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Dacha - what does it mean for a Russian?

March 1995, Moscow, Russia
It's late March and the snow begins to melt in Central and North Russia. In the city, snow is already gone. Watching bright sunshine of coming spring and wet bare soil of the lawns, many dwellers of Russian cities and smaller towns begin to prepare for the new dacha season...

Oh, dacha! The part of lifestyle, favorite hobby for many tens of millions; more than just hobby, almost occupation for millions, recreation and country-wide vegetable and friut garden. In the country where so many people consider themselves poor and are so considered by foreigners, there are tens of millions of landowners, and the patches of their land are usually not all that small. Let's open the door in the fence and enter the dacha land...

[Entering the dacha]
This is what you see coming to the small gate to our dacha. Dacha house is one of 60 that form the small dacha village with three streets located between the small forest and a large field 10 miles from Moscow city limit... The house itself is small and does not look impressive. But it's cozy. It sits in the middle of well tended garden. Masha's Mom takes care of the plants
[Dacha house]
In the Soviet time, one of the most important duties of trade unions was to obtain the land for the dachas and distribute it among the members of the union. Since everyone then was a member of one or another trade union, everyone had a chance to get the land... Of course there were differences. The location, size, and quality of both the land and the buildings on it were different for a worker and a director of his/her factory. Of course there were very special dachas for party functionaries. Small luxury palaces rather than dachas for very few.

But here we will tell you about regular dachas, those that were given to people to let them grow food. Collective farms were unable to produce enough, and the money for importing food was sufficient to only buy the grain. The result was an official policy saying that citizens of then USSR were supposed to grow a lot themselves. Dachas were formed as cooperatives supervised by trade unions and the by-laws of these cooperatives were strict enough. First of all, the land technically of course did not belong to the members of those cooperatives, all land was state federal property at those times. It was leased to trade unions and could not be sold. Another serious restriction was that the usage of this land had to be limited to growing things. One simply could not make a lawn on his or her land and enjoy the grass... That would be illegal and immediately would result in kicking the person out from the dacha cooperative and replacing him with a more devoted "weekend farmer". Not more than one dacha per family was allowed.

The typical size of land given by the state to a family varied from 4 to 12 "sotok", 6 and 8 being the most common (not surprising, now a popular newspaper for dacha owners is titled "6 Sotok" and everyone perfectly understands what do they mean by that). One "sotka" = 100 square meters, so typical dacha land area of 6 sotok is equal to 0.16 acres.

[Katya's dacha]
You may have already read our February story about Katya, an artist and kayaker. Her dacha with its wall made of glass looks slightly unusual among the snows of Russian winter. Other dacha houses are seen in the background.
Statistic says that now more than 30% of Russian families have dachas. And traditionally most of the dachas were distributed by the trade union organizations at the major industrial enterprises. Therefore in many cities the figures are even higher. Majority of dacha owners were workers, according to the party policy. We are not saying that other social groups were not allowed to have dachas. It's just important to realize that there was nothing elitarian about an average dacha and almost every family could easily get it if at least one family member was working for 5 or 10 years at the same factory or plant.

But enough of dry facts... Let us add some emotions to that long technical introduction to the concept of dacha. One of the key concepts of Russian life in both Soviet and post-Soviet times.

...Dacha. What does it mean for a Muscovite? It is a resort and a slavemaster. It is a pleasure and a disaster... It's a community, it's a lifestyle... a sweet curse.

Muscovites are divided into those who already have dachas and those who do not but do want. Even those who say that they do not want to have it ... have a dream about it living somewhere in the depths of their souls. Somewhere in the "attics" of their minds... But they are not brave enough to say to themselves: yes, we really want to have a dacha... But they always silently regret about it...

So what is the dacha? It is very easy to explain. It is just a cabin. Sometimes a shack. But it is very difficult to understand that it is not just a cabin and much more than a shack for most of the people. This is the place to escape from the rash and the problems of a big city. This is the place where the kids are growing up like a grass...

[Kids at the dacha]
Marina and her summer gang
Dacha never stands alone. Dacha cooperative is a community. This is the place where the retired people find the hobby of their life: orchards, gardens, farming. This is the place where the working people are coming during the weekends to take a breath of fresh air, to have some physical labor - digging, weeding, watering plants...
[Mushroom hunting]
And the place to hunt for wild berries and mushrooms in the forests. Dacha is the way to live closer to all these natural things for those who cannot afford or do not want the travels.

