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Life at the Dacha
Summer has come — at least, according to the calendar. And the majority of Russians don’t even need to raise the question of where to spend it. At the dacha, of course! On one’s own plot of land, with a hothouse full of tomatoes, kebabs on the deck, a jasmine bush, and neighbors who jealously watch after your apple trees, cherry trees, and strawberry garden.
Not everyone has the means to go on a trip or vacation at a resort, but it’s no good to spend the summer in a polluted stone jungle—especially as the summer lasts none too long in Russia’s climes. So there’s just one option: the dacha! All the more since the dacha has been a beloved tradition in Russia for a very long time—nearly since the 18th century.
A Petrine Innovation
In 1722 Peter the Great signed an edict ordering for plots of land along the Peterhof roadway to be cleared in order to build “seaside houses” along the Gulf of Finland. The size of each plot was delimited with military precision: 100 sazhens in width by 1000 in length (that is, 213 x 2133 meters). The area was beautified: trees were planted along the coast, the coast itself was reinforced, and a dike was built. In fact, these plots of land were the first dachas: Peter bestowed them upon his closest supporters, simply so they would build country houses for relaxation.
Unlike manors, villages, and estates—which were generously distributed as a reward for loyalty and service—these rectangles of land didn’t have any particular economic sense: it was impossible to keep oneself fed on them, and this land was not distinguished by its special fertility. But such land was well suited for building oneself a stylish mansion and going on a tear not far from the capital, and what’s more, this road led to the country residence of Peter himself.
The Most High Prince Alexander Menshikov would buy four such plots of land in 1725—and major construction would begin on his super-dacha—the summer mansion Moncourage. He didn’t manage to complete it, as he fell into disfavor, and the unfinished project would gradually transform into the Menshikov ruin. But one hundred years later, in 1825, the Personal Dacha of His Imperial Highness would be located on this same spot, and Nikolai I would name it Alexandria in honor of his wife. The location for the dacha was masterfully picked: the sea breeze, lush foliage, and blue Baltic sky created a true northern resort.
The first imperial order to use the word “dacha” (“On the distribution in the city of Kronstadt of neighboring land for the building of houses or dachas and the cultivation of gardens”) was signed by Emperor Nikolai I on 29 November 1844. It was decreed that plots of land were to be allotted primarily to military officers continuously living in Kronstadt. Nikolai I loved order in everything, and therefore, he made designs for ideal gardening. A single point in the order established how these dachas should look, what kind of fence should enclose it—in general, it controlled just about everything but the number of fruit trees on a plot. If the land recipient was in no hurry to start using it, the dacha could also be taken away.
The problem of summer leisure primarily faced residents of the capitals—and not all of them. Provincial cities were themselves covered in foliage, a little garden by the house sufficed to cool off and get some rest, and residents could bathe in a nearby stream. For the peasants who made up the vast majority of the Russian population, the harvest began in the summer: a summer day could provide food for the year.
Talashkino Manor “Teremok” Hut. Photo: Iu. Mineeva (wikipedia.org)
Summer was a true Hell for the common city-dweller. We may but recall Dostoevsky’s description: “It was terribly hot outside, stuffy and crowded; everywhere there was whitewash, scaffolding, brick, dust, and that certain summer stench so well known to every Petersburger who doesn’t have the means to rent a dacha.” Tradesmen, common folk, and all kinds of urban poor didn’t think much about leisure—worries about their daily bread consumed all of their time and strength. But for a civil servant, merchant, intellectual or artist, it was unthinkable to stay in the city for the whole summer, if they had some means. Especially once sanitary conditions are taken into account: problematic plumbing, flourishing canals, the terrible overpopulation of the capital, tainted water, and rotting trash on the backstairs…
Nobles had manors: rural properties, where family members, tutors, and servants would go for the whole summer. Friends of the household would also be invited there. In general, in these old “Nests of the Gentry” (to quote Turgenev), one could spend a wonderful summer vacation. One need only remember the renowned Abramtsevo, the estate of Savva Mamontov—or Talashkino, the “nest” of the Tenishevs, where the best artists of the time assembled, schools for folk craft were organized, and life bustled.
But dachas gradually came into fashion. Manors and estates—often thousands of kilometers from the capitals—were too far away to have an improvised picnic there. The dacha was the best solution!
