Top of page

A Cup of Tea with Trans-Siberian Railway Postcards

Share this post:

(This post is by Charlotte Kropf, intern, European Reading Room)

Looking for ways to get warm and cozy this winter? A nice cup of tea might do the trick. Tea is an extremely important beverage in Russian day-to-day life. Up until the 19th century, tea was almost exclusively enjoyed by the upper classes in Russia. Once the plant was able to be cultivated outside of China, due in large part to improvements in transportation during the Industrial Era, tea became cheaper and thus universally consumed. Tea was so popular that tea tablets, a Russian innovation consisting of compressed tealeaf powder, were valuable enough to serve as currency in Siberia in the 19th century. It was during that century in Russia that railroads, tourism, the Far East, and tea all emerged as profitable industries. This is represented by the Tsine-Louine postcard series, a collection of popular postcards published between 1899 and 1904 and manufactured by a St. Petersburg tea company. The series is available at the Library of Congress website.

Razviesochnoe otdielenie [Chavka] (Weighing section, Chakva tea factory). Photograph by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, ca. 1905-15. Interior of a tea packaging and weighing operation located at the Chakva tea farm and processing plant just north of Batumi, close to the Black Sea coast in what is now the Republic of Georgia. The Chakva plant was one of the major suppliers of tea to all parts of the Russian Empire.
Bearded man drinking tea beside a samovar.” Thomas Fogarty, ca. 1890-1938. A unique aspect of Russian tea consumption is the usage of a samovar, a vessel that keeps tea warm for hours. The samovar holds a special cultural significance to Russians, remaining a symbol of hospitality and the domestic realm. The word sam-ovar is derived from sam-, meaning “self”, and varit’, meaning “to boil”, thus, “self-boiler.” 

To understand the context for these postcards, we need to make a brief detour to France. On a spring day in Paris in 1889, the long-awaited Eiffel Tower was unveiled to the public at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 – a massive international fair hosted in the city. The structure, initially perceived as a “tragic” menace, invoked protests on account of its disturbing presence.  The tower’s unusual aesthetic, constituted by cold iron architecture, was emblematic of the Industrial Revolution, which marked a time of rapid modernization. Despite the initial objections, the Eiffel Tower turned out to be a permanent symbol, largely due to its documentation on postcards, which became a popular souvenir after the fair. Postcards presented an opportunity to memorialize, advertise and celebrate national sites and attractions.

French fads were influential in the Russian Empire, where the St. Petersburg-based tea company Tsine-Louine, or “Compagnie Tsine Louine” as it styled itself in French, followed suit and published the “Siberia” postcard series. The name “Tsine-Louine” (Цзинь-Лун) is based on the popular Chinese green tea “Longjing” (Лунцзин, 龙井), also known by its literal translated name “Dragon Well” tea. The Tsine-Louine postcards provided a way for Russians to exchange illustrative images of Siberia.

Siberia became a topic of interest at the time due to the construction of the Trans-Siberian railroad in 1891, just eight years prior to the release of the postcard series. The construction of the Trans-Siberian railroad brought a subsequent wave of Russian settlers into the region, estimated at five million between 1891 and 1914. Count Sergei Witte, minister of finance to both Tsar Alexander III and Tsar Nicholas II, spearheaded the railway project and emphasized its purpose in connecting Siberia to European Russia. The postcard series takes one on a tour of the Tsine-Louine company’s tea trading route along the new railroad, highlighting the indigenous peoples of the area and local natural sites. The series thus demonstrates the fascinating intersection between tea as a commodity and the further incorporation of Siberia into the Russian empire through the railroad.

This blog post will provide a mini “tour” of the postcard series, describing four items in the collection to give a preview of its contents. The lithographs presented on the postcards were created ca. 1899-1904 by artists Valerii Ovsiannikov (1862-1911) and Nikolai Karazin (1842-1908), the latter becoming an illustrator after serving as a military officer. The series is available online as part of a project sponsored by the Library of Congress called the “Meeting of Frontiers.” The project seeks to examine the parallel eras of exploration and settlement in the American West and Siberian Russia. The National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg shared this collection of postcards to the project for presentation on the Library of Congress website.

