Since the 17th century, tea has been a staple drink in Russia. In 1638, Tsar Michael Federovich received a gift from a Mongolian ruler – tea. At first, the gift was refused due to a lack of understanding, but after an explanation, tea was accepted and introduced to more of Russia. Following this, Russia agreed on a tea trade with China due to the growth in popularity; however, the cost of importing tea was high so it was only available to royalty and the wealthy. Yet, by the end of the 18th century as transportation and trade improved, the cost of tea decreased and it soon began to spread over the next two centuries, leading to a growth in popularity, and the eventual tea culture that exists in Russia today.
In Russia, чаепитие (tea-time) has become a favored pastime of many. Deeply intertwined with чаепитие is the самовар (samovar). Introduced in 18th century, the samovar was created to heat hot water and brew tea. After its introduction, almost all used it, from peasants to the wealthy, as it was an efficient system to maintain hot water. Furthermore, to many, the samovar is a symbol of Russian tea culture. Nowadays, not all homes use samovar, but it is still a popular item to have.
When it comes to brewing tea (with or without a samovar), Russian tea culture differs slightly from other countries. Often using loose leaf tea, one makes a strong pot of tea that it is then diluted with hot water. Such a practice is likely left over from times when tea was expensive, and a single pot of tea needed to be shared among many people. In addition to a strong pot of tea, Russians often add different herbs (mint or tarragon are popular at my host’s house). Furthermore, when tea is served, often honey, sugar, or lemon are added. On the table, the host often will put out an arrangement of desserts, candy, or other food.
Yet, tea culture in Russia extends past how tea is brewed and served. Instead, the most important aspect is the conversation. Conversation during teatime can range vastly. From gossip to politics, teatime is more than just simple conversation; it can also be deeply personal and often passionate. During my two months in Russia, my host and I often indulged in “чаепитие.” Every evening after dinner, my host asks «будем чай пить?» or “shall we have tea?”. For my host, the answer always needs to be yes. If no, she would assume I was ill and then would make a different kind of tea (because to my host, tea is an answer to many problems). During teatime conversation, my host and I often discussed our days, my classmates, life, and even occasionally memorized poetry. From twenty minutes to several hours, “чаепитие” was one of my favorite times of day because it was always honest.
Thus, in the end, to me, tea became more than just a beverage to drink – it became a window to Russian life and culture.
By: Madeleine McCabe
Program: Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program, St. Petersburg, Russia
Term: Spring 2020