The Rich History of Tea in Russia

Tea has been the drink of choice in Russia for almost five centuries. Its popularity is largely due to the cold climate, and it is considered the national beverage of Russia. Tea has become an integral part of Russian culture and is typically consumed throughout the day, often served with dessert at the end of meals. The samovar, a traditional Russian tea-brewing device, has become a symbol of comfort and hospitality.

The Introduction of Tea in Russia

In 1638, Russia was introduced to tea when a Mongolian ruler donated four poods (65-70kg) of tea to Tsar Michael I. Two years earlier, Russian merchant Vassili Starkov was given a gift of 250 pounds of tea by Altyn Khan when he was sent as an envoy to him. Starkov, who saw no use for a load of “dead leaves,” was about to refuse the gift until the Khan insisted. This marked the beginning of tea consumption in Russia.

Tea Trade Between Russia and China

In 1679, a treaty was signed between Russia and China, allowing for regular tea supplies from China in exchange for furs. The Chinese ambassador to Moscow even gifted several chests of tea to Tsar Alexis I. However, the cost of tea was incredibly high due to the challenging trade route, making it only available to the wealthy and royalty in Russia.

In 1689, the Treaty of Nerchinsk was signed, formalizing Russia’s sovereignty over Siberia and creating the Tea Road, a trade route between Russia and China. Russia began to increase its caravans to China for tea between the Treaty of Nerchinsk and the Treaty of Kyakhta (1727), but only through state dealers. In 1706, Peter the Great outlawed merchants from trading in Beijing. Regular tea imports were established by Catherine the Great only in 1736. By the time Catherine passed away in 1796, Russia was importing more than 3 million pounds of tea through camel caravans, making the beverage affordable for middle and lower-class Russians.

The Decline of the Tea Caravan

The year 1824 marked the peak of the Kiakhta tea trade, while 1860 was the peak for tea caravans. The decline began in 1880 when the first leg of the Trans-Siberian Railway was completed, allowing faster train service that could import tea from over a year to just over a week. However, in the mid-19th century, the decline in Chinese tea production made it difficult for Russia to satisfy its tea demand. The country began to import tea from London and Odessa. By 1905, horse-drawn tea transport was discontinued, and by 1925 caravan transport for tea had ended altogether.

Tea Consumption in Modern Russia

In 2002, Russia imported approximately 162,000 metric tons of tea. Tea remains a staple beverage in Russia, with a rich history that has become intertwined with the country’s culture.

Leave a Reply