Russian tea culture

Tea is part of Russian culture. According to a 2005 study, some 82% of Russians consume tea daily

The Merchant's Wife. Boris Kustodiev, 1918
pinterest button


Since 1638, tea has had a rich and varied history in Russia. Due in part to Russia's cold northern climate, it is today considered the de facto national beverage, one of the most popular beverages in the country, and is closely associated with traditional Russian culture.

It was traditionally drunk at afternoon tea, but has since spread as an all day drink, especially at the end of meals served with dessert. An important aspect of the Russian tea culture is the ubiquitous Russian tea brewing device known as a samovar, which has become a symbol of hospitality and comfort.

Family portrait in Russia in 1844 by T. Myagkov, with the samovar ready for tea
pinterest button Family portrait in Russia in 1844 by T. Myagkov, with the samovar ready for tea Timofey Myagkov, Public Domain

Tea in Russia was introduced in 1638, when a Mongolian ruler donated to Tsar Michael I four poods (65–70 kg) of tea. According to Jeremiah Curtin, it was possibly in 1636 that Vassili Starkov was sent as envoy to the Altyn Khan. As a gift to the Tsar, he was given 250 pounds of tea. Starkov at first refused, seeing no use for a load of dead leaves, but the Khan insisted. Thus was tea introduced to Russia.

In 1679, Russia concluded a treaty on regular tea supplies from China via camel caravan in exchange for furs. The Chinese ambassador to Moscow made a gift of several chests of tea to Alexis I. However, the difficult trade route made the cost of tea extremely high, so that the beverage became available only to royalty and the very wealthy of Russia. In 1689, the Treaty of Nerchinsk was signed that formalized Russia's sovereignty over Siberia, and also marked the creation of the Tea Road that traders used between Russia and China.

The Merchant's Wife. Boris Kustodiev, 1918
pinterest button The Merchant's Wife. Boris Kustodiev, 1918 Boris Kustodiev (1878–1927), Public Domain

Between the Treaty of Nerchinsk and the Treaty of Kyakhta (1727), Russia would increase its caravans going to China for tea, but only through state dealers. In 1706, Peter the Great made it illegal for any merchants to trade in Beijing.

In 1736, Catherine the Great established regular imports of tea. By the time of Catherine's death in 1796, Russia was importing more than 3 million pounds by camel caravan in the form of loose tea and tea bricks, enough tea to considerably lower the price so that middle and lower class Russians could afford the beverage.

A Tea Party in Mytishchi. Vasily Perov, 1862
pinterest button A Tea Party in Mytishchi. Vasily Perov, 1862 Vasily Perov (1833–1882), Public Domain

The peak year for the Kiakhta tea trade was in 1824, and the peak year for the tea caravans was 1860. From then, they started to decline when the first leg of the Trans-Siberian Railway was completed in 1880. Faster train service allowed for tea to be imported from nearly a year and a half to eventually just over a week. The decline in Chinese tea in the mid 19th century in turn meant that Russia began to import more tea from Odessa, and London. By 1905, horse drawn tea transport had ended, and by 1925 caravan as the sole means of transport for tea had ended. In 2002, Russia imported some 162,000 metric tons of tea.


By the end of the 18th century, tea prices had moderately declined. The first local tea plant was set in Nikitsk botanical gardens in 1814, while the first industrial tea plantation was established in 1885. The tea industry did not take off until World War I, and greatly expanded following World War II. However, by the mid 1990s, tea production came to a standstill. Today, the main area in Russia for tea production is in the vicinity of Sochi.


Traditionally, black tea is the most common tea in Russia, but green tea is becoming more popular.

Traditional tea in Russia includes the traditional type known as Russian Caravan as it was originally imported from China via camel caravan. As the trip was very long, usually taking as long as 16 or 18 months, the tea acquired its distinctive smoky flavor from the caravan's campfires. Today, this tea is often given its smoky flavor after fermentation or is a keemun or a «black or oolong from China or Formosa (Taiwan) with a hint of smoky Lapsang Souchong or Tarry Souchong.»


