Russians started drinking it before the English did. Stalin, Tolstoy and Pushkin called it their favorite drink. 94% of Russians drink it everyday. And it’s not vodka. It’s tea! It primarily arrived in Russia in 1638, a present to tsar Mikhail Fedorovich, the first of the Romanov dynasty. Mikhail was often ill and he received it as a present from the Mongol Khan through his ambassador. The Khan said that it had medicinal effects. Mikhail didn’t like the bitter tea. Maybe that’s why he didn’t live long, should have drunk it. Like his son, Alexey Mikhailovich, who drank the tea and it helped his stomach issues. Rumors of the weed that saved the tsar quickly spread among the upper classes, drawing attention to the drink. For another 100 years tea would remain a luxury. Delivery was scarce and it was mainly imported from England because the established direct trade with China before Russia did. Russian merchants were scared to transfer goods from China through Central Asia because it just joined the Russian Empire and it wasn’t safe. Only in 1769 Russian and China strike a deal on Chinese goods and tea imports. Around that time China becomes very fashionable among the upper classes. During the times post – Peter the Great, when women were sitting on the throne, China became very fashionable. In most European palaces tea pavilions began to appear in the gardens, as well as tea rooms. Obviously the Russian elite kept the close eye on what was popular in Europe. Empress Catherine the Great had a whole Chinese palace,
Obviously the Russian elite kept the close eye on what was popular in Europe. Empress Catherine the Great had a whole Chinese palace, while the main palace of Peterhof still has two Chinese rooms on display. The Chinese tea ceremony didn’t work for Russians who were used to larger portions of hot drinks. So Russian craftsmen adapted a special vessel traditionally used for the Russian hot drink – “sbiten”, made of honey and herbs. This is how the samovar was born. The original sbitennik would keep the honey drink warm enough for the honey to stay liquid. It sort of looked like a tea pot with an internal pipe for coal. The same principals were used to create the samovar. The first people to start mass production of samovars were brothers Ivan and Nazar Lisitsyn from Tula, in 1778. In the 18th century tea was extremely expensive: tens and hundreds of rubles – in those days those were huge sums of money. A pack of a certain brand of Chinese white tea, weighing, say, 200 grams and wrapped in original Chinese packaging cost 200 rubles. Basically, a ruble per gram – and that wasn’t even the top price. Tea was so expensive because it was delivered to Russia via camel caravans and a round Beijing – Moscow trip took three years. It was a luxury and was only accessible to the upper classes. This is why the tea samovar also became a display of wealth with rich 18th century families often owning several. There was a daily samovar, in which water was boiled for technical needs: to wash the dishes, legs, hands… There was a samovar for making tea, which was often cleaned. And there was a ceremonial samovar. It was usually put in the prominent place and acted as an attribute of status – nothing more. The 19th century brought about new trade routes connecting China with Moscow or Odessa. This brought prices down significantly. Old travel routes lied through Mongolia, then through Irkutsk and Tomsk or Central Asia. The mountains, steppes and deserts route took three years. The sea trade-line to Vladivostok was not much faster. But after building essential parts of the Transsiberian in 1904 this route will take several weeks. The alternative sea way was cheaper. It passed India and Africa bringing tea to European ports. After the Suez canal was launched in 1869, the Russian Empire used it to import tea into Odessa via the Turkish Straits. Transport costs went down and so did the price of tea. By the end of the 19th century tea would become as inexpensive as carrots or onions. In general tea became available to the majority of the population somewhere in the middle of the 19th century. Moreover, in the late 19th century – early 20th century, tea was distributed free of charge as an aid to the poor. These first aid kits for the poorest population included a small bag of tea, a small bag of dirty unrefined sugar with molasses and a loaf of bread. It was believed that this was quite enough for a person to live a day. By the end of the 19th century a home without a samovar was a sign of extreme poverty. Paintings and family photographs of that time often depict the family having tea with the samovar as the centerpiece. After the revolution of 1917, Soviet Russia went almost tea-total. Authorities were against alcohol consumption providing tea for free to the army and factories. The quality of that tea left much to be desired. Premium Chinese tea was only imported for the ruling elite. Most of the population was reduced to a mix of Georgian tea leaves with those from Sri Lanka and India with just a third of the mix coming from India. The Soviet Union had three areas that boasted a climate suitable for growing tea: Georgia, Azerbaijan and Krasnodar. Georgian plantations were the best because Chinese tea plants were brought there before the revolution. In Soviet times people didn’t like pure Georgian tea. They called it “tea with caterpillars” because it tasted bad. It was harvested by machine. It was a special machine that cut the tea bush, molded it, then collected this leaf all rough, mixed with dirty raw materials, with caterpillars. And all this raw material was then sent to the tea factory and processed as quickly as possible. Those who were born in the USSR still remember the “Elephant Tea” an Indian tea that was carefully preserved for special occasions. It was lovingly nicknamed “Indian road dust” for being so dry and thin. Russians are firmly set in the Top-10 tea drinking countries around the world, drinking some 1.3 kg of tea per capita annually. 94% of Russians drink tea every day with the majority – 86% – choosing black tea. We still enjoy our large cups of tea but have switched from samovars to electric kettles and hot water dispensers. – What would you like, Frosya?
– I’ll just have some tea, 6 cups. – My mom and I always drink tea with raspberry jam after the banya. – Or maybe only 5 cups. For Russians tea is more than just a drink. It’s a tradition. We bond over tea with family, ponder life’s miracles over a cup on our own, drink it during business meetings and also after every meal. Tea is sacred for Russians. My dad even calls it “a lubricant for the soul”. Discussing the meaning of life, while drinking tea in the kitchen until the dead of night is one of the most important parts to the Russian culture. “Would you like some tea?” – a common first question to anyone entering a Russian home. – Please, comrade Pechkin, have a seat. Scary internet statistics place Russia on top when it comes to vodka consumption. But once you do the math, you can see that while Russians do drink a lot of vodka, consuming 8.3 liters of vodka per capita per year. they drink much more tea with 137 liters of tea per capita per year. Chai wins! Here’s a fun fact for you – Russians can get high even on tea. Chifir was invented in Soviet detention facilities where alcohol was nowhere to be found. Very strong tea is brewed so that the caffeine breaks down into adenine and guanine. This does not happen during traditional tea-making. One sip will be as strong as a shot of vodka. The heart starts racing, you become dizzy end euphoric. However we strongly don’t recommend trying chifir, it causes severe vomiting as a side effect. But now you know how to be a tea-totaler with a twist.