culture

Where the Living is Easy

Svetlana Smetanina, Russia NOW

Lifestyle: For Russians, the summer house is sacred territory

At summer’s peak, many Russians stay at home. The reason? “Dachas,” the countryside houses ordinary families keep outside the cities where they live. August is also the month of harvest for small garden plots. However, the word “dacha” carries much more significance than the mere economic benefit it bestows upon nearly every second Russian family. The dacha embodies a culture dating back to the communist era.

The cars are jammed with people, pets, refrigerators, mattresses, old clothes and food. It looks more like a mass evacuation, a flight from the city. And that’s just what it is. All these people are fleeing from their tedious urban routines for at least a couple of days.

Often, it won’t look like anything special: a small plot, less than a quarter of an acre, with a few currant bushes, apple trees and a vegetable patch featuring carrots, parsley and dill. This will be accompanied by a small wooden house without a telephone or running water and a distant outhouse.

In the last decade, of course, Russia has seen its share of over-the-top country houses, palaces really, with columns, balustrades and similar excesses. But these fruits of an architect’s wildest imagination have nothing to do with “real” dachas.

In the old days, to have a dacha was a privilege. They were given only to society’s elite: senior officials, writers and scientists. In the 1960s, however, Soviet authorities decided to let every family have a dacha. Ordinary citizens were allowed to apply for a plot of land via their employer, and would receive it completely for free. However, all development of the land, including the construction of a home, was left to the new owner.

Now the Soviet man, raised on a negation of private property, could own his own piece of earth. Who knows, perhaps this was the beginning of the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse. Going to the dacha in the pre-cellphone era was like going to an uninhabited island. A person received the legal right to temporarily escape the total control of society. “I was at the dacha” – that alibi could explain any long absence. It was a sort of internal emigration. To say nothing of the fact that Soviet citizens grew huge quantities of vegetables and berries at their dachas, thereby helping the Party and the government solve the food-supply problem. Today no such problem exists, but the habit of putting up vegetables, mushrooms and preserves for winter remains, especially given rising food prices in major Russian cities. Cucumbers one has pickled oneself, like jam made from one’s own raspberries, can’t possibly be compared to anything bought at the grocery store.

Practical aspects aside, the dacha has one purpose and that purpose is spiritual. The problem is that Russians, who tend to think globally and worry about the fate of the world and their country, are sometimes powerless to organize their own free time. As a result, all their agonies end on the couch in front of the television. The dacha solves that problem once and for all. No one has to think about how to entertain themselves on the weekend or waste time arguing with family members. “We’re going to the dacha” – that says it all.

The dacha is also home to a culinary ritual known as shashlik (shish kebab) – a national