Russian Language Blog

Tea in Russia is More Than Just Tea Posted by on Jun 27, 2011 in Culture, Traditions

If you meet and befriend a Russian, at some point you will be invited over to his or her place. Such invitation won’t be anything formal. Your friend might say «будешь рядом, заходи в гости» [when you are in the area, do stop by] or «приходи, чайку попьём» [come over for some tea] or «будет время, забегай» [stop by when you have time]. The implication of such casualness is that «вам всегда рады» [you are always welcome].

Russians are very «радушные хозяева» [genial hosts] and generally meet their guests «с распростёртыми объятиями» [with arms wide open], yet they also have a saying «незваный гость хуже татарина» [an uninvited guest is worse than a Tartar]. Nowadays this means that you a) avoid «напрашиваться в гости» [solicit an invite] and b) no matter how casually the invite is worded, you need to call before stopping by.

An invite «на чашку чая» [for a cup of tea] might sound simple and straightforward, but the actual «чаепитие» [tea drinking] rarely is. Here’s what you might expect:

As a guest, you don’t have much to worry about. After calling ahead to confirm, you just need to stop by «кондитерская» [a confectionery shop] to pick up «чтото к чаю» [little something to go with tea]. This can be «тортик» [a small cake], «печенье» [cookies], «пирожные» [pastry], «пряники» [Russian gingerbread cookies] or a box of «зефир» [Russian-style marshmallows] or «шоколадные конфеты» [chocolate candy].

Once you arrive you must change from «уличная обувь» [street shoes] into «тапочки» [house slippers] in the hallway. The hostess will apologize for «беспорядок» [the mess] even though she «прибрала перед приходом» [tidied up right before your arrival] and everything looks «чисто и уютно» [clean and cozy].

Then the best part of your visit begins. You are shown into a kitchen. «Кухня» [kitchen] in Russia is not just a humble utilitarian «помещение» [room] for turning raw ingredients into delicious meals. «Кухня» is a place to entertain guests, but only the dear ones, the ones that are «друзья» [friends], not mere «знакомые» [acquaintances].

Here, in the kitchen, you will be offered a meal. So what that the original invite was only for a cup of tea or coffee. Show me a Russian who serves you just tea or just coffee and I will tell you that they’ve lived in the West for far too long.

If you think that I «преувеличиваю» [am exaggerating], I assure you I am not. «Любая уважающая себя хозяйка» [Every self-respecting hostess] has a few favorite «рецепты быстрой выпечки к чаю» [quick tea-time recipes] ready. Just the other day I was invited to a friend’s house. I was running a bit late which gave her enough time to bake not one, but two desserts, slice a giant watermelon, and assemble a few «бутерброды» [sandwiches].

It is your duty as a guest to try at least a little bit of everything your hostess serves you. Remember, no matter how much you eat, your hostess will likely admonish you to eat more by suggesting «попробуй вот это» [try this] or «возьми еще кусочек» [take another small piece]. The only good way I found around this is to respond with «Последний кусочек. Очень вкусно, но я пытаюсь поддерживать диету» [This is the last bite. It’s delicious, but I am trying to stick to a diet].

Yet the best part of such invitation is neither food nor drink, but conversation. It is entirely in the Russian style of «кухонные разговоры» [kitchen discussions] – meandering from «глобальное» [global] to «очень личное» [very personal]. Such «посиделки» [get-togethers] can go on for as long as there’s hot tea in «чайник» [a tea-kettle].

The atmosphere is usually so genial and warm that getting up to leave might require considerable effort. That’s why you might want to precede any excuse with «к сожалению» [regretfully] as in

«К сожалению, завтра рано на работу» [Regretfully, I must go to work early tomorrow].

«К сожалению, пора. Завтра улетаем на отдых, а чемоданы еще не сложены» [Regretfully, we are going on vacation tomorrow and haven’t packed the bags yet].

What is your favorite «еда к чаю» [tea-time food]?

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  1. Дж:

    Очень интересная история!! Вспоминаю сиделки на кухне в россии)))

  2. Ron Marcus:

    I experienced this warm hospitality during my visit there last January. It is quite a nice aspect of the culture.


    awesome!! good job guys!! very very accurate!!! molodzi!!!

    • yelena: Спасибо! (краснея и скромно улыбаясь) [Thank you! (blushing and smiling modestly)]

  4. Richard:

    One habit I’ve picked up from Russian friends is having tea with lemon чай с лимоном, no cream or sugar. I know that it’s not unique to Russian culture, but it definitely seems popular. Tomato juice also seems very popular with Russians, but I’m getting off topic!

    I noticed that Yelena mentioned бутерброды or sandwiches. This is a word that I didn’t know and I wonder if it comes from the German word for bread, “Brot”.