Vid na Sai︠a︡nskie belki” (A View of the Snow-Capped Peaks of the Sayan Mountains).

The first postcard on our tour is titled “A View of the Snow-Capped Peaks of the Saiany Mountains” (Vid na Sai︠a︡nskie belki). This mountain range once provided the border between Mongolia and Russia. During the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, the Imperial Department of Agriculture commissioned an expedition to the Sayan Mountains to assess the health of marten populations and the need for protective measures. Marten are weasel-like creatures valued for their fur. Saagaan dali, an herb native to the area, is known to have medicinal properties. It is typically brewed with black tea or on its own.

Molodye buriatki” (Young Buriat Girls).

The second postcard is called “Young Buryat Girls” (Molodyia Buriatiki).  Before its settlement by the Russians, Siberia was occupied by a diverse range of ethnic groups and cultures. The Buryat people were the original group to occupy the Lake Baikal region and are one of the largest communities native to Siberia.

As cattle owners, the Buryat community historically also bred horses. Some Buryat chiefs even owned tens of thousands. In the 17th and 18th centuries, groups like the Buryat and other Siberian peoples were required to give fur as tribute to the Russian Empire. Native Siberians were later required to pay dues mostly in the form of transport services. The Buryat region was integral to Russia’s ambition for trade; the land was essential for a trade route to China, and an early-1800s Russian mission heading to Beijing required 500 Buryat horses at each checkpoint along the journey.

Mongolʹskie i︠u︡rty” (Mongol Yurts).

The third postcard is called “Mongol Yurts” (Mongol’skiia Iurty). “Iurta,” the Russian term for these dwellings common in Central Asia, was derived from the Turkic word “jurt” meaning “people,” or the territory on which they roam. The yurt tent, used by nomadic peoples of central Asia, is easily transportable and accommodating to the mobile way of life. In the mid-13th century, the Mongol governor at Samarkand, Mas’ud Beg, had a tent woven entirely from silk and gold.

Man in uniform beside building, yurt in background.” Photograph by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, ca. 1905-15.


Shamanskiĭ kamenʹ” (Shaman Rock)

The final postcard features “Shaman Rock” (Shamanskii Kamen’), a site located at Cape Burkhan on Lake Baikal. The name Burkhan was given to the cape by the Buryats to indicate that a god resides here, as “Burkhan” means “God” or “Buddha” in Mongolic languages. The traditional religion of the Buryat people is characterized by influences of Tibetan Buddhism and Siberian shamanism, or the belief in an unseen realm of gods and spirits connected to the natural world by shamans.

The first outsiders to explore Lake Baikal noted that the Buryats of Baikal traditionally feared to go near Shaman Rock or the cave of Cape Burkhan. Only shamans had the divine right to approach the forbidden place. If it couldn’t be avoided, horses’ hoofs were wrapped in felt and leather so they did not disturb the lord of Baikal. Pagan priests still perform rituals in the cave to cleanse ancestral karma and remove curses.

The Tsine-Louine Collection offers a gateway into the geographical imagination of the Russian Empire in the 19th  century, a space then being shaped by the route of the Trans-Siberian railroad.

To continue your tour and view the rest of the collection, go to “digital collections,” select “photos, prints, drawings” from the pull-down menu and type either “Ovsiannikov, Valerii Pavlovich” or “Karazin, N. N. (Nikolaĭ Nikolaevich)” into the search box.

Works Referenced: digital collections

 Glenn Randall Mack and Asele Surina. “Food Culture in Russia and Central Asia.” Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Anna Reid. “The Shaman’s Coat: A Native History of Siberia.” London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, c2002.

Alison Rowley. “Open Letters: Russian Popular Culture and the Picture Postcard, 1880-1922.” Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, c2013.

Yuri Slezkine. “Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North.” Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.


For questions, contact Library of Congress reference staff through Ask a Librarian.


Subscribe to 4 Corners of the World – it’s free! – and the world’s largest library will send you cool stories about its collections from around the world!


Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.