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Project Title – The Russian Tea Culture

Student: Oleg Dashanov
Mentor: Chas Hollinger
Domains: visual arts, cultural history
Faculty Grader:  Paul Murray

Documentation of Product



In the future, I would like to work in the financial area. Therefore, I wanted to link my project to something connected to my future profession. Tea was used as a trading system at one moment, that is connected to the idea of ancient economical system. My senior project is divided into 2 parts: the physical and the writing. I have built a copy of a “samovar” similar to a tea pot, but used in a Russian culture decades ago for hitting the water. It became a huge part of tea ceremony in Russia. As well as building it, I thought of its origins. So, I decided to write a research paper about the history of tea.

Exhibition & Presentation Summary

Works Consulted

The Story of Tea


“If you are cold, tea will warm you; if you are too heated, it will cool you; if you are depressed, it will cheer you; if you are excited, it will calm you.” – (William Ewart Gladstone) Tea is an everyday drink for every part of the world you go to. In any food store, you can find ice teas like Lipton or Nestea with lots of different tastes. Some places like Starbucks can offer you not just different tastes, but different variations of tea: chai, black, green with different additives from milk to spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. There are even tea houses in some countries built specially to serve this drink. But all of those places are united with the idea, that tea isn’t just a beverage, but a tradition, that includes different cultures, with variations of how tea is served and what it is served with. What are the origins of tea? What is it’s history. This paper will discuss not only the origins and history of tea and its traditions, it will also focus on some of the cultures that have the strongest traditions in tea. Furthermore, this drink is not only tasty but is also the cause of so many wars around the world at different periods of time. So, where does the drink of life come from, where does it have the strongest traditions, and why have there been so many wars that have fought over tea?




Origins of Tea

There are two versions of where tea originated. The first one talks about China. “As legend goes in 2737 BC the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree, while his servant was boiling water when a leaf from a wild tea tree got blown into the water. Shen Nung, not only an emperor, but an herbalist decided to try the infusion his servant has accidentally created. The resulting drink was what we now call tea” (Mighty Leaf). Shen Nung liked the drink so much that he decided to look more into what this tree was, this tree that had healing properties. The second story comes from India. The story says that Prince Bodhi-Dharma discovered tea. He was a saint and a founder of the Zen school of Buddhism. In 520 AC, he left to China to preach Buddhism there. “To prove certain principles in Zen, he promised to meditate for nine years without sleep. They say that towards the end of meditation he fell asleep. By the time he woke up he was so distraught, that he cut off his eyelids, and threw them on the ground. Legend has it that a tea plant sprung out from the place where his eyelashes were” – (Mighty Leaf). The origins of tea are both literal and mythological. It is not very likely that tea originates from the sprouting of eyelashes. But this mythological origin helps us to understand that tea has almost a magical quality for some cultures.


Tea in Japan

As time passed and tea started to move around the world more people would talk about that drink. After China and India, tea moved to Japan. In the beginning of the 9th century, 805 AD Saicho, a priest, brought the first batch of tea seeds for growing in his monastery and then Kukai, another priest did the same in 806 AD. The cultivation and import of tea began when Emperor Saga decided to start growing tea in Japan. That is how this drink became royal. The beverage started to spread even more in the twelfth century, when Eisai and Myoe Shonin brought more of the black tea seeds back to Japan. Tea was introduced to the warrior classes, who rose to political prominence after the Heian period. Eisai even wrote a two-volume book the name of which was “How to Stay Healthy Drinking Tea” after visiting China for the second time. The first sentence of this book is “Tea is the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one’s life more full and complete” (footnote here). That is when green tea became the main drink of the cultured people in Japan and was usually available to upper classes (Wikipedia).  Esai introduced something else, a drink that every teenager in USA loses their mind about. That was Matcha. The way you would make it is by grinding green tea leaves into a fine powder with a stone mill. Matcha is usually stirred using bamboo whisks and served in hand-crafted bowls. – (Mighty Leaf.)

Japanese tea ceremonies are known all around the world. They started in the 15th century by aristocrats, drinking tea, while rare Chinese object displays. For a certain period of time those ceremonies were held only by men, especially warriors, but as time passed closer to the 18th century, there was a women movement and tea ceremonies including women. Those ceremonies were called ‘Chanoyu’, that literally means ‘hot water for tea’. This ceremony was used to show the ideal of beauty and try to convert “life itself into a work of art” therefore seeing beauty is paleness and simplicity (India International Centre). The ceremony asked for a high attention to the etiquette, raising people to the state of ‘high order’ and being aware of his inner self. The regular ceremony would usually be located in ‘suyaki’ – a tea house and lasted for 4 hours, consisting of 4 different parts.