    Always off topic and always curious,
    Richard 😉

    P.S. Beautiful самовар (samovar) in the picture!

  5. Liz Wild:

    This post is exactly what I needed! Once a week I meet with an elderly Russian woman (come to think of it, I’m a little elderly myself!) to help her study for the US Citizenship test. I speak a little Russian so we manage to get along. But half the lesson is taken up with an elaborate “tea party” – which you describe perfectly in this piece. Although we have a lot of fun, I am going to have to memorize some of the phrases you suggest. Thanks so much!

    • yelena:

      @Liz Wild Liz, this reminds me of the time my parents sold something on Craigslist. When a buyer showed up for what was supposed to be a quick look, he was treated to the entire “tea ceremony”, complete with freshly-baked muffins 🙂

  6. Rob McGee:

    Richard: Бутерброд indeed comes from the German Butterbrot, which means “buttered bread”. And in Russia, бутерброды will invariably be “open-faced sandwiches” — that is, ОДИН ломтик хлеба (one slice of bread) with сыр (cheese) or колбаса (sausage) or помидор (tomato) or икра (caviar) or паштет (meat pâté) or варенье/джем (fruit preserves/jam) or whatever on top of it.

    “Sandwich” in the English-language sense (TWO slices of bread with some filling between them) is сандвич or сэндвич in Russian.

    • yelena:

      @Rob McGee Rob, just like the song goes “два кусочека колбаски/у тебя лежали на столе” [two pieces of sausage/were on your table] –

  7. Rob McGee:

    “«Любая уважающая себя хозяйка» [Every self-respecting hostess] has a few favorite «рецепты быстрой выпечки к чаю» [quick tea-time recipes] ready.”

    In her pan-Soviet cookbook Please to the Table, Anya von Bremzen (who immigrated to the US with her parents) describes her mother’s method of making quick пирожки using quintessentially American “pop-tube” refrigerated biscuit dough!

  8. Tania:

    What a wonderfull picture and story, it reminds me to visit my friends where we still have our “tea”. And the tradition continuous.

  9. Richard:


    Thanks for clearing that up for me. I find it interesting the way languages borrow from each other, it’s all good though!

    A while back I asked a Russian acquaintance about when to switch from Вы to ты and he brought up the topic of “Bruderschaft”, another German import. The question of when to start using ты instead of Вы has always seemed kind of fuzzy to my English-speaking mind. I usually just let the Russian set the tone. Any thoughts?

  10. Rob McGee:

    Richard — I admit I don’t remember ever hearing “Bruderschaft” used in Russian, but it only took me two seconds of Googling to find some info about it. The literal Russian translation of German Brüderschaft (brotherhood) would be братство, but that’s not how the borrowed word брудершафт is used — instead, it refers to a special drinking ritual that signifies two guys have become “buddies” (no longer merely acquaintances) and can speak to each other на ты. According to wikipedia, the specialized meaning of брудершафт actually comes from the German word Brüderschafttrinken (brotherhood-drinking).

    I would possibly translate брудершафт as “a toast to buddyhood”.

    Bear in mind the derivation of English buddy (дружок, братец) — it was originally a “baby talk” pronunciation of brother (something like бадда, because the “br” and “th” sounds are difficult for young children), with the typical English diminutive ending -y added.

  11. Richard:


    That’s exactly what my Russian friend meant by брудершафт, he showed me how to do it (linking arms while drinking) and said that we could now address each other на ты. My friend is 55 so maybe it’s not that popular with younger Russians. But he did mean it in the sense of “brotherhood” – a sign of friendship.

    All I really know is that it led to more than a few shots of vodka and lots of jokes шутки and laughter смех! 😀

  12. Rob McGee:

    Oh, regarding ты and вы — I think the wisest policy, as a foreigner, is to keep using вы until your Russian acquaintance insists on ты. That way there’s not the smallest danger of causing discomfort by switching to вы too soon.

    What happens if you’re in a large group of Russians who are intimate friends with each other, but only one of them is someone you know well and are already on на ты terms with? In that case, it’s still a good idea to keep using вы with everyone else — in other words, don’t assume that “ты privileges” automatically transfer to friends of friends! (In a relaxed social setting like a party, the odds are that many of the friend-of-friend Russians will encourage you to address them на ты rather quickly — perhaps sooner than they would with other Russians — because they don’t want to seem cold and inhospitable towards their friend’s foreign guest.)

    Finally, always use ты when speaking to Russian children who aren’t yet teenagers. With teenagers, it might depend on the context — should you, as the “visiting adult foreigner”, relate to them as children, or as “young adults”? Here, you have to play it by ear, and take your cues from Russian adults of your own age.

  13. Rob McGee:

    Richard: Actually, I do remember young Russian men (early 20s) showing me how to do the linked-arms drinking ritual when I was in Moscow in 1993-94. It was only the word for it, брудершафт, that I didn’t remember.

