Boris Kustodiev, The Merchan’ts Wife

Against the world’s general conception of Russian culture, the Russians don’t consider Vodka their national beverage but Tea. According to a study, approximately 82% of Russians drink tea on a daily base. Indeed, taking the cold, almost crippling temperatures into consideration that make the country one of the coldest in the world, it is quite understandable, almost logical to warm yourself up with a hot cup of tea at tea-time, except that many Russians drink tea around the clock. Chocolate, cookies, jam or with a sugar cube between the teeth – there are countless ways the Russians, a people characterized by differences and contrasts, choose to drink their cup of tea. Nevertheless, it is the passion for this warm and comforting beverage that unites the entire country. No wonder, tea is this appreciated in Russia given that it was particularly the tea trade that transformed Russia into a real economic power in the 19th and 20th century.

It seems as if the love for grandma’s favorite beverage doesn’t even spare one of the roughest and most dangerous places in the world: Russian prisons. However, the bad boys there surely don’t prefer black tea with milk and cookies. Since mind-altering substances like alcohol are strictly prohibited, the prisoners like to drink tea in high concentrations which is then called Chifir for instance, a beverage created by brewing a great deal of black tea for a long time. Chifir does not only contain a high dose of caffeine. Some of its ingredients make it an effective substitute for alcohol.

It is astounding how boredom, hardship and necessity beget ingenuity. But what is even more astounding to me is the diversity and the significance of a simple beverage like a tea, a cultural and precious good often and sadly underestimated.

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