Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
This dissertation reexamines controversies surrounding consumption, cultural borrowing, and identity in modern Russia through a study of tea as a commodity, a social ritual, and a national symbol. During the Romanov period (1613-1917), tea evolved from a foreign medicine, to an aristocratic luxury, to a household necessity. The samovar, or tea urn, played a central role in this process, having been adopted by Russian nobles in the eighteenth century and imagined as a Russian national symbol by the late nineteenth. The first Russians to encounter tea were emissaries sent to the courts of Inner Asian and Chinese rulers, and their reluctance to consume tea in ceremonial settings reflected their political and cultural priorities. Back in Moscow, foreign doctors working for the court medical establishment promoted tea as an effective remedy for various illnesses. Western visitors to seventeeth-century Muscovy noted the presence of tea in markets and medical settings, but tea consumption was not widespread. Around 1700, new English and Dutch technologies for making tea made their way to Russia, signaling tea’s transition from a foreign medicine to a fashionable pastime. The samovar, a self-contained apparatus designed to boil water for tea, evolved from seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century English and Dutch designs. The device came into use in aristocratic Russian households in the middle of the eighteenth century. The samovar facilitated the development of a distinctively Russian tea culture in the second half of the eighteenth century, when tea consumption and ownership of tea ware spread. Satirical critiques of tea implicated it in the percieved deleterious effects of westernization and luxury. Russian tea importation and consumption began to climb steeply in the 1790s and saw sustained growth until the end of the imperial period. Nineteenth-century works of Russian literature transformed “tea” into a discursive space with associations of intimacy, familial harmony, refinement, and sobriety. The samovar became a symbol setting the Russian nation apart from the other peoples of the empire. While tea’s role in Russian society remained contested, most understood tea and the samovar as symbols of authentic Russianness and, in the twentieth century, as touchstones of “old” Russian culture.