A Kombucha Story From Russia

Joseph Stalin, premier of the Soviet Union, was said to have had an obsessive fear of dying of cancer. After World War II the number of cancer cases in the Soviet Union increased dramatically from year to year. In 1951 the Russian Academy of Science and the Central Oncological Research Institute in Moscow began to analyze statistical data on the variations in number of cancer cases in the regions, districts and cities of the USSR.

They noted that there were hardly any cancer cases in the districts of Solikamsk and Beresniki in the Central Urals, and those few cases were only in people who had recently moved there.

Two teams of 10 scientists each, plus support people, were sent to investigate the environmental conditions and lifestyles of the people who lived in those districts in the hope of discovering clues that might lead to an effective treatment for cancer. They studied the origins of the population, age groups, ethnic distinctions, eating, drinking, sleeping habits, and other variables.

They discovered very high levels of environmental pollution. Potassium, lead, mercury, asbestos mines and their associated processing plants were creating toxic living conditions much worse than those occurring in the older industrial areas of the USSR. Trees were dying, as were fish in nearby waters.

Aside from the increased toxicity of the environment, the investigators could find very little that was substantially different from populations in other areas of the USSR. Ironically, there was a higher level of alcohol and nicotine consumption, but much lower levels of absenteeism and arrests for drunken offenses. Morale of workers was higher than in other areas. Norms for work production were constantly being exceeded. No explanation could be found for these anomalies.

One of the team leaders was visiting the home of a family as part of the investigation. The wife and husband were at work and the children were at school. An old lady was there, doing housework. She offered him a cool beverage which he found pleasant, tasty and refreshing. When he asked what it was, the old lady said it was “tea kvass.” The scientist was surprised. The only kvass he knew was a fermented Russian beverage similar to beer, made from rye or barley. The old lady explained that “tea kvass” was not made from rye or barley, but from sweetened tea which had been fermented by means of a “tea fungus.” She showed him 10 stoneware jars in an adjacent room which had cloths tied over their mouths. She uncovered one. It smelled strongly of fermentation. Floating on top of the liquid was a large, round, translucent, whitish, jelly-like thing, flat as a pancake. This was the “tea fungus.”

By coincidence, the other team working in the Beresniki district also stumbled onto this almost unknown “tea kvass” during their researches. Investigation disclosed that in both regions just about every household produced this “tea wine” and consumed it in ample quantities.

Even alcoholics drank quantities of it before, during, and after drinking alcohol. Although consuming large quantities of alcohol, drinkers showed hardly any signs of inebriation. Offenses of drunkenness and accidents on the road or in the workplace were rare.

No scientist on either team could identify or classify the “tea fungus.” The Moscow Central Bacteriological Institute was able to identify it from color photos and samples as Kombucha. They relied primarily on a book written in 1926 by a German, W. Henneberg.

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