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Russia Discovers Tea... and a Somovar

by James Norwood Pratt


About the time that first tea order from the Dutch Lords Seventeen reached their agent in the Orient, the Mogul emperor of north India (what is now Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere), was entertaining the first agent or ambassador from his fellow despot to the north, Czar Michael Romanov, the founder of Russia's Romanov dynasty. Though introduced to tea himself, the ambassador declined an offer to take a gift of it back to the czar as something his master would have no use for, thereby blowing one more chance the Russians had had to make tea's acquaintance. They finally did so only after 1689, when Russia and China signed a treaty establishing a boundary between them and, at Chinese insistence, confining all trade between the two to a single spot on the frontier. In the middle of nowhere, thenceforth, at Usk Kayakhta, a thousand miles across the Gobi from Beijing and over four thousand from St Petersburg, Russian caravans would arrive laden with furs to exchange with traders from Kayakhra's Chinese counterpart a few hundred yards to the south, Mai-mai-cheng, or "Buy Sell City." These miserable outposts were never to reflect the wealth that flowed through them over the ensuing centuries. Russian merchants bought more fine Chinese cotton than silk, strangely, but in time they bought more tea than anything else.

Ordinary caravans numbered two hundred to three hundred camels and took almost a year for the trip from Moscow to Usk Kayakhta and back. Reckoning about six hundred pounds to the camel, more knowledgeable authorities than I estimate Russia was receiving over six hundred camel loads of tea annually soon after 1700. It was so costly-fifteen rubles per pound in 1735-that only aristocrats could afford to buy tea at first. But in that year the Czarina Elizabeth-whether with an eye to profit or a taste for tea is not recorded-established a regular private caravan trade and tea became increasingly plentiful.

By the time Catherine the Great died in 1796, Russia was consuming over six thousand camel loads of tea per annum-better than 3.5 million pounds! This is especially impressive when you reflect that nobody had invented a faster camel. What they had invented, probably as early as Elizabeth's rime, was the samovar, a Russian word that means "self heater." The likeliest explanation I can come up with for this invention is that the samovar is a modification of the Mongolian firepot, which operates on the same principle and was used by the trans-Ural nomads for cooking. Be that as it may, the samovar soon became a feature of everyday life throughout Russia. For reasons of tradition and economy, Russians were accustomed to a single, if mammoth, daily meal, and high and low resorted to the samovar the rest of the time, generally sipping their tea from glasses through a sugar cube held between the teeth.

Up until the 1770's Russia had mostly bought brick tea for the Siberian market. From 1775 to 1800, however, the quantity of loose tea bought at Kayakhta climbed to over seven hundred tons a year, significantly more than the brick tea purchased annually. Russia's legendary caravan tea-the loose tea bought as a luxury for Russia's upper classes-dates from these last decades of the 1700s. The luxury tea trade grew almost tenfold in the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1817 it was employing some twenty five hundred camels, while only a dozen years later caravans required almost ten thousand camels. (Less picturesquely, carts were also used.) It is not surprising that caravan tea cost Russians several time the price paid in England for similar quality-or that Romantic writers like Balzac extolled them.