Tea Time!

A tea factory with fermenting tea leaves. Chakva, Georgia (1905).
A group of women harvesting tea. Chakva, Georgia (1905).

Sergei Prokudin-Gordskii was a Russian photographer who was hired by Tsar Nicholas II to travel around the Russian Empire and photograph urban and rural scenes, the up and coming railroad, people, factories, and natural scenes. His ability to develop the photos in color made his collection more visual. A pair of images I found very intriguing while looking at his collection in the World Digital Library was a tea factory and a tea plantation in Chakva, Georgia. Tea was a popular commodity throughout the Russian Empire because of its taste and accessibility. By the early 20th century however Chakva became one of Russia’s main suppliers of tea. Georgia’s humid climate made it easy to sustain and cultivate tea bushes in mass production. However, discontent held by Georgian farmers grew into a national movement by the late 19th and early 20th century. Gregory Freeze noted in his book, Russia: A History, that “new social classes emerged during the Russian Imperial period due to industrialization and an agricultural crisis who were ready for change” (213). 

The first image shows a tea factory with bins of fermenting tea leaves. Behind these bins appears to be machines that could have been used to process the leaves and make the tea. I would assume the tea factory is close to the tea plantation so the freshly plucked leaves could stay as fresh as possible. The second image depicts workers, I would assume mainly women, picking tea leaves. It looks to be laborious work as they constantly have to bend over and pick the top leaves from the mature plants to ensure the best tea quality. On the far left of the image there appears to be a man in a white tunic and cap who I would assume to be a supervisor. 

Before the Russian empire expanded into Georgia, the Ottoman Empire had dominated the area in the 16th century. Georgia had a majority peasant population and had been exploited for their labor by invaders. The emancipation of the serfs, by Tsar Nicholas II, “freed” many peasants but did little to alleviate their poverty as they were still assigned to plots of land to work. The growth of capitalism created an urban working class in Georgia. Economic conditions continued to worsen and growing discontent contributed to the growth of revolutionary movements such as strikes and revolts within the Russian Empire.


Other References:

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. Oxford University Press, 2009.

8 Replies to “Tea Time!”

  1. Natalie,

    I really find these images interesting, specifically the second one. You pointed out the man in the white tunic as a potential overseer, but I couldn’t help to notice the man standing across from him in the blue shirt and black hat. Perhaps they are both supervisors? Its also very interesting to see how similar working conditions in Imperial Russia were to those in the United States during slavery. Although this is clearly not as harsh as American slavery was, it definitely resembles it in many ways.

  2. I really find it interesting how tea is seen as something fancy or something that rich people part-take in. It probably was a more widespread activity to drink tea in the 18th-19th centuries, but today it definitely is seen as refined. Its just really wild to me how rich nobles forced peasants to labour in order to fuel their own activities. To me, its kind of how luxury brands out source their manufacturing to poor regions in the world, only to sell those products for a lot of money to rich people.

    1. Joy, I agree that it’s shocking how rich nobles were able to force lower class peasants into labor for their personal gain at the expense of the less fortunate.

  3. It is truly quite interesting in my opinion how the control of the tea trade can almost be entirely tied to the struggle between east and west. I really like how you incorporated some of the history of the competition between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in your post. These are also some of the most beautiful pictures in the compilation.

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