I Tried to Erase My Soviet Past, but Tea Brought Me Back

published May 26, 2016
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(Image credit: Margarita Gokun Silver)

Growing up in 1970s and 1980s Moscow, my day began and ended with tea. Always in a cup with a saucer, in the mornings it accompanied a breakfast of eggs or a cheese sandwich and in the evenings a dushevni (or soulful) conversation with my mother.

We made the tea by mixing boiling hot water with the concentrated tea brew, or zavarka, directly in the cups. The staple of every Soviet household, zavarka was kept in a ceramic teapot and lasted at least a day.

Preparing it was my father’s responsibility. On mornings when none was left over from the day before, he got up early, turned on the old radio transmitter atop the refrigerator, and set the kettle on the stove. After it whistled he scooped several large tablespoons of loose black tea into our flowery teapot and filled it to the brim with boiling water.

He didn’t trust either my mother or me with this process; so important was zavarka to our everyday tea ritual. Make it too strong and the tea will be bitter, its fragrance lost in the darkness of the brew; make it too weak and you’d have to use a lot just to have one cup; make it just right and enjoy it not only in the morning, but also throughout the day and at night.

* * *

I came of age in a Soviet kitchen culture where conversations of importance happened “za chashkoi chaia,” or with a cup of tea — and they mainly took place in the kitchen.

The smallest room in our apartment, it measured only six square meters (about 65 square feet), but fit a refrigerator, stove, small counter with a sink, table with four stools, and, depending on the gathering, between three and 10 people. There in the evenings, my parents and their guests argued about the merits of the latest samizdat (or banned literature), recounted Voice of America broadcasts they’d caught on their shortwave, and shared jokes about Soviet leaders dying in quick succession in the early 1980s.

When I was 13 my mother decided to upgrade our kitchen to make these gatherings more comfortable. She put her name in a queue of several others, and six months later a new wooden table and an L-shaped bench arrived to replace the old. It was made in secret by an artisan — private entrepreneurship was forbidden in the USSR — and fit our tiny kitchen so well that we could now squeeze in more visitors.

Sweets formed an integral part of the tea ritual in our house. When in the afternoons after school — with parents still safely at work — my friends and I gathered to gossip about boys and listen to bootlegged Bruce Springsteen cassettes, we poured tea into our cups and sliced pieces of my mother’s sharlotka, her famous apple cake.

If there was no cake, we rummaged the kitchen for biscuits. And in the absence of biscuits, we scooped strawberry jam, preserved by my grandmother the year before, right from the jar. Just as any conversation, political or otherwise, didn’t flow without the tea, the tea didn’t pour without a sweet treat on a plate next to it.

* * *

I left Moscow en route to the United States together with my family when I was 20 — a few weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. My last kitchen conversation involved a friendly clash with a friend on the health of the Soviet Union. A spat between Gorbachev and Sakharov had just taken place on TV and I told my friend I didn’t believe the Soviet Union had a future. She disagreed, we recorded our argument on a cassette for me to take as a memento, and we toasted my prospects in the United States with tea.

On arrival to America I longed to obliterate everything Russian about me. My former home reminded me of control that wasn’t welcome in my new, freedom-laden society. Eager to assimilate, I settled in Nashua, NH, where the Russian-speaking community was non-existent, and enrolled in a small liberal arts college where I was the only student from the “Empire of Evil.”

I began dating an American, and the evening tea ritual changed. Our apartment’s kitchen opened into a living room, and instead of late-night conversations over tea, we had late night TV. Loose tea was expensive and the idea of keeping zavarka for a day or two now seemed not only backward, but also unsanitary.

I started favoring coffee at breakfast and I switched to teabags for my evening tea. I brewed them in a mug — cups with saucers erased from my routine, along with other Russian discards — and the only thing that survived this transformation was the sweets. I could never have my tea without them.

* * *

Sixteen years after I left Moscow, I returned to the country of my birth. My husband’s job moved us to St. Petersburg for four years, and while 2005 Russia felt like a different planet compared to the 1989 Soviet Union, some things were familiar: My Russian friends still gathered in kitchens to discuss important matters, and tea accompanied those conversations.

When my stovetop espresso maker broke, I bought some loose tea, and for the first time in more than a decade, brewed it in a teapot in the morning. Then I poured it into a cup with a saucer and served it with a syrok — the sweet cottage cheese nugget glazed with dark chocolate I adored as a child — to my five-year-old daughter.

I never fixed that espresso maker. Instead I let the Russian part of me I sought to erase back into my life. Each morning I make a cup of tea for breakfast, and in the evenings I share the long-forgotten ritual with my daughter. When we visit my parents, with sweet treats from my childhood — zefir, pastila, and sushki — we sit together “za chashkoi chaia” and talk.