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ARTICLES AND INFORMATION  / DACHA WANNA BE RUSSIAN?
01.08.2005


the Governor of Smolensk Oblast at his Dacha
Smolensk's governor "relaxes" at his dacha with his son.

«Единственное, что я себе позволяю – иногда после работы на час, другой заезжать к себе в деревню подышать воздухом, физически поработать. Сюда приезжают друзья, с которыми я могу поговорить не о работе, а знаете, и ни о чем, и обо всем…». - Виктор Маслов

"The one thing I allow myself - sometimes after work, for an hour or so, I stop by my dacha in the country to breathe the air, do physical labor.  Friends arrive there, and I can talk with them not about work and, you know, not about that, but about everything.  - Victor Maslov, Governor of Smolensk Oblast' (pictured left, at his dacha).   

Dacha Wanna Be Russian?
A History of the Russian Dacha
by Josh Wilson

It's  Дачный сезон (dacha season) in Russia. Dachas have existed for centuries, surviving revolutions, purges, and falls. They remain an integral, if at times hard-to-define part of Russian life; many Russians scoff at them, many hold them dear, and many, oddly, do both. Yet "dacha season" remains so widespread that stores announce Распродажи в дачный сезон (dacha season sales -- for which building and gardening equipment are discounted) in ads nearly as large and pervasive as those for "back-to-school" in America.

So what is a "dacha?"  The word has made significant inroads into English because, although it can theoretically be translated as "summer house," or "cottage" the dacha is not necessarily that comfortable, leisurely symbol of affluence, or that picturesque image of country living.   A dacha usually lays a 1-2 hour local train (электрички - elektrichki) ride away.  These elektrichki are usually overcrowded with people of every social class and, we have seen, the occasional livestock.  For those fortunate enough to own a car (it is common to have a dacha, but no car), the trip can take twice as long, as the roads are not built to handle the mass exodus that occurs every weekend. 

To look back in time, the term "dacha" was born of early medieval Russian.  It meant "a gift given publicly," (Публичный дар) and later came to specifically mean "property given and used in feudal fashion" (имущество, переданное и используемое по-феодальному).  A dacha could include land, houses, outbuildings, serfs (serf = Крепостный крестьянин), etc.  It was the main unit of property right up until emancipation radically changed property concepts in 1861.  The definition of "dacha" changed as well and in modern Russian this feudal conceptualization is better served by "поместье" (manor) rather than "dacha."

Peter the Great also altered the meaning, even before emancipation.  After the Great Northern War, armed with expanses of new land and a desire to create a "Road to Versailles" that would run from St. Petersburg to the royal dacha of Peterhof, Peter gave out tracts bordering the Gulf of Finland, instructing the recipients to build grand houses and sculpted gardens.  These new dachas would be used primarily not for agriculture, but social entertaining.  The owners were expected to maintain city residences as well. 

     
Dachas come in all shapes and sizes, from modest huts to large, modern homes 

As the real estate market liberalized, and as dissatisfaction with living in the bustling, expensive, and dirty St. Petersburg grew, owning a dacha became popular among the new “middle class” of bureaucrats and businessmen.  Hence, the word actually came to mean: "summer house."  A building boom ensued, forming communities of dachas.  The craze even hit the working class, who rented rooms or "corners" (углы) in other people’s dachas for a few rubles for the summer.  By 1850, дачники (dachniki - "summer residents") became a staple of Russian literature, often satirized as lazy or, alternatively, revered as Russia’s newly cultured class. 

This uncertain cultural status would be important after the October Revolution, when many people took the communists at their word that land should be communal.  A lot of people marched into the countryside and built small dachas with garden plots wherever someone else was not already living.  The reason for this is clear: the First World War had caused starvation, and people were just trying to survive. 

dacha with garden plot Steven Lovell, in his award-winning Summerfolk, a History of the Dacha, understates this unofficial and undocumented process, but it seems to have not been uncommon.  He states that a fair number of dachas were officially registered well after their construction.  There are also many Muscovites who claim their family dachas were built in this manner. 

The main controversy revolved around whether the dacha should be part of the bourgeois past or the communist future. Although a policy was never officially spelled out, dachas were placed under the control of district committees known as raiispolkomi (Райисполкомы or Районные исполнительные комитеты - "Regional Executive Committees"), and thus effectively legitimized but with restrictions: each family was allowed only one dacha and "lordly" dachas (with running water or large stoves) were forcibly nationalized.    

As more individuals and unions sought dacha space, even outbuildings were re-classed as dachas.  Several country estates were turned into Дома Отдыха (Doma Otdixa). Many of these "houses of rest," which can be understood as a sort of communal dacha, are still state-operated and inexpensive.  New construction was entrusted mainly to housing cooperatives.

Pasternak's Dacha at PeredelkinoDachas also became a political tool.  For example, funding to build the writers’ colony at Peredelkino was freed shortly after the Union of Soviet Writers adopted an official, state-friendly genre.  Afterwards, only writers in good standing with the state received dachas there.  Political meetings from the local to the national level were often charged with accusations of блат (blat - a Russian word referring to systematized bribe-taking and favor-playing), in connection with dacha allocations.  Recently, Alexei Pankin, the opinion page editor for Izvestia, even published a piece in the Moscow Times entitled "The Dacha Theory of History," in which he asserts that all major political shakeups in Russia are preceded by infighting about the control of dachas.

Interestingly, demand continued to swell and the dacha solidified as a cultural icon despite that most were poorly built, even unsanitary structures.  They were and largely are "summer houses" because most lack heating and are thus unusable during the winter.  Many westerners might also find it strange that Russians would commute from the city to the countryside (the opposite from the western practice) in order to visit such places regularly. 

As the Russian economy expands, many young Russians are beginning to think of a dacha more as a summer home, as a place of relative affluence where vacations are taken and gardening is laughable.  While a different word has yet replace the small, rustic dacha, these Russians will insist that they are connected almost solely with elderly pensioners, who use them to bolster their meager state-provided funds.  While this seems to be not entirely the case, the fact that the question "what is a dacha" will spark an argument is interesting in and of itself.  

But for many Russians, the dacha is still a simple home-away-from-home.  Every weekend, many don large rubber boots (резиновые сапоги) and weed and care for their vegetable patches.  They eat shashlik (a kind of barbeque on skewers), play outdoor games, go for walks and just relax.  At night, they retire to what usually amounts to a simple wooden shack, often lacking running water and electricity.  To many, this is a "return to the soil," to their roots and the ways of their forefathers.  Although some scoff at this ramshackle Russian tradition, both supporters and scoffers alike will agree that the dacha is an important part of народность (Russianness). 

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Aug, 2005 SRAS Newsletter 
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