A notable feature of Russian tea culture is the two-step brewing process. Firstly, tea concentrate (Russian: заварка) is prepared: a quantity of dry tea sufficient for several persons is brewed in a small teapot. Then, each person pours some quantity of this concentrate into the cup and mixes it with hot water; thus, one can make one's tea as strong as one wants, according to one's taste. Sugar, lemon, honey or jam can then be added freely.

Tea culture

According to William Pokhlyobkin, tea in Russia was not regarded as a self-dependent beverage; thus, even the affluent classes adorned it with a jam, syrup, cakes, cookies, candies, lemon and other sweets. This is similar to the archaic idiom «чай да сахар» (tea and sugar). The Russian language utilizes some memes pertaining to tea consumption, including «чайку-с?» (roughly «some tea?»), used by the pre-Revolutionary attendants. The others are «гонять чаи» (whip the teas, i.e. drinking the tea running) and «побаловаться чайком» (indulging in tea). Tea was made a significant element of cultural life by the literati of the Karamzinian circle. By the mid-19th century tea had won over the town class, the merchants and the petty bourgeoisie. This is reflected in the dramas of Alexander Ostrovsky. Since Ostrovsky's time, duration and the amount of consumed tea are appreciated in the tea-drinking. Alexander Pushkin in Eugene Onegin displayed the role of tea in establishing romantic relations:

Of single boredom, right away

They speak–but in a cunning way.
They call him to their samovar–
None but Dunya will pour the tea;
They whisper to her: «Dunya, see!»
And then produce her sweet guitar.
O Christ! She then begins to cheep:
«Come see me in my golden keep!»

In the Soviet period, tea-drinking was extremely popular in the daily life of office workers (female secretaries, laboratory assistants, etc.). Tea brands of the time were nicknamed «the brooms» (Georgian) and «the tea with an elephant» (Indian). Tea was an immutable element of kitchen life among the intelligentsia in 1960s-'70s.

In pre-Revolutionary Russia there was a joke «что после чаю следует?» ('what follows after tea?') with the correct answer being «the resurrection of the dead» from the creed. This is based on the word «чаю» (chayu), the homograph designating formerly «I expect» («look for» in the creed) and the genitive case of the word «tea», still in use.

A glass of tea inside a gilded glass holder
pinterest button A glass of tea inside a gilded glass holder Maiakinfo, CC BY-SA 3.0

Within Russia, tea preparation differs, but usually includes lemon, and sugar or jam. Tea sachets are widely popular, but when a teapot is used it is very common to make a strong brew, then pour some into a cup and top it with hot or boiling water, adding milk and sugar afterwards.

In the 19th century, Russians drank their tea with a cube of sugar held between their teeth.

Tea is very popular in Russian prisons. Traditional mind-altering substances such as alcohol are typically prohibited, and very high concentrations, called zavarka or chifir are used as a substitute.

Traditional forms of Russian tea ware include the Russian tea brewing urn called a samovar, the Lomonosov tea sets adorned with a cobalt blue net design and 22 karat gold, and traditional Russian tea glass holders.

Useful Information

Russian tea culture

"Russian Tea" in the United States

There is a beverage called "Russian Tea" which likely originated in America. This drink is especially popular in the Southeastern United States where is it traditionally served at social events during Advent and Christmastide. Recipes vary, but the most common ingredients are loose black tea, orange juice (or orange peel), cinnamon, and cloves. Other juices such as lemon and pineapple are sometimes called for. Cream may also be added when serving. A homemade 'instant' variety, often using Tang, has become a popular stocking stuffer in recent decades.

The drink is served hot and often an evening or after-meal beverage. However, iced versions are sometimes offered with meals at cafés.

Despite the name, "Russian Tea" probably has no link to its namesake. The earliest reference to "Russian Tea" was in a 1925 American cook book.