Introduction of tea to Europe

Only in the 17th century tea was finally introduced to the European countries, especially Holland, England and partly Russia. But the first ship of tea was considered to arrive to Holland in 1610, whereas the first Englishman to write about this drink was R. L. Wickham in 1615. In England tea was first brought as a medicine, after it was used as an alternative for gin and only then it became a “necessity” drink – a mass consumed product. The first accounts mention that tea was first sold in Garways Coffee House. Oliver Cromwell then started taxing tea. That is how tea became not just a well-known and used drink but a huge part of culture and British domestic economy. One of those customs can be still seen in Britain nowadays. At 5 o’clock there is a meal called tea. It all started from Ann- the wife of the 7th Duke of Bedford. During that time there were 2 main meals – a huge breakfast and dinner at 8 o’clock. Because of a very long pause between the meals, Ann would ask for tea and a cake, that lead to a tradition, that is still popular all across the UK. The economy grew and the British imports would include 15 million pounds of tea every year as consumption increased by 200 times, considering the fact that tea was taxed. At that time Netherlands were importing huge quantities of tea. By 1770 the imports were almost two thirds of what Britain imported each year. Thus, the tea race between British and Dutch ships was created on who will be able to bring the tea faster from China. This race led Britain and Netherlands to consider an option of bringing tea across Russia, but the taxation was so high that the scheme was denied. – (Thomas Breed.)

The first appearance of tea in Russia is believed to be in 1638, a donation of 250 pounds of “dead leaves” being carried by a camel convoy to Russian Tsar Michael |. Later in the 17th century tea was traded for furs. The only problem was in the complexity of the route; therefore, the drink was available only to the high classes as its cost was really high. Since then there was a special ‘Tea Road’ just like at one moment there was a ‘Silk Route’, but this time used between Russia and China. The time passed and as it got to the end of the 18th century and the death of Catherine the Great around 3 million pounds of tea in the form of blocks would be brought by camel caravans each year, that considerably lowered the price, so middle and lower classes were able to have the beverage as well.


Russian Tea Culture

Nowadays everyone knows that the 2 main Russian drinks are vodka and tea. As there are so many variations of vodka, same applies to tea. It is most commonly found in 2 forms: black and green. From long time ago black tea was more commonly used than green tea, as it would not be able to survive such large distances and long time periods. “Tea warms you up, wakes you up and is nice after a big meal” – trip savvy. One of the traditional ways of brewing tea is called ‘zavarka’. The difference between usual tea we drink and zavarka is the ratio of water to tea. The concentration of tea is really high, therefore you pour only a bit of ‘zavarka’ into the cup and then you add some hot water. But ‘zavarka’ is used in a different way as well. Prisoners aren’t allowed to have alcohol, therefore ‘zavarka’ or ‘chefir’ is used as an alternative. Coming back to the idea of Russian tea traditions, this beverage is drunk with honey, sugar or jam. If it is a black tea, we add a slice of lemon. There is always some pastries on the table like ‘bubliki’ – similar to dry bagels. Another difference between the tradition nowadays is that earlier for drinking tea people would use saucers instead of cups.

            Nowadays Russia is one of the largest multinational countries, that means a huge amount of different religions and traditions are situated there. But if so many cultures are mixed, at some moment something different will come out, than what original was supposed to be. My town is a clear example of how russian tea culture changes, as that is where Russian tea comes from. Depending on a religion various vessels are used: vase-shaped cups if you are from Turkey, small plates if you come from Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, everyone else tend to use cups . Not just the ways tea is drunk, but what is added to it also differs. It can be sugar or honey or jam, or maybe a slice of lemon in a black tea to mix the taste of bitterness and sourness.


History of the Samovar

In any way if you are at the traditional tea ceremony in Russia, there is always a common device used, that is samovar. It is believed that similar devices were found in ancient China around 3700 ago, but the first copper samovar was made in 1778 by Lisytsin brothers in Tula, a city situated in the north-east of Russia, that is famous for its metal-workers. At the bottom, there is a chamber where coal is placed, a chimney, for heating water inside the samovar usually used for making tea afterwards. The device is well known not only in Russia, but in different countries of middle east and central Europe like Iran, Turkey and Afganistan. Samovars are typically made out of iron, copper, polished brass, silver and gold. There are 4 main body shapes: Baroque, Barrel, Squash and Classic Vase. The volume of water that samovar can hold also varies. The smallest ones usually hold around a liter, whereas the big samovars are able to hold up to 400 liters. By the way, many people mistakenly think samovar is a giant teapot. It is actually a water boiler and is not used in making the tea at all.


America and Tea

Tea is a historical plant, not that it only created hundreds of traditions around the globe, but served as a huge sign of American revolution against Britain, that resulted in the modern country of the United States of America. It all happened on 1773 when Britain tried to tax tea. The colonists got really angry and decided to throw 342 chests of tea into the Boston harbor. That event is known in history as the Boston Tea Party and it became the focus for the Revolutionary war after which the USA became an independent country. So, Americans are much obliged to tea for their independence. But before the American War of Independence tea was the favored drink of American colonists, but during and immediately after it no American patriot drank tea.


