Every tea drinking country seems to have an interesting history with tea. As the recent Olympics and Sochi fade from view, it is worth remembering that few countries have traveled a more interesting path to tea than Russia. The geography, the cultural differences, politics, and economics made it particularly challenging for Russia to adopt tea as their national temperate drink. Ultimately, tea prevailed.
The awareness of tea and trading in general between Russia and China began in fits and starts in the early 17th century. Cossack Ivan Petlin was the first envoy to make direct contact with Bejing, yet the letter he carried with him on the return journey – from the Chinese emperor offering trade between the two regions – went unanswered for over 50 years because there was nobody in Russia who could read Chinese. A subsequent official who traveled to China, c.1658, stole the imperial gift of tea that was offered and sold it before leaving Bejing – for jewelry. Indeed, the first Russian caravans in the early 18th century that traveled to Bejing for trade did not return with tea as one of the prized goods from China. Finally, by the 1727 Treaty of Kyakhta – which formalized trading outposts and other arrangements – Russia had developed a taste for black tea. By mid-century, large volumes of tea were crossing the border from China into Russia. If disagreements between the two countries erupted, tea stocks were filled by trading with Dutch and English merchants.
While trading or beginning to produce tea within a country establishes the supply, it is the layering of local customs and tea drinking habits that create the demand. In Russia, the creation of the samovar was critical to the embracing of tea in every level of society from Russian royalty to modest peasant homes. Many times the samovar became a symbol of the relative wealth of a family by enhancing the samovar with ostentatious ornamentation and a variety of metals, jewels, engravings and decorative enamelwork. Functionally, the samovar held heated water in the larger lower body of the vessel while on the top a small teapot contained concentrated brewed tea. Tea was drunk by adding a small amount of tea concentrate to the cup and then using the spigot below to dilute the tea with hot water to the preferred strength.
In the 1890’s Russia took steps to change from being just an importer of teas to becoming a tea producing country. In 1893 the first tea garden was established in Georgia and from there tea cultivation spread southeast into Turkey. The preference for a strong black tea and the use of a samovar type of device spread from Russia to Turkey and other Persian countries of the Middle East.
This snapshot of the history of tea drinking in Russia is barely an introduction. For those with an interest in tea, culture, and history there are many sources available in print and online. One of our favorites – which inspired this post – is The True History of Tea.
Main image provided by contributor. IMAGE 1:
You can find lots of samovar-ready teas here.