W. Kandinsky, Dominant Curve, 1936
First, hetmans Ivan Petrov and Burnash Yalyshev, kazaks leaders, described tea after an expedition to China in 1567 on orders of Ivan the Terrible. Imperial Russia was attempting to engage China and Japan in trade at the same time as the East Indian Company. The Russian interest in tea began as early as 1618 when the Chinese embassy in Moscow presented several chests of tea to Tsar Michael I Fedorovich. In 1638 Russian ambassador Vasily Starkov brings tea as a gift from mongolian Khan. By 1689 the Trade Treaty of Newchinsk established a common border between Russia and China, allowing caravans to then cross back and forth freely. At Chinese insistence, the treaty confined all trade between the two to a single spot on the frontier. In the middle of nowhere, thenceforth, at Kyakhta, 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 Kyakhra'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. The cost of tea was initially prohibitive and available only to the wealthy. By the time Catherine the Great died (1796), the price had dropped some, and tea was spreading throughout Russian society. Tea was ideally suited to Russian life: hearty, warm, and sustaining.
Russia had also begun to cultivate tea in its colonies. In 1814, N.A. Garvis attempted growing it in the Crimea, but failed. In 1847, in Ozurgeti, now in southwestern Georgia, teas was successfully grown. Soon after, its cultivation began in other Russian regions of the Caucasus.
Tea was brought from China to Russia by the caravan trade road, which entered history under the name of "Great Tea Road". This was a part of the famous Silk Road. The journey was not easy. The trip was 11,000 miles long and took over sixteen months to complete. The average caravan consisted of 200 to 300 camels. The Tea Road started in Kashgar, a city located just behind the Great Wall, which separated China from Gobi. Tea arriving from South China was concentrated and processed here. In Kashgar, representatives from the Russian trading companies purchased the tea and sent the caravans northward. These slow-moving camel caravans went in winter and spring from Kalgan through the Gobi desert to Urga, Mongolia. After a superficial inspection in Urga, caravans continued their journey to Kyakhta, on the Russian Mongolian border. In Kyakhta, boxes of tea were inspected, sewed into raw bull hides called tsybics and marked. Bales containing the expensive black tea were more carefully packed using paper and foil wrappings to retard mold. Bundles of the paper and foil packed tea were then placed in bamboo boxes. The tsybics were loaded on carts or sledges and sent on to Irkutsk. From there tea was sent to European part of Russia to tea trade fairs.
After openning of the Suets canal, russian companies started to send more valuable kinds of tea to Odessa, a port on Black sea, by ships.
The completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1903 sounded the death knell for the colourful Russian Caravans. As transportation times became dramatically reduced, tea costs were lowered, and its popularity continued to rice.
The samovar, adopted from the Tibetan "hot pot", is a combination bubbling hot water heater and tea pot. Placed in the center of the Russian home, it could run all day and serve up to forty cups of tea at a time. Again showing the Asian influence in the Russian culture, guests sipped their tea from glasses in silver holders, very similar to Turkish coffee cups. The Russian have always favored strong tea highly sweetened with sugar, honey, or jam. The use of lemon slices by the Russians points to the survival of the ancient method of boiling the tea with rice, ginger, salt, orange peel, spices, milk, and sometimes with onions! The custom obtains at the present day among the Thibetans and various Mongolian tribes, who make a curious syrup of these ingredients.