Dacha Idylls: Living Organically in Russia's Countryside

Dacha Idylls: Living Organically in Russia's Countryside

by Melissa L. Caldwell

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Dacha Idylls is a lively account of dacha life and how Russians experience this deeply rooted tradition of the summer cottage amid the changing cultural, economic, and political landscape of postsocialist Russia. Simultaneously beloved and reviled, dachas wield a power that makes owning and caring for them an essential part of life. Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In this book, Melissa L. Caldwell captures the dacha’s abiding traditions and demonstrates why Russians insist that these dwellings are key to understanding Russian life. She draws on literary texts as well as observations from dacha dwellers to highlight this enduring fact of Russian culture at a time when so much has changed. Caldwell presents the dacha world in all its richness and complexity—a “good life” that draws inspiration from the natural environment in which it is situated.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520262850
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/28/2010
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Melissa L. Caldwell is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Not by Bread Alone: Social Support in the New Russia (UC Press).

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Dacha Idylls

Living Organically in Russia's Countryside

By Melissa L. Caldwell


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94787-0


Dacha Enchantments

The city is always a stress ... But with nature, it is like you have gone to another planet. —Irina, sixties, Berezka (Birch Tree) dacha community

Here [at the dacha] it is a piece of a different life. It is impossible to compare this life with the life you live the rest of the year. —Veronika, fifties, Iablochnyi Sad (Apple Orchard) dacha community

The dacha is, in general, a place of refuge from the usual problems. —Mila, thirties, Nadezhda (Hope) dacha cooperative

In summer, it may appear that all of Russia has gone on vacation. The bustle and noise of daily life in towns and cities noticeably ease with the departure of residents to public parks, summer camps, cottage communities, and tourist destinations elsewhere. The pace of life slows down as people meander aimlessly through the dense thickets of parks and forests, nap on blankets spread along riverbanks, or read while absently pushing baby carriages containing contentedly sleeping infants through city parks. Formal business attire gives way to gently faded and patched work clothes and bathing suits. Businesses reduce services, or sometimes close their facilities altogether, for several weeks to accommodate the absences of their employees. Lines shorten in banks, post offices, and grocery stores in the aftermath of the mass exodus of urbanites who have crammed into packed buses, trains, and cars to head out of town. The only shops and restaurants that seem to attract a lively, or even increased, business are cottage and garden supply stores selling lawn equipment, patio furniture, and seeds and garden supplies, and outdoor cafés offering cold beer, shashlyk (shish kebabs), and snacks. Conversations among relatives, friends, coworkers, and strangers alike focus on holiday plans, as people exchange tips on the best sites for sunbathing, the trains likely to be less crowded, and new recipes for garden-fresh produce.

Russians' appreciation for summertime pursuits reflects a serious sense of purpose that requires careful attention throughout the year. In the depths of winter Russians are already thinking ahead to summer as they consult almanacs to determine the optimal time to schedule their time off and plant their gardens. Before the snow has melted, seedlings are pushing up in containers on kitchen windowsills, waiting to be replanted in gardens as soon as the ground is soft. Families savor the dwindling supply of pickles, preserves, and dried mushrooms from last year's harvest and wax romantic about the coming year's yield. Travelers consult tour books and make budgets to set aside sufficient funds for a holiday trip. Travel agencies fill public spaces and stuff private mailboxes with glossy advertisements and hire young women to stand outside metro stations and distribute brochures. Stores selling home and outdoor goods expand their selections with the latest in travel clothing, sporting gear, fishing and hunting supplies, lawn furniture, and outdoor grilling equipment. Bookstores set aside ever larger sections to accommodate the rapidly growing selection of books, magazines, newspapers, and other media devoted to every aspect of summer life imaginable: travel guides; publications on hunting, fishing, hiking, and bicycling, as well as more exotic "adventure sports"; guides to cottage design, repair, and decoration; books on gardening and flower arranging; and cookbooks for garden foods.

Among the multitude of possible leisure pursuits, one activity stands out as perhaps the most recognizable aspect of Russian summer culture: visiting the dacha, or summer cottage. Simultaneously beloved and reviled, dachas possess an undeniable and curious power that compels Russians of all classes and generations and from all parts of the country to leave the comfort of their homes, sit (or stand) for hours while packed in overcrowded and overheated buses and trains or trapped in their cars in the gridlock that surrounds large cities and small towns alike, and then devote themselves to even longer hours engaged in the exhausting manual labors of gardening and home repairs, all while swatting incessant mosquitoes and flies, dragging buckets of water from a well, and availing themselves of pit latrines. Dachas are not simply a prime destination for summertime, however; for many they are the only conceivable destination, a sentiment captured in the comments of Mila, a professional in her early thirties: "As soon as dacha season approaches, people start longing for it. The only thing that interests them is the dacha. No longer do other people's problems interest them."