Masha stands in a small greenhouse at the dacha offering a mug of fresh milk just brought from the nearby village.
[Mug of fresh milk]

Dacha is the best place for BBQ parties (called "shashlyk" parties here), samovar tea parties, singing songs with guitar, swimming in the rivers or lakes, taking sun baths, biking, hanging around for teenagers.
[Making shashlyk]
Andrey likes to roast shashlyk and knows how to do it. Here he is making the delicious meat at the party at Katya's dacha. Katya and two her daughters are watching the process, together with Marina.

And here is the preparation of an ancient Russian device for boiling water, a samovar... At our dacha we prefer to drink tea sitting around the samovar.

The place inspiring the artists and writers... A source of naturally grown fruits and vegetables for virtually everyone. A place with a different pace and priorities. How much is a metric tons of manure at the nearby farm? What is the best way to protect your cucumbers from the morning dew? These are vital topics, discussed by an academician and a janitor as equals when they meet in the street of a dacha village...
Three physicists and one chemist proudly demonstrate zucchinies... We two have PhDs in plasma physics, Masha's Dad is a full professor at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and a prominent scientist working in the most arcane realms of theoretical physics. Masha's Mom is now retired but before her field of work was chemistry. Don't we look like a great professional research team?
Usually dacha starts with an empty patch of land. It is typical that the land is either a waste-land or just very poor soil - sand or clay, and state farms do not care about it much anyway. The people who start the dacha settlement usually organize cooperatives, as we have already said. There are technically two types of the dacha cooperatives: the agricultural, the members of which are supposed to develop the land and grow the vegetables and fruit trees and berries, and just a dacha cooperative, the members of which are not obliged to develop their land and are allowed to have only flowers and lawns if they wish or maybe weeds if they like... But ... but... life shows that anyone who has a land sooner or later starts to grow something on it. And anyway "pure dachas", dachas for rest only are very rare. So it is a resort and a farm - a place to rest and a place to work.
But of course we grow not only vegetables, but beautiful flowers too. Dacha is not unreasonably functional and there is always a place or two or three for nice flowerbeds.
[Fresh garlic] [Harvesting oblepikha]
And at the time of harvest there are wonderful things to enjoy... From fresh garlic to a very useful "Siberian pineapple", oblepikha, that now is very common at the dacha gardens all over Russia Masha and her Dad are collecting oblepikha berries.... while Andrey helps himself with the red currants.
[Red currant]
By the way, this place does not meet (in most cases) traditional Western standards of comfort. There are no telephones, no hot water (except that you boil on the gas stove), at the dacha people use outhouses and makeshift showers instead of city-style bathrooms.
[Running in the fields]
Dachas are in the countryside and follow the ways of Russian villages. This is the place where city kids enjoy running in the fields and adults have an opportunity for long bicycle rides on the country roads merrily winding through the cornfields.
[Ride through the cornfields]
Most of dacha owners do not have cars. So Friday evening and Saturday morning is a rush hour for buses and local trains that carry millions (literally - millions!) of Muscovites every weekend to their dachas out of the city. Trains are packed with people of all ages and walks of life carrying bags and backpacks and small carts with the gear necessary at the dacha.
[At the train station]
Friday evening on a Moscow railway station. Time to go to the dacha
Moscow and other cities are deserted during summer weekends, so many people leave the heat and smog to visit their dachas. Retired people usually move to the dacha for the entire season, and dacha season in Central Russia begins in May and lasts until October. But already in February when it is still frost and snow outside, the dacha fanatics start to grow seedlings of tomatoes and other vegetables to be replanted into the dacha greenhouses later, in early May when it is warm enough and there is no threat of night frosts.

The last decade of April (if it's warm enough) is the beginning of the active farming at the dacha. In fact the advises what to do on the land the farmers are getting throughout all year. Almost every newspaper or magazine if they want to be popular have to publish a special section with the season advises for the farmers. For instance, now it is time to water the black currant bushes with the hot water though it is still snow and shape the apple trees and many other things to do.

...Okay guys! We've been talking for a while, and now it's time to go and to start doing some digging... Oh, this weekend farming :-)))

Andrey and Masha

PS. This story was written in 1995, as you know. Two years later, in July of 1997, I wrote part two of this dacha essay. If you are interetsed to learn about changes in Russian dacha - read "Dacha revisited".
Later on, in 2000, I added the third dacha photo album here - check DACHA AND COUNTRYSIDE - June-August 2000


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