Russian “country house” which is much more than that
First dachas in Russia appeared in the beginning of the 18th century under Peter the Great. He wanted his subordinates to stay close to him even on vacations, so he granted them plots of land near St’Petersburg. These plots of land were strategically positioned on the way to Peterhof, Tsar’s residence, so he could always stop and see how his people are spending their free time. In 1803 the famous Russian historian Karamzin wrote that in Summer Moscow gets empty since people go to dachas. And by the mid 19th century, dachas became a favorite place to rest and to have fun for all aristocrats, who could afford such a pastime. Dachas were often simple wooden houses, but always had a terrace, where the inhabitants could dine, drink tea and entertain in the long summer evenings. Not all people owned dachas, some did rent them for summer and usually traveled to dacha together with an entire family and servants (read Anton Chekhov if you want to learn more about dacha stories of that time!).
The dacha features prominently in Russian literature, particularly in romantic 19th century novels in which city dwellers spend hazy summers in white mansions with orchards, the ladies walking around under lacy umbrellas, the men drinking tea and discussing politics.
The evolution of the concept of dacha
- Later came the post-revolutionary common dachas, the perks invented by the collectivistic system. The state would allocate a piece of land to a factory or research center, and it was up to the managers to decide how to allocate the plots. As a result of this land distribution, many Russians could afford to own/use their dachas without effectively paying for them. The dacha was a place for weekend relaxation, getting back to one’s peasant roots, and, indeed, exercising the only right to private ownership allowed by the Soviet system. During perestroika, when many people lost their jobs and prices were rising daily, dacha vegetable plots enabled many to survive.
- The idea behind it was that all citizens of the country will be able to use all the country resources, all people will be equal and none would be able to exploit other people or be more rich than they are. The new Soviet Republic values were mainly collectivistic. And instead of individually owned dachas, general population got access to group recreational facilities such as sanatoriums. A popular Soviet phrase was: “All around me belongs to the people, all around me belongs to me”.
- There was however another saying – “everybody is equal, but some are more equal than others”. Josef Stalin, who ruled the country from 1924 till 1953, was fond of a good countryside recreation himself. He had many dachas in the most picturesque parts of Russia – from Moscow region to the Black Sea. These were huge mansions, fully staffed and ready to welcome him any time he decides to show up.
- Stalin figured that granting such privilege as summer dacha to his closest people in the government and to the VIP people from culture and science élite will be very motivating for them. These dachas did not belong to their inhabitants, furniture and lamps had itinerary numbers on them, but these dachas were a big luxury and getting one was considered to be a huge privilege. To simplify things – dachas were grouped by the occupation – that is how we still have “villages” of writers, composers, artists, scientists etc. At that time all dachas were a place to rest, fish, pick berries and mushrooms, play sports and entertain with friends.
Russian Dacha after WWII
After the war, limited food resources in the country forced the government to allow people to get plots of land and support families by growing veggies there. However, building a house on that plot was strictly forbidden. In the 60s, during Nikita Khrushchev’s time, ordinary people were finally allowed to get dachas. But it was so not easy to get one. Distribution was merit-based, one needed to fully comply with the ideology and wait in a long line, sometimes for many years.
These dachas were not as luxurious – it was usually just a tiny plot of land with permission to build a small one-floor house there. Inhabitants still did not own it, but could use it for growing produce strictly for family consumption (not for sale). Still, people felt as if it was their own land, so getting a dacha became one the dreams of Soviet people, in the same line as getting an apartment or a car. There were many manipulations – how to get dacha quicker. In Russia law and rules were always particularistic, so if you knew somebody, you could get to the desired dacha much quicker.
This was the time when the function of dacha started to morph – it became a place of hard work in the field rather than a place to rest and entertain. That function of dacha came in very handy in the turbulent times of the 90s, when food was scarce in the stores and people really supported their families by growing fruits and vegetables their land. A lot of home-grown produce was conserved for winter in either pickled or salted form or as home-made jams.
Modern dacha. How do Russians spend time at dachas these days?
A lot of people still work full-time, but during the summer season every Friday evening many leave the city to have a weekend working hard in the field. Needless to say – they have to cope with huge traffic jams on the way to dacha and back. For some growing produce is a hobby or habit, some (mostly older generations) enjoy to cultivate land with their own hands, some like the idea of organic produce or say that potatoes, grown in your own garden just taste better. Still, many people do think of dacha as a place to have fun. These people mow their lawns and plant flowers, so they still have to do their share of work to make their dacha look presentable. But instead of spending all time in the garden, they invite friends and entertain them, grill meat, eat strawberries, play sports and enjoy other recreational activities. Hopefully, this will become a mass trend and more people will enjoy resting at dacha rather than working there!
Keen to get yourself immersed in Russian language and culture and make new friendships? If you are lucky, you can even get invited to shashlik (BBQ) at your new friends’ dacha! We are running a few face-to-face and online courses, click here for more details.
Article by Elena Killiakova