THIS AND THAT

The mysteries of russian dacha

There are some Russian words that never need to be translated. One of them is the word “dacha.” Are you sure you know exactly what this word means?

Summer is here, which means that Muscovites have started to migrate to their summer homes, which are called “dachas.” In spite of the fact that the word no longer needs to be translated, the concept continues will likely always be somewhat of a mystery to foreigners. In simple terms, a dacha is just a Russian summer home. However, this definition fails to encapsulate the essence of what a dacha is. For Russians, it is more than just a home - dacha is an entire lifestyle. During the summer months, it is a simple truth that does not require further evidence.

Foreigners first learned about Russian dachas from books, first and foremost from the works of Anton Chekhov. For example, his brilliant play “The Cherry Orchard” is set mostly in a cherry orchard that is about to be cut down to make room for dachas. Works by journalists and diplomats who worked in Russia, as well as books by sovietologists, also offered insights about dachas. A lot of books contained descriptions of dachas that belonged to leaders like Stalin, Brezhnev and Gorbachev. The attempted coup in 1991, by the way, happened when Mikhail Gorbachev was at his dacha in Crimea.

But these dachas have little in common with the dachas that Muscovites go to every summer. The history of these dachas begins after WWII. The Soviet government decided to give away land plots that were six hundred square meters in size to its citizens (This is why some people still refer to dachas as “shest sotok,” which translates roughly as “six one hundreds”).

Of course, there was a catch to getting a plot of free land. Every person who was allocated a plot was obligated to grow produce on it: potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, carrots, herbs. People also planted fruit trees, such as apple trees, pear trees and cherry trees.

“In the USSR, people could get fruits and vegetables at the store, but there wasn’t a wide selection and the quality wasn’t so great either. The quality of produce from kholkhoz markets was much better, but nobody could afford to shop there. So the people who had dachas frequently used them to grow produce. After the war, the authorities decided to give away land to people as opposed to having people take over land plots on their own. Workers received land plots in gardening communities - the famous six hundred square meters. Those who didn’t have a plot of their own were jealous of those who did, because they had better food,” writes Kommersant in an article about Russian dachas.

People who refused to turn dachas into gardens risked having their land plots taken away. After all, the reason dachas were allocated to people in the first place is because the Soviet government was hoping to at least partially solve the problem of produce shortages, which was a pressing issue in the USSR. In any case, while only the wealthiest people in the West could afford to have summer homes, almost everybody in the USSR had one. Most of the people who owned dachas were not incredibly well-off.

This went on until almost the very end of the 20th century. In the beginning of the new millennium, popular attitudes toward dachas began to change. Obviously, the state doesn’t hand out plots of land anymore. Today, the best way to get a dacha is to simply buy one. You can grow produce on it if you want or just use it as a place you can relax.
In any case, when asked how they plan on spending the summer,
25 percent of Russians answer: “At my dacha, tending to my
garden and relaxing.”

But regardless of what people do at dachas, there is one thing
that everybody enjoys - “shashlik” (Russian for barbeque).
At night, dachas all over the country become surrounded by
a cloud of fragrant barbeque smoke. To Russian people, “dacha”
and “shashlik” have long become synonyms. It’s difficult to
even try to imagine one without the other!

Russian dacha culture is so rich that foreigners who come
here quickly develop an affinity for it. Many either end up
getting their own dachas they go to on the weekends or just
living in cozy houses outside of Moscow. For example, one
of the German businessmen on the pages of this issue, who
has been working in Moscow for a long time, talked about
how thrilled he is about life outside the city, which is why
he and his family decided to leave their apartment behind
and move to a dacha.

Pictures by Anastasia Saifulina

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