The above image by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii depicts a tea weighing station in Russia. The Chakva farm and plant was one of the major suppliers of tea to all parts of the Russian Empire. For many of us, tea is so commonplace that we don’t often think of its impact and origins beyond the fact that most tea comes from China. However, this tiny leaf has quite the story and impact on the Russian cultural landscape. Tea leaves first made their way to Russia by way of Northern China in the mid 1600s via a gift from a Mongol khan to Romanov Tsar Michael I. The 64kgs of tea (called “cha-i” by Russians) brought back to Russia was used to treat Tsar Mikhaylovich for stomach aches, after which it quickly established itself as the drink of the wealthy elites due to its scarcity and expense.
In 1728, the Kyakhta settlement (later city) was established which became the center of the Russian -Chinese tea trade. Through the Kyakhta Treaty of 1727, the Russians agreed to trade furs for Chinese tea. Still, however, tea was much too expensive for the average citizen to drink. It wasn’t until the Trans-Siberian Railway was completed in 1916 that tea was able to be easily transported throughout Russia, causing the price to drop and allowing for widespread availability for all. It was then that Russian tea culture began to take shape. Russians generally prefer a dark tea which is brewed in a device called a Samovar.
In 1900, factories “produced about 630,000 appliances a year” (Delaine, 2000). Tea can be taken with any meal at all times of day and symbolizes “warmth, comfort, and hospitality” (Delaine, 2000). Most Russians enjoy their tea with jam, honey, or sugar to sweeten it. Today, tea is considered to be the de facto national beverage of Russia. Beyond the cultural impact that tea had on the Russian Empire, it also greatly impacted the Russian economy by providing factory jobs for both tea and samovar production. In addition, the trade routes established with China strengthened cultural and economic ties between the two countries.