From matcha of Japan to high tea in England, tea ceremonies have become recognized as an act of hospitality that carries cultural significance around the world. The origins of the drink are shrouded in legend, with most stories hailing from India or China. For a drink grown in relatively few countries, tea has traveled far. It should be noted that the drink alone does not constitute ‘tea culture’, and depending on the culture in question, consumption is frequently accompanied by incense and meditation, or by sweet treats.
One of the most revered tea ceremonies in the world is that of the Russian tea ceremony. The favorite drink of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Stalin, tea is an inextricable part of Russian culture – and is more popular than vodka, with 94% of Russians drinking tea every day. Russian tea drinking is a highly social activity, centered around the samovar.
What is a Samovar?
The samovar is a container used to boil water and keep it hot, with a smaller teapot that fits neatly on the top. It is said that the samovar was invented because, although Russia was keen to follow the example set by the Chinese tea ceremony, the Russian appetite for tea was so great that they required a larger vessel.
Although modern samovars tend to be electric, an antique samovar would traditionally comprise a large metal urn with a tap close to the bottom of the vessel, along with a metal pipe running through the center from top to bottom. The pipe would be filled with burning fuel, such as wood or charcoal, which heats the water that surrounds it. A small chimney would be placed on the top to allow smoke to escape.
Origins of the Russian Samovar
The samovar was adapted from the sbitennik, a vessel used to brew sbiten, a Russian infusion of honey and dried herbs grown locally for each sbiten drinker that preceded the advent of Russian tea. Some believe that samovars or sbitenniks were inspired by early Mongol kettles, although similar vessels have also been found across the continent, including a very similar Greek vessel called an autepsa.
Once the water has boiled in the samovar (the boiling water is referred to as kipyatok), the chimney would be replaced by a small teapot containing an extremely strong brew of tea leaves. This highly concentrated tea is known as zavarka. In order to serve the tea, the zavarka will be diluted using the boiling water from the samovar or a secondary teapot, to taste. As large quantities of tea were consumed at each sitting, the zavarka allowed for a great quantity of tea to be consumed without the need to keep brewing new cups.
Until World War I, there were countless ways of drinking tea across the Russian empire. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Russian tea was often consumed in taverns, accompanied by pickles. By the second half of the 19th century, candy and cake became a regular fixture of the service. In the Caucasus, closer to Turkey where the air was dry, salt would be added to help with water retention. In chilly Siberia, butter would sometimes be added.
The Russian Tea Ceremony
Today, tea from a samovar is typically served with a cube of sugar, which is held in the mouth as one drinks their tea; or with a dollop of blackberry or blackcurrant jam (jelly). Russian tea is served without milk. It is also served with baked goods such as Russian tea cakes, sushki (small, slightly sweet, crunchy ring-shaped biscuits) and small pies. There is a common misconception that a slice of lemon was traditionally served with Russian tea. This is unlikely, as early lemons would have been imported pickled in a saline solution.
Far from a quick cup of tea, inviting someone to tea in Russia is the start of a lengthy social encounter. People will sit and talk for hours while consuming tea. The ritual of taking tea and cakes while gathering is known as chaepitie. Social etiquette around the tea ritual has also developed over the years. Tea is often served in a podstakannik, a glass cup with a metal holder. From French writer Alexandre Dumas’ account of traveling in Russia recorded in The Fencing Master (1840) it has been noted that at the time, men consumed tea from glasses and women from china. Later, merchants drinking from chinaware started the fashion of drinking the tea from a saucer, a solution for tea that was too hot when the boiling water from the samovar was combined with the zavarka. Although this is often seen in depictions of Russian tea drinking, it is considered socially poor practice today.
Tea arrived in Russia before it did in England, around 1630, when it was given as a gift to Tsar Michael I by the Mongol Khan Sholoi as a suggested remedy for his ailing stomach. Unfortunately for the rest of Russia, the Tsar did not enjoy the tea and so it was not widely adopted at that time. It did not gain wider appeal in Russia until the reign of his son, Tsar Alexis I. This time it was bestowed upon Alexis I by the Chinese ambassador to Moscow in around 1680. Until the Treaty of Nerchinsk, established in 1689, tea in Russia was mostly imported from England, where trading relations with China were already established.
Trade and the Expansion of Tea in Russia
The 1989 treaty identified a border between China and Russia, making it possible for trade caravans to pass between the two empires. This created The Great Tea Road, which is thought to be the longest land trade route in the history of mankind. Starting at the Great Wall of China, it paved a way to Europe via Mongolia and Russia. Some suggest that, as tea was one of China’s most popular exports to Russia, a land route was favored over the cheaper sea route because of the impact of salty sea air on the taste of the tea. Russian Caravan Tea, the tea which is emblematic of a Russian tea ceremony, has a traditionally smoky flavor. Although today its smokiness is usually achieved by the addition of the smoked tea lapsang souchong, to oolong and keemun leaves, it is generally believed that the tea acquired its original smoky flavor as a result of the smoke created by campfires on the long and dangerous Great Tea Road.
The time required to transport tea from China to Russia by caravans drawn by camel was significant — up to sixteen months each way, or a three-year round trip. This meant that for many years, tea was a prized commodity that was available almost exclusively to the wealthiest. It was not until the expansion of trade during the time of Catherine the Great (1729–1796), that tea became more widely available to the masses. Under the reign of Catherine the Great, all things Chinese became extremely fashionable among the wealthier classes, following the trend set in Europe. She had an opulent Chinese-inspired palace built that included tea pavilions in all palace gardens. As a result, tea rooms emerged in earnest.
Catherine the Great’s grandson, Tsar Nicholas I (1796–1855), devised a public tea ceremony that he believed would bring him closer to the people. Each summer, he and his family would take tea publicly in the pavilion of his summer residence, the Peterhof Palace, delivering what the historian Lucy Worsley describes as “stilted performances of domestic life”. They would invite the palace staff and “insignificant people” from the surrounding area to stand silently in the gardens and watch them act out their domestic tea ceremony. While the Empress was brewing the tea, Nicholas would venture into the crowd, make small talk with members of the public, and select an individual to join them for the tea ceremony.
Eventually, the Great Tea Trail was superseded by much more affordable sea routes, thanks to the opening of the Suez Canal (in 1869), and the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway (1916), which made camel-drawn caravans redundant and tea affordable even in impoverished communities. By the end of the 19th century, tea had become so commonplace that a house lacking a samovar was considered an indication of extreme poverty.
The Samovar as Collectible Object
Photographs from the time often focus on the household table, at which the samovar is invariably the centerpiece. Tea was considered such a health tonic that first aid packages given to the destitute in the late 19th century contained bread, a bag of tea and some sugar – all considered the essential nourishment. Many households would have three samovars: one for boiling water for daily chores, one for taking regular tea, and one ceremonial samovar: a highly decorative samovar which would be displayed as a status symbol.
Samovars today are symbolic of hospitality and comfort. A highly collectible object, they are one of the most popular purchases by tourists in Russia. Traditional samovars are demonstrative of great craftsmanship, and many surviving antique samovars are highly decorous. The first manufacturers to mass produce the samovar were the brothers Ivan and Nasar Fyodorovich in 1778.
But it is not only samovars that are deemed collectible. The popularity of chaepitie led to an industry for unique teaware, caddies and tea cozies, often depicting scenes from daily life. One of the best-known factories, Gjel, is famous for the blue and white designs that are often seen in Russian teaware today.