Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, has long been a popular resort and location of the northernmost tea plantations. The history of tea in Russia and of the large Russian teapots known as samovars provides an intricate look at social and economic customs.
Tea was first introduced in Russia in the mid-1600s as a gift from Mongolia to Tsar Michael I and was used by the nobility for medicinal purposes. Russia had been working on establishing a trade route with China ever since the colonization of Siberia began during the second half of the 1500s. Continuing through the mid-1600s, explorers eventually reached the Pacific coast. Despite border disputes between Russia and China, the two countries agreed upon a common boundary. The 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk identified the boundary and allowed for trade caravans to travel from one country to the other.
The trade route was approximately 11,000 miles over barren and treacherous mountain terrain. The average time to complete a round-trip to and from Moscow was 16 months. This made the cost of tea so high that only royalty and other members of the wealthy class could afford it. By the late 1700s, tea was gaining acceptance in Russian society which brought the prices come down. It was also during this time that the first factory production began of the uniquely Russian “teapot,” the samovar.
After various prototypes were manufactured in the Ural Mountains, Moscow, Saint Petersburg and other locations, the first factory in Russia to make samovars opened in Tula, 120 miles south of Moscow, in 1778. They were made out of various metals: copper, brass, silver and sometimes plated with gold and silver. Much of the work on them was done by hand. They became a symbol of both practical use and affluence, and folk and decorative arts. By the end of the 19th century, there were 65 factories throughout Russia that manufactured samovars of different sizes ranging from the bottom holding as little as three liters (slightly under one gallon) to 30 liters (approximately eight gallons). The largest samovar on record held 250 liters (66 gallons) and was made in Tula, in 1922.
Besides their size, they were unique in their function. The bottom pot contained the water and the top pot was for tea. The water was kept hot by placing smoldering charcoal or wood in a tube connected to the samovar. The very wealthy had two samovars: a plain one for daily family life and an ornate one for special occasions and guests.
Tsar Nicholas II owned a large cattle farm and botanical garden in Dagomys, a section of Sochi. Located along the Black Sea coast with the Causasus Mountains nearby, this former military outpost became a resort for the wealthy. Farmers had also settled in the area and had made several unsuccessful attempts in the 1870s and 1880s to grow tea. It was still being imported and very expensive. In 1901, Judas Antonovich Koshman, a Ukrainian peasant, developed a tea that could withstand the cold. Sochi had its first successful tea plantation in 1905. This tea became known as Krasnodarsky Tea and is known all over the world.
Sochi tea continues to be grown in the northernmost plantations today. The Tula Museum of Samovars, is dedicated to the history, culture and decorative art of these teapots. For more information, the link to the Tula Museum is provided below.
By: Cynthia Collins
Painting: Family Portrait by Timofey Myagkov (1844)
Russian Life Magazine