Origins of Ice Tea

Both the tea bag and iced tea are accidental, 20th century and american inventions. The first iced tea was served at St Louice World’s Fair in 1904. Americans at that time drack primarily green tea. So, an Englishman, Richard Blechynden had been sent to the fair to introduce Midwesterners to black tea from India and Cylon. But nobody was interested in hot tea so Blechynden and those who helped him began to pour tea into glasses, added ice and sold it as iced tea. Iced tea became the most popular drink of the fair and later of many Americans. Tea bags appeared in 1908. It was just an attempt to economize. A New York City tea importer Thomas Sullivan began sending tea samples to his retailers not in the tins holding larger amounts, but in small silk bags. But the retailers began to steep the tea in hot water right in the bags impressed with the convenience. Thus, the tea bag was born.


Collection Process

So what is tea as a plant? Its bushes grow only in tropical and sub-tropical climate. Tea belongs to camellia family of plants. The amount of tea leaves collected completely depends on where the region is situated. If it is in places where summer is all-year-around, then leaves grow throughout the whole year, the further north we go, less collecting season is. That is why in north-east India the collecting season lasts only 8 months. Usually tea leaves are collected by hand. It should be the top leaves (just grown ones), as they are juicy with some small parts of stem and buds, unexpanded leaves. Depending on the proportion of leaves to the parts of stem, the quality differs. The basis of tea production is called ‘Flush’ where there is a mix of leaves, stems and buds. If the proportion of leaves increased twice, the name given to such tea is ‘golden flush’ – orimi.


Production Process

Nowadays the variety of tea is huge. The main types are: white, yellow, green, oolong and black teas. The way leaves are processed affects what type of tea it will become. But of course, there are main steps. From the moment when leaves are first collected the first step is wilting. Then oxidation takes place through tossing in the basket and light crushing. Next comes shaping that evolves rolling leaves into balls. Only then comes drying of leaves that can be seen throughout all of the tea types. Last step is curing by firing or wet piling that finally leads to end state of tea, that can be brewed, allowing most of taste to be introduced into the water. But how do we get to different types of tea? To produce green and yellow tea, wilting, bruising and oxidation is skipped, therefor leaves aren’t that dry. White tea is produced through baking the leaves. Black and oolong tea are done using all of the steps above, the only difference is to produce Oolong tea firing at the end is required. – Wikipedia.


Health Benefits

So the first time tea appeared, it wasn’t just its taste what made people interested in this plant, but its healing properties. Of course, depending on the way and amount of time spent for processing, tea saves a certain amount of different health benefit nutrients, as well as becomes a different type. The healthiest tea remains green. Of course tea is one of the best ways to get hydrated, even though it contains some caffeine. A huge health benefit is the decrease chance of heart attack or stroke, The studies shown a decrease of 35% of heart attacks and 20% of heart strokes. That is because tea is known to be the best biological container of antioxides and biological substances like enzymes, some of which are called flavonoids and catechins Secondly tea contains 50% less caffeine than coffee does, that doesn’t badly affect your nervous system. Thirdly because of iron, lots of calcium, vitamins A and K, tea positively affects your bones and teeth preventing bone loss. The fourth benefit is very used nowadays. That is the weight loss affect, but it usually works, if large amounts of tea are consumed. Another interesting fact is that tea counteracts negative effects of smoking, therefore minimizes the chance of getting the lung cancer. The final one is the boost of your immune system, that doesn’t just lead to the good mood, but protects from different disease like colds and softens esophagus, when coughing. Those facts also show not only positive effects on your health, but on your beauty as well. – Orimi.


Tea in My Hometown

The place where I live is called Sochi. This area is the northernmost area in the world with commercial tea plantations. The first tea plantation was planted here in 1901. There are two types of tea in the world: Chinese and Indian. A tea bush can grow as high as eighteen meters. In Sochi they grow Chinese tea, because it is frost resistant and can stand fifteen degrees Celsius below zero.

Tea is a perennial evergreen tropical plant that lives 100 years and more. It propagates both by seeds and roots. The plucking season lasts from May till October – 6 months. Plantation crops give their first yield at the age of four. But the best crops are obtained from 8-year-old crops in plantations. Every year the bushes are cut off to the height of eight centimeters – light pruning – for the most convenient shape for plucking and for intensive growth of young shoots. Because to produce them one needs to pluck two top leaves and a bud grows.

In the former USSR 3 republics were engaged in tea cultivation – Georgia, Azerbaijan and Russia. In Russia tea is growing on the slopes of the mountains: It’s impossible to use lure combines (machines that collect crops) for harvesting as in Georgia. So here, mainly manual labor is used.

Tea is a magical drink. Just looking at its origins makes you think, how that drink actually appeared. The way the leaves are collected and produced is complex. The variation of tastes and types is incredible, as tea can be nor just green or black, but with fruits, berries, herbs, milk and it can be drunk cold and hot. The amount of health benefits from a biological product is huge. The way this beverage dominates all other ones around the world not just through traditions, but also through looking at its usage in daily life, shows it magnificence and importance. But sometimes it can serve as a reason for old friends to get together and have a cup of tea, or just to get warm and happy, while staying at home alone during a cold rainy day. So tea isn’t just a plant, but a magnet pulling positive effects towards people, uniting everyone around the world and making everything look a bit better.






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