The mansions near Moscow, Petersburg, and Kazan belonging to aristocrats were stunning in their architecture, splendor, and inventiveness. The owners could allow themselves to build their dachas how they wanted: an English cottage, a little house resembling a carved wooden box, an arabesque palace, or a little two-story manor with a donjon. Alongside them, they would lay our gardens, design landscapes, dig ponds, and build orangeries. Even today, these houses—which have been either miraculously saved or nearly destroyed—they attract attention. Now, the majority of them have long been located within city limits, but at one time they were located at a considerable distance from the city noise and bustle. Refined society would gather there and enjoy strolls, concerts, balls, and exclusive gatherings; visiting celebrities and local starts would also be invited there, as attested in Pushkin’s fragment, “The guests gathered at the dacha.” In effect, these were less dachas than fashionable suburban residences. “To say that someone lived at the dacha meant the same thing as to say, he’s rich, powerful, and distinguished,” observed F. Bulgarin in his essay “Dachas.”
But those who weren’t born “with a silver spoon in their mouth” also wanted to enjoy the quiet, singing birds, sun, and fresh air! They had one option: rent a place to live in a rural area and travel there for two, three, or even four months. The demand quickly gave rise to new offerings. In the area surrounding Petersburg, enterprising peasants soon knew that dacha-goers were profitable and the summers would bring earnings. Soon, newly straightened up houses and specially built “chicken coups” were selling like hot cakes. What’s more, all summer dacha-goers bought milk, freshly baked bread, fruits, and berries. They needed firewood, as well as the services of a caretaker and a watchman. Overall, the dacha industry quickly started to grow with feverish speed, changing old-fashioned villages and towns to match the tastes of urban dwellers.
Dachas firmly became an indispensible part of urban life together with the railroad. Those regions that had coveted railways prospered. The land near the railroad rose starkly in price. Let’s remember how Lopakhin in Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard conceived a plan to save the bankrupt Ranevskaya: “Your estate lies only twenty versts from the city, the railroad runs nearby, and if you were to break up the cherry orchard and the land along the lake into dacha lots and then rent those dachas, you would have at the very least twenty-five thousand a year in income. […] You would make from each dacha-goer, at the very least, twenty five rubles a year for each 2.7 acres of land, and if you advertise right now, I promise you, you won’t have a single clump of land left by fall—their gather it all up. In a word, I congratulate you on being saved. The location is wonderful, the river is deep. Only, of course, you need to tidy and clean it up…for instance, let’s say, you would need to tear down all the old structures—like this house, which isn’t fit for anyone anymore—and chop down the old cherry orchard.”
This advice was truly practical. Enterprising people followed it. For instance, merchant of the first guild Pavel Grigorievich Kurikov, who had bought at auction the Ligov estate by Petersburg, transformed his purchase into a true Klondike, constructing a dacha settlement and letting the land by the dacha, as well as the buildings.
Days at the Dacha
As a rule, dachas were let without furniture. It was simply a living space, with a little kitchen, an icebox, cellar, and firewood. Balconies were valued very highly, as one could drink tea on them. A typical dacha wasn’t too expensive—of course, in “fashionable” areas, “fashionable” prices were set, but it was entirely possible to rent a three-room dacha for the whole summer for 50, or even for 40 rubles. For comparison, an analogous apartment in Petersburg would go for a much higher price.
[Drinking Tea at the Dacha. Photo: samovargrad.ru]
Advertisements to rent dachas would appear in special periodical editions beginning in March—and before it had even stopped snowing, interested persons were already riding out to exactingly examine the dacha in preparation for the summer. Of course, there were sometimes exceptional cases:
“People have started searching for dachas in March, when there was still snow on the ground and nothing was visible.
‘Here we have a wonderful garden,’ sings the dacha-owner, indicating a snowy field.
‘And here you’ll have gazebos and fountains. Now, of course, you can’t see anything—it’s all under the snow, but in the summer it’s wonderful.’
You would then come in the summer with your children and your things—and there’s no garden, no gazebo. And instead of a fountain, there’s a doghouse. And the landlady herself is surprised:
‘What were you thinking? Flowers? Nothing of the sort. You were supposed to plant the flowers yourself. The landlady assures you only the space. And the fountain—God forbid it! You yourself know.
‘What would happen?’
