Tea with a Splash of Vodka

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. A Group of Workers Harvesting Tea, ca. 1907-1915. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-04430 (32)


What is it that makes an empire? The ruler may argue that government and order define one’s realm; however, these are all institutions of the people. Before the troubles that would bring about the Russian Revolution in 1917, Russia was an  immensely diverse spread of land that was called home to many different ethnicities, not all of which were true natives. Before the Kievan Rus, who would make the first steps to what we know as modern-day Russia, there were many groups who were trying to find their place in a rapidly changing world. The photo above, a part of the Prokudin-Gorskii collection, shows a group of Greek farmers harvesting tea in Chavka, which is now the area known as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, in the southern region of Russia. From this group’s origin and tale comes one piece of the puzzle in the fall of the Tsarist regime. These Pontic Greeks had lived in this area since the 700s BC, around the time that ancient Rome was created, and they continue to live there to the present day. From the original Greek colonies along the Black Sea during the Classical period, this area was subject to a steady migration of Greek settlers, most notably after the fall of the Empire of the Trebizond to the Ottoman Turks. Carrying with them the Eastern Orthodox tradition that the Byzantines had imported to the Rus, these settlers were eventually incorporated into the increasingly heterogeneous Russia Empire.

As the Russian state grew during the pre-Revolutionary era, so did its sense of culture. Against the stereotype that Russians live solely on Vodka in their daily lives, there was a thriving tea culture that captured the attention of all levels of Russian society. Since its introduction in 1638 by the Mongols, tea was an important commodity in Russian and culture and one of the number of agricultural goods that the Pontic Greeks focused on. While tea itself was quite important, the prosperity of its producers and sellers was not. As can be seen in the photo above, these workers were predominantly peasants whose livelihoods centered around the production and demand for tea. When this was disrupted, as it was during World War I,  and the government failed to support them, the people suffered. Areas like Chavka became the breeding ground for the revolutionaries that would eventually overthrow the Tsarist regime. Through the coming turmoil, this region would remain predominantly Greek, and it would bear the blows of both a genocidal Turkish government and a crumbling Russian empire.

While this land and its people are not the typical image one constructs when discussing Russia, they represented a large population of agrarian societies which made up the empire in the early twentieth century. Their ethnicity was but one group of the widely varied peoples in Russia’s borders, and they are as much a part of Russia and the Revolution’s story as Lenin and Stalin were. Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii set out to document Russia’s economic life during a complicated time of industrialization and world war, and he succeeded in recognizing the backbone of the empire’s livelihood. It is also important to remember moving forward that Marxist communism was intended for more developed states, and the ramifications of the revolution on the majorly agricultural empire would produce many growing pains throughout. While these people now live in the remains of the Soviet Union, they directly impacted its creation and deserve credit in the history of Russia.




Mack, Glenn (2005). Food Culture in Russia and Central Asia. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Wood, Michael (2005). In Search of Myths & Heroes: Exploring Four Epic Legends of the World. University of California Press. p. 109





5 Replies to “Tea with a Splash of Vodka”

  1. I really like this photo and I think your analysis was really interesting. Especially with the legacy of the Soviet Union, I think we tend to look to Russia as a much more unified ethnicity than it really is. It’s interesting how this diversity is so tied up with tea, which is also not normally associated with Russia. You did a great job with this post!

  2. How did the largely Greek population in Chavka contribute to the revolutionary movement? Did they simply express their support for radical reform and put pressure on local leaders or did they do something more substantial?

  3. I thought this post was really intriguing because it discusses the different cultures in Russia at the time. It’s odd because in my mind if these people had been living in the region for so long, I wouldn’t qualify them as Greek, rather Russians. However, during this time period (and maybe still today?) their culture was still separate enough to be seen as Greek and not Russian. I also liked that it was a subject that I really had no previous knowledge on, tea production.

  4. I like that you exploit this photo for the diversity that it has. It portrays the Russian economy and the social structure as well. The primarily agricultural economy is depicted by the group of females who are collecting tea for whatever reasons. The also plays a big role in depicting the social roles that females played at the time as well. They were still not respected in the Russian community at this point and time.

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