Hymn to the Dacha
The Skhodnia dacha settlement outside Moscow is a classic Soviet-era dacha development, where the citizen could get fresh air and grow otherwise hard-to-obtain fresh fruit and vegetables.
Text and photos Ian Mitchell
Though English has given a huge number of words to Russian, the converse is not the case. Among the relatively few borrowings have been vodka, babushka, sputnik, and, less happily, gulag and pogrom. With the possible exception of vodka, none of these carries a positive, modern, “lifestyle” connotation. But there is one word not on that list that conveys something both essentially Russian and highly desirable to the harassed, time-tortured, over-technologized Westerner: dacha.
The dacha is a place of peace, where good fellowship flourishes and lazy days meander by saturated by the aroma of dill and wild garlic and the evocative smell of pine woods in summer. With luck, both will be overlaid in the heat of the day by the mouthwatering tang of roasting shashlik.
We have nothing like this in the West. A country cottage in the English Lake District, for example, is catastrophically civilized by comparison. Consumer magazines tell the proud cottage owner how to create the “Beatrix Potter” look or the “Dorothy Wordsworth” feel. Style — or the pretension to it — is ubiquitous. Money obtrudes into every corner of the pseudo-antique dressers, Laura Ashley-style chintz quilts, and other items that scream ostentatious consumption rather than peaceful getaway.
Even humbler holiday homes are still likely to have some of the facilities we associate with rural affluence, like running water, chairs without springs poking through the cushions, and a feeling of relative privacy from the neighbors. In contrast, the traditional Russian dacha has nothing quite so onerous to distract from the main business of dacha-going. The dacha is for total relaxation in as unsophisticated and therefore informal an environment as possible.
So how did so cultured an institution as the dacha evolve in a country which, for the last 300 years, has been trying to “catch up” with the West?
The first dachas were built, like so many other novelties, on the order of Peter the Great. He forced the aristocracy of Russia to move to St. Petersburg and build houses in the bog beside the Baltic that he had selected for his new, civilized capital.
These people had been accustomed to living on their country estates or in their Moscow mansions, which in those days offered a relatively rural experience. Many did not take to “city” living, European-style. Peter thought to mitigate the problem by providing plots of land along the Gulf of Finland so that city folk of means could build small country cottages where they could spend at least part of the year in relatively rustic surroundings. Because such a plot was given, it was known as dacha, a word derived from dat’, the Russian for “to give.”
It was not until the growth of a bureaucratic middle class the 19th century that dachas began to assume a recognizably modern form. The top-hatted chinovnik [bureaucrat] did not want his family to have to spend the whole summer cooped up in one of the new tenement buildings that started going up after the Napoleonic Wars to house the empire’s rapidly increasing numbers of clerks and administrators.
They were soon joined by professionals like doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, and other types that modern Russian life had called into being — or, more accurately, imported from Europe. All wanted fresh air and physical freedom for their families when the weather was warm. Hence the “demand” side of the dacha equation.
The “supply” side was created by the railways. From the 1850s onwards, it became increasingly easy to travel to the countryside from Moscow and Petersburg on a Saturday and return on a Sunday evening. The golden age of dachas was the half-century preceding World War I, when many families could afford to have everyone except the working husband spend the whole summer out at the dacha.
The fashion was for informal living on the English suburban model, and the watchword was practicality rather than prestige. The highlight of the experience was “dacha romance,” which flourished on hot weekdays when wives had time on their hands while husbands were cooped up in offices back in the city.
The British, and later American, response to the degradation of the urban environment by industrial development was to create suburbs, where town and country were integrated. The Russian response was to create dachas, which were purely rural and too far removed from town to permit daily commuting on a longterm basis.
In the late 19th century, dachas ranged from 20-room houses with plumbing and heating systems to two-room huts sufficient for shelter only in the summer months. Drive out of St. Petersburg along the highway to Vyborg, and you will see some magnificent mansions, built in the Victorian Gothic style. Or visit Skhodnya, 10 miles beyond the Moscow suburb of Khimki, and you will see some buildings that look as if they might have been constructed from packing crates. There never was an archetype; a dacha is defined less by the sort of the building as by the use to which its owners put it.
In Soviet times, a dacha was a privilege to be granted or withheld by the Party and one to be used with modesty and without ostentation. That is perhaps the image that has stuck in the Western mind: The dacha as a primitive summer house, grouped together in settlements situated near railway stations an hour or two from the city center. In the austere fashion of the non-materialistic habits of the beneficiaries of dialectical materialism, people spent their time at their dachas reading, chatting, playing chess, and snoozing in the post-revolutionary sunshine.
At its best and most comfortable, a dacha is, of course, primitive because the essence of the dacha experience is informality and convenience. Places like Peredelkino (see here) came to be associated with the lightly dissident culture of the Soviet intelligentsia, which added another dimension to the feeling of the dacha as a sanctuary for personal freedom.
The building that was once the dacha of Lavrenty Beria, chief of Stalin’s secret police.
Today it is part of a rest home complex
In post-Soviet Russia, the dacha is dying. The advent of mass motoring and the fashion for commuting is turning Russians into aspirant suburbanites. Now that Russians are free to submerge themselves in genuine materialism, the austere traditions of the peaceful weekend retreat in the cool forests outside the city are changing. Dacha-going, at least as it has been known for the last 150 years, may become one more tradition that Russia will lose as a result of its irrational desire to imitate the unpeaceful West.
More and more, Russian executives live like their Western counterparts: in houses with gardens from which there is no need to escape to dachas. As holiday homes on the Black Sea or in Spain become popular, the essence of dacha living — a low-budget weekend retreat that is also a summer house — slips away like last summer’s.