; the first reader of the volume would keep a paper knife handy to separate the pages as they read.
A samovar is a kind of container used for heating water. It plays an important part in Russian life. Samovars are made out of metal, and are often decorated. Extremely strong tea is brewed in a teapot then poured into a cup; hot water is then added from the tap on the samovar to dilute the tea to the desired strength. Often samovars have a teapot stand on top to keep the teapot warm. They are traditionally heated with charcoal or coal, although modern samovars use electricity.
Samovars are used across Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East, in countries with strong tea-drinking traditions. Russia's traditional tea is called 'Russian Caravan', a type of black tea. It was carried across Central Asia in merchant caravans, and their evening campfires imbued the tea with a distinctive smoky taste. Nowadays this flavour is usually achieved by mixing small amounts of Lapsang Souchon into the blend.
In Russia, tea is usually served in a glass tumbler rather than a china cup or mug. The tumbler is placed in a metal cup holder, which is often elaborately decorated. Sugar was often taken with tea by holding a piece in the mouth and sucking the tea through it to sweeten it; this habit has since died out.
The Freemasons are a not-particularly-secret society who emerged in Europe around the beginning of the seventeenth century. The society involves a moral code that is evoked through the symbolism of stonemasonry, where God, or the Supreme Being, is seen as the 'Architect' of the universe. Meetings of Freemasons are highly ritualised events. The value of these rituals and allegories lies in their cabalistic nature. As the knowledge must be protected from outsiders in order to retain its value, complex and ever-changing secret passwords and handshakes ('signs', 'grips' and 'tokens') were developed among Freemasons to identify themselves to each other.