‘If one of you, God forbid, were to get tipsy, then, God forbid, you would come home at night, and, God forbid, you would fall, and, God forbid, you could fall headfirst into the found, so that there’s no chance of getting off without a call from the police.” (Teffi, “Dacha Season”)
What did people do at the dacha? Whatever they wanted—though they certainly didn’t want to weed the gardens or burying potatoes (as today’s dacha-goers love to show off). At the dacha, one was supposed to rest and gather one’s strength. Dacha-goers fished, rode upon calm village horses, observed each others lives, picked berries and mushrooms in the forest, went out in the evenings to listen to the nightingales, and swam. Games were very popular, including card games, charades of various kinds, and bouts-rimes.
“Summer” life at the dacha was much simpler and more carefree than “winter” life in the city. The chain of social conventions that shackled “respectable people” in the city was just not as necessary at the dacha. It was easier to meet people, and interaction among neighbors, near and far, took place more simply. Less attention was paid to one’s dress, and more was given to one’s amicability and geniality. It was possible to have “dacha friendships,” and even love affairs, though most often these also ended at the dacha.
People were happy to get together for a common cause, or for mutual entertainment. Sometimes, if enough people were interested, a play or a concert might be organized, in which amateurs from the local village would take part. It sometimes happened that the village residents would form a nonprofessional football team, and then, towns would play against each other on an ordinary open lot with dug out grooves in place of goal posts. Contemporaries remember what “away games” were like: by agreement, the players would travel by train to other dacha towns along the same line—and their enthusiastic fans would ride with them in the same car.
Of course, “dacha life” was integral not only to Petersburg, but, to a significant degree, to Moscow as well.
At the same time, memoirists and newspaper reporters of the time attest that Moscow was a more livable city than Petersburg: its boulevards, shaded parks, and very proximately located suburbs (a favorite place for Muscovites to relax) allowed residents to take refuge, at least somewhat, during the summer heat. And there were less people in Moscow. Nonetheless, the fashion for leisure at the dacha made its way to the former capital as well.
The favorite “pastoral nooks” of Moscow were Ostankino, Sokolniki, and Butovo—these places were where the Moscow dachas clustered. By the way, in the 1920s, when it was almost impossible to find a living space in Moscow, the poet Mayakovsky and the Brik family lived at a “winter dacha” in Sokolniki. This is how long those half-abandoned “pastoral mansions” lasted.
At the Mikhalkovs’ “Petrovskoe” Estate in Rybinsk. Photo: chemodanus.ru
The Short Northern Summer
The dacha was a truly heavenly place, as long as there was good weather. But alas! It’s not so easy to boast of good weather in Petersburg or the surrounding area. During bad weather, the dacha became torture for those who rented it:
Our walls are as thin
As boards made from bedclothes,
And these walls have cracks
That you could fit your head through.
Your back and shoulders get chilly,
Even as you sit all wrapped up.
Showing no mercy, the candles go out,
And the last heat is in your chest.
And when a little blessed rain does fall
From above onto the dales,
You can’t hide beneath the roof—
It will find you even there.
On the roads there’s dirt and mud,
And feeling bored day and night,
You’re ready to cry from bitterness—
But tears are of no help!
These lines aren’t by some anonymous “unfortunate dacha-goer,” but by the famous poet Nikolai Nekrasov. By the way, he wasn’t the only one to freeze at a dacha poorly prepared for bad weather. The famous critic Vissarion Belinsky decided to improve his health (he was sick with consumption) and rented a dacha in Lesnoe (now the “Lesnaya” metro station in Petersburg). He didn’t have very good luck, neither with his hosts nor with the weather. The critic’s sister-in-law remembered: “Our dacha was lousy, built from thin wood and covered over with pitiful wallpaper. The wind droned ceaselessly beneath the half-glued-on wallpaper; inside it was so cold that the three of us sat with our legs up on the couch to two young dogs with us, in order better to warm ourselves, and we didn’t take the samovar from the table. Belinsky said that the only ones thriving at the dacha were me and the dogs.” Alas, a year later, these attempts to endure life at the dacha would end for Belinsky with a lung inflammation from which he would never recover.
Well, what of it? The Crimea with its dachas would only become fashionable at the end of the 19th century, and not everyone could afford it, while the northern summer often turned out to be (as Pushkin put it) “a caricature of southern winters.” But in spite of these hardships, life at the dacha continued to develop, and every year more and more people rush off to the mysterious joy of life in harmony with nature.