David Shterenberg’s Chai was printed in Moscow in 1931, at the end of the first five-year plan. 80,000 copies of the book were printed and disseminated in the book’s first and only publication.
Shterenberg was born in Zhytomyr, Ukraine in 1881. In his young adulthood, Shterenberg became involved in Paris’s thriving arts community, where he made the acquaintance of important artists like Cezanne, Modigliani, and van Dongen. His contact with cubist artists in Paris influenced his style, yet Shterenberg never fully divorced from the figurative painting style. Chai is one of three children’s books he illustrated.
Shterenberg returned to Russia in 1917, where he made connections with important figures in the increasingly-structured Soviet arts and culture world, and where he was subsequently named Director of the Fine Arts Department of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment. Shterenberg proceeded to curate Russia’s contribution to the 1925 International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris. He wrote and illustrated Chai one year after his selection as Emeritus Artist of the Russian Republic and one year before he became Vice President of the Moscow Artists’ Union. Despite his great success in the early years of the Soviet state, Shterenberg fell from favor during Stalin’s later years, when he was criticized for failing to conform to the realist style that had become the norm and expectation. Shterenberg’s later works were not given the same treatment they enjoyed in the pre-Stalin years and some were removed from galleries where they had previously held places of honor.
A short children’s book on the production of tea, Chai was written and illustrated by Shterenberg after being commissioned by Molodaya Gvardiia. The subject of Chai is the production of tea in the Georgian trading station of Chakva. In 1931, when Chai was published, national minorities and satellite states (including Georgia) were being gathered more tightly under Russian rule as Stalin sought to place increasing emphasis on the unity and interdependency of the Soviet Empire.
For the subject of this book, Shterenberg chose the perfect topic: tea. Tea was one of Georgia’s largest, most recognizable exports, a crop famously introduced on the Black Sea coast by Russian merchants, and one whose all-union distribution, as we gather from the boxes pictured in the book, runs through both Tbilisi and Moscow. In choosing Georgian tea as the subject for his book, Shterenberg deals with a commodity that is both inextricably tied to Russian culture and essential to Georgian economic success. As such, tea places emphasis on satellite states’ usefulness to and dependency on Moscow.
In Chai, readers see how Georgia has made tea its own, just as its national party has made communism its own. As an industry, though, Georgian tea cannot stand without Russia; as a political entity, the Communist Party of Georgia, organizing Shterenberg’s tea-planters and tea-packers, does not exist apart from the Russia-dominated Soviet Union.
Christopher Calvete-Mondati, Camille Price, Jack Leahey, Nina Sola
SLA 221, Spring 2017