For Russians, dachas belong to a world distanced from ordinary life, a sentiment captured in the phrases "another planet," "refuge," and "a piece of a different life" that appear in the epigraphs to this chapter. This sense of a world apart is reinforced both visually and viscerally. The here-and-now urban reality of anonymous crowds, massive blocks of generic apartment buildings, and ever-present dust and pollution contrast sharply with the quiet coolness of endless green forests, the fairy-tale qualities evoked by gingerbread-style cottage decorations, and the drowsy laziness brought on by the summer heat. The value of the dacha as refuge evinces powerful qualities of a self-indulgent privacy, a sensibility underscored by the rest of Mila's comments: "Even though during the depths of the winter season everyone is living with other people's problems, in the summer they live only with the problems of their own dachas."

The enchanting qualities associated with dachas can be deceptive, however, as accounts of peaceful solitude disguise the more mundane, and even irritating, realities of this world. Mila's idyllic depiction of dacha life is a case in point: the dacha she describes as a "refuge" is in fact a two-room bare-bones cottage and tiny garden plot sandwiched among a cluster of older, more substantial cottages and gardens. To access the garden and the front door, she and her husband must walk through the yards of their neighbors. Irina's comments about the stress-free, otherworldly natural setting in which her dacha is located similarly obscure the reality that her cottage is located only a few hundred meters from a busy railway line and thus constantly in full view of train travelers. Antonina, like several other devout dacha enthusiasts, eventually confessed her secret relief at having sold her dacha, thereby ridding herself of the nuisance of keeping up with her garden and visits from friends. More than one acquaintance has also planned a vacation abroad with the specific purpose of recovering from their time at the dacha. Such attitudes illustrate the fundamentally paradoxical nature of dachas. Even as dachas are valued for the leisure and pleasure associated with them, they also require hard work and dedication in terms of time, energy, and labor. As friends and acquaintances emphasized repeatedly, dacha life is exhausting and frequently downright unpleasant. Yet complaints about the difficulties of dacha life are not enough to dissuade Russians from heading to their dachas or, more intriguingly, from voicing their beliefs that the dacha life is relaxing, pleasurable, and desirable.

An account of contemporary dacha living, this book ponders what makes this lifestyle so meaningful and appealing and why Russians claim to feel such a strong affinity for their dachas, even as they grumble about the aches and pains that result from gardening and the annoyances of hosting a seemingly endless stream of visitors. The dacha world in all its richness and complexity symbolizes and encapsulates a meaningful life—a "good life"—that draws inspiration from and plays out through the natural environment in which it is situated. This ideal "good life" stimulates the senses, animates the imagination, and affirms feelings of belonging to a community of people who share a similar set of experiences and sensibilities. At the same time, this "good life" is not relegated to the peripheries of Russian social life as might be imagined with leisure activities, but instead extends into the most ordinary and fundamental parts of Russians' everyday worlds.

Even though the types of activities that occupy Russians at their dachas—hiking, swimming, napping, picnicking, mushroom and berry picking, and visiting with friends—closely resemble the activities that engage cottagers elsewhere in Europe (Bren 2002; Hervouet 2007; Löfgren 1987), Russians such as those described in this book are quick to insist on the distinctiveness of the Russian dacha phenomenon. These claims of cultural exceptionalism coincide with a protectionist ethos according to which the less savory aspects of dacha life become the shared secret of "insiders" who can collectively poke fun at them while shielding them from the less empathetic gaze of "outsiders." These exceptionalist and protectionist orientations derive from a geographic, or even ecological, nationalism in which Russia's natural environment is the source from which a uniquely Russian nation emerged and to which it is biologically, socially, and spiritually best suited and most attuned. Hence dachas, as institutions that are both culturally and environmentally derived, encapsulate and project the country's social history and heritage in ways that are intimately familiar to people across Russia and across generations.

My project in this book is both to provide a detailed ethnographic account of "dacha life" (dachnaia zhizn') and to show how this lifestyle is not peripheral to Russian social life but is in fact a central, even ordinary, part of Russians' everyday lives at the personal, community, and even national levels. As will become apparent in the chapters that follow, dacha life, and the natural settings and qualities with which it is linked, are both microcosms of and conduits for fundamental issues in today's Russia: the politics of national identity and nationalism, the transition to capitalism, projects of social transformation, and the legacies of socialism, among others.

In this book I propose to take the dacha seriously as a cultural institution that engages and refracts broader social concerns. My discussion will move beyond immediate descriptions of contemporary dacha life and show how Russians appreciate dachas for their power to make sense of the larger world around them. This project of taking dachas seriously will also entail relocating them from their apparent exile on the periphery of scholarly treatments of Russia. Despite the importance and centrality of dachas in Russian life over the past several centuries, and despite the obvious preoccupation with dachas demonstrated by Russian elites, artists, and ordinary citizens alike, accounts of dacha life have been largely overlooked as a topic of serious scholarship and reserved primarily for more popular accounts of "Russian culture" such as those that appear in newspaper articles and travel writing. Although dachas are not completely excised from scholarly analyses, they are primarily limited to discussions of the value of dacha gardens in Russia's subsistence economy or used as a colorful backdrop for other topics (Clarke 2002; Ortar 2005; Struyk and Angelici 1996; Zavisca 2003). Only rarely have they been taken seriously as subjects of their own, as in Stephen Lovell's historical study of pre-Soviet and Soviet dachas (2002, 2003), Caroline Humphrey's account of post-Soviet dacha architectural styles and socioeconomic differentiation (1998), and Ronan Hervouet's work on dacha life in Belarus (2003, 2007). As will become apparent, this oversight not only suggests an intellectual devaluation of dachas, but, more significantly, it obscures the productive and essential contributions of dachas and dacha enthusiasts to fundamental and vital processes of nation and state building.


