Amelia Loveday delves into Russia’s dacha culture
The words ‘holiday home’, evoke a certain type of image in the collective British psyche. Whether it’s a cosy cottage nestled in a Cornish cove, or a Spanish-island redbrick-barbecue kind of affair, we all know someone who’s got one. If we know them well enough, we even get to enjoy the benefits from time to time.
And then there’s the Russian dacha, a different phenomenon entirely. TfL’s worst nightmare is a weekly occurrence during the Moscow summer: Friday evenings bear witness to twelve-mile traffic jams in every direction on roads ill-equipped to deal with them, as roughly half of the capital’s population makes a break for the countryside. Russians do ‘getting back to nature’ the same way they do most things in life – they take it to the extreme.
While many of us shrink away from the idea of no hot water and a shovel-oriented toilet situation, your average Russian stands firmly amongst those who consider this kind of experience ‘nourishing for the soul’.
In a country with seemingly endless reserves of space, the fact that the ‘luxury’ of a second residence is one enjoyed by the majority rather than the envied few is not particularly surprising. Board the overnight train from Moscow to Petersburg and witness for yourself the appearance at 20 minute intervals of ‘dacha land’, clusters of brightly coloured – for want of a better word – sheds, in varying states of dereliction. Of course, the glamour is there in the lavish mansions of the nouveau riche, the hockey players and Putin’s karate pals, but the dacha of your average Russian family makes a much more subdued statement. What distinguishes the dacha most, however, is its place in Russian culture.
Dachas appeared in Russia at the beginning of the 18th century. Derived from the word dat’, meaning ‘to give’, these plots of land were bequeathed routinely and strategically to the aristocracy by Peter the Great as a means of keeping his subordinates close to him during their vacations. Thus, St Petersburg’s surrounding countryside became littered with variations of the theme of mansion, equipped with saunas, samovars and, of course, a full household staff.
With the abolition of private land ownership following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, dachas became the destinations for more communal vacation projects. True Soviet spirit nevertheless prevailed, and the notion that ‘everybody is equal, but some are more equal than others’ materialised soon enough; Stalin stepped seamlessly into the role of travel agent for the ultimate countryside get away, routinely awarding and retracting the dacha privilege as yet another means of coercing loyalty from the party elite.
A century later and I was able to seek out my own dacha experience thanks to everyone’s favourite exchange platform, Airbnb. Having paid roughly a tenner to put our lives in the hands of a chain-smoking ex-con with a minibus, a group of us arrived (via an impeccably executed motorway U-turn) at what is best described as a cross between a chalet and a bunker. Encapsulating effectively the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty that plagues contemporary Russia, our substantial pile of bricks was owned by a twenty-three-year-old self-made millionaire, and stood incongruously next to a small shack guarded by a scarecrow decked out in a German trench coat and a gas mask.
I learnt a lot during my stay. Such as to always check a rowing boat for holes before boarding. And that a two-hour walk along a motorway is probably not worth the contents of the off-licence at the end. I must note, however, the generosity of our (singular) neighbour, a wizened and weather-beaten farmer who called in to present us with a fish he’d caught that day. It was, truly, emblematic of the spirit of friendship and the coming together of cultures, at least until he let slip his life-long ambition of obtaining an English wife.
Sadly, a few months later, when I received an invite to spend a weekend chopping wood and drinking vodka in a snowy forest with a posse of provincial nineteen-year-olds, I felt inclined to turn it down. But please, don’t let me deter anyone from embarking on an experience that may well prove to be life changing. I firmly believe that you get out of a dacha holiday what you’re willing to put in. The days might pass in a haze of vodka and pickled herring, or you may choose to spend your time hugging birch trees and being repeatedly hit with sticks in one of Russia’s notorious banyas. Either way, it’s likely to be a spiritual journey of sorts.
Image credits: Calvert Journal