    At the time, I thought it was rather funny because it reminded me of how the bride and groom will traditionally have their first drink of champagne at the post-wedding party here in the States!

  14. Rob McGee:

    Еще по теме, о как перевести “брудершафт” на английский:

    Pabstism (Пэбстизм) — Обряд, при котором мужики-студенты обрызгают друг друга дешёвым пивом в освящении своего братства. [A ritual in which young men (often college students) celebrate brotherhood by spraying each other with cheap beer.]

    Bar-Schlitzvah (Бар-Шлитцва) — Очень похоже на Пэбстизм, но с добавлением кошерной закуской. [Similar to a “Pabstism”, but with kosher snacks.]

    NB: “baptism” = крещение; “Pabst” и “Schlitz” — это торговые марки известных дешёвых пиндостанских пив.

    It’s important to note that Pabst and Schlitz are famous for being “a poor man’s beer” — you only drink them if you can’t afford better.

    Короче, следует сказать, что “Pabst” : питьё :: Беломорканал : курение !

  15. Richard:

    Thanks for clearing up the rules of etiquette for ты and Вы, Rob. Much appreciated.

    I agree that брудершафт felt awkward at first, it reminded me of a bride “невеста” and groom “жених” in the West as well.

    Have you ever seen the movie “Patton”? There’s a scene in which Patton drinks брудершафт style with a Russian general, one s.o.b. to another! LOL

  16. Minority:

    I love tea more than coffee. And almost all the time I have some candies, cookies, chocolate or other kind of sweets with it. Most of all I like chocolate candies and fruit jellies. But sometimes I don’t want sweets and take some salt cracker instead.

    Richard, to tell the truth, you always ask complicated questions. =)

    As for me, I don’t use “вы” in private conversations with my coevals or just young people even if I don’t know them well. So, if you’re talking to somebody of your age and younger in the pub or something like that, you may use “ты” without any doubts. Sometimes you even can hear something like “Почему на ‘вы’? Разве я так плохо выгляжу?” [Why “вы”? Do I look so bad/old?]

    But, when you need more official conversation.. being in some place like bank.. or may be shop.. or just in need to ask question to stranger in the street, then use “вы”. For example: “Девушка, скажите, у вас есть карандаши?” [Miss, could you help me please? Do you have pencils?]. “Извините, не подскажете, где здесь ближайшая станция метро?” [Excuse me, could you tell me where is the closest subway station?]

    And may be there’re reasons to be sad we don’t like such formality nowadays. So these words of Pushkin lost their charming sense:

    Пустое “вы” сердечным “ты”
    Она, обмолвясь, заменила,
    И все счастливые мечты
    В душе влюбленной возбудила.
    Пред ней задумчиво стою,
    Свести очей с нее нет силы;
    И говорю ей: “Как вы милы!”
    И мыслю: “Как тебя люблю!”

  17. Rob McGee:

    @Minority: Your explanation was perfectly clear, except for one thing: coeval is a rather rarely used term in English, and one would expect to see it mainly in formal technical contexts such as archeology, geology, evolutionary biology, etc.

    “There is disagreement on the question of whether these two dinosaur species were coeval.” (Meaning, “it’s unclear if the two species lived at the same time, or if one became extinct before the other appeared.”)

    In the context you were using, it sounds much more natural to say “my contemporaries” or “my age-peers” or simply “people my own age.”

  18. Minority:

    Rob, thanks for correction. Now I know the truth. ))
    Though I’m surprised, ’cause I looked at “contemporary” in the dictionary while writing that post..
    “современник” [i.e. everybody who lives at the same period/moment of time, no matter of the age] was the first translation, so I decided it’s not the word I need.

  19. Rob McGee:

    Actually, now that I think about it, “contemporaries” doesn’t really sound natural at all in this context, so forget I said that! (It’s only by comparison with “coevals” that “contemporaries” sounds sorta/kinda okay, but it’s still not the best word choice.)

    But “people my own age” is good in conversation, while “age-peers” one would use mainly in more formal or academic writing.

  20. Richard:


    Thanks for the explanation! I guess I do ask some complicated questions, but you’ll never know if you don’t ask, right? Вопросы приводят к мудрости! 😉

    As far as your use of the word “coeval” is concerned, Rob’s suggestion of “people my own age” works or you could use the word “peers” or “generation” as well. For example, “I don’t use ‘вы’ in private conversations with people of my generation…”.

    See, isn’t English fun! LOL

    That’s a very beautiful quotation from Pushkin! Writers like Pushkin will never lose their charm nor their profound insight into human nature.

    Мне надо читать больше произведений Пушкина!

  21. Minority:

    Richard, English is fun too 🙂