Etymologically, the word dacha comes from the Russian word dat', "to give." According to historian Stephen Lovell, the word dacha can be traced back to the eleventh century in Old Russian, with the medieval origins of the word indicating "the result of a gift bestowed publicly." By the seventeenth century dacha had come to signify land distributed by the state (Lovell 2003:8). These historical and linguistic underpinnings of the word dacha were details that numerous informants emphasized when asked to describe dachas. In one particularly revealing response Angela, a third-generation dacha enthusiast, referenced the verb dat' in her explanation that Russians view the dacha as something that is "given" to them by someone else rather than something that they purchase themselves, a sentiment that she observed was apparent in the fact that Russians often refer to their dachas as dannii (sing.), the past participle construction of dat', meaning "was given or having been given."

In more practical terms, the term dacha has evolved from referring to a parcel of land to indicating the residence erected on that land, and more precisely to a recreational summer home in the country (Lovell 2003:8). Lovell locates the origins of the modern notion of the dacha as a leisure-oriented residence in the land reforms initiated by Peter the Great at the beginning of the eighteenth century. One component of Peter's project of transforming Russia's wilderness into urban spaces entailed allocating land for housing developments, a practice that established suburban regions where summer cottages were built (Lovell 2003:9). Between the early eighteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century, dachas, which could be either rural or suburban plots of land, continued to gain significance, eventually becoming formally established as part of the summer culture of Russian elites (Galtz 2000; Lovell 2003). In the second half of the nineteenth century, the emergence of a middle class in Russia and the development of leisure as a form of conspicuous consumption shifted cottaging and other recreational activities into the mainstream (Gorsuch and Koenker 2006; McReynolds 2003). The transformation of dachas into a mass phenomenon for virtually all segments of society was cemented in the Soviet period, when dacha plots were allocated to workers, in part as remuneration and in part as an incentive.

Issues of allocation, as well as public debates about the politics of allocation, are persistent themes in dacha practices. The emphasis on the fact that the land has been given rather than procured through an act of taking or buying underscores a notion of property ownership based not on active acquisition, but rather on receipt. When asked to describe how they came to be dacha owners, informants responded with the year of allocation and then an indirect object construction using either dali, the past tense of the verb "to give," or dannii, the past participle form of the verb, in order to indicate property "that they gave [us]." These linguistic forms reveal two important details about how Russians conceptualize dacha ownership: first, that dacha property is a gift bestowed on them; and second, that there is a sense of rights and entitlement associated with dachas, as signaled by the use of the undefined third person plural to indicate the subject—the "giver"—which is understood to be the state. Perhaps just as revealing, however, is what Angela observed about Russian attitudes toward the longterm ownership of these properties. Angela noted that Russian lacked a corresponding notion of disposing—or "giving away" (pridat')—a dacha, primarily because there was no legal provision for disposing of dachas. "No one gives away [a dacha]" (Nikomu ne pridat'), Angela commented. With this observation, Angela illuminated both the theme of dacha owners being recipients but not agents of disposition, as well as the pervasive sense that dacha life is so inherent to Russian culture that its elimination is inconceivable.

Nevertheless, even as dacha access corresponded less rigidly to social status, clear differences persisted between the summer homes of the Soviet political elite and the summer work cottages of ordinary citizens. The association of dachas with upper-class lifestyles persisted into the twentieth century, as the word dacha officially denoted the spacious and luxurious summer homes of the country's elite, a trend that has continued into the post-Soviet period with the privately owned brick mansions surrounded by high stone walls and security cameras (and even a moat in one remarkable instance that I observed outside Moscow) of Russia's nouveaux riches. Mirroring suburbanization trends of the nineteenth century, large single-family residences are colonizing the Russian countryside as the financial capital of Russia's present-day middle class increases and tightly bounded urban centers give way to suburban sprawl. Gradually, the homogenous McMansion architectural styles that characterized the villas built during the early post-Soviet years are being replaced by contemporary American-style "taunkhausy" (townhouses) and Northern European–style "kottedzhy" (cottages).


Excerpted from Dacha Idylls by Melissa L. Caldwell. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Note on Transliteration and Pronunciation

1. Dacha Enchantments
2. Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|Intimate Irritations: Living with Chekhov at the Dacha
3. The Pleasure of Pain: Gardening for the Soul
4. Natural Foods: Feeding the Body and Nourishing the Soul
5. Disappearing Dachniki
6. Dacha Democracy: Building Civil Society in Out-of-the-Way Places
7. The Daily Dacha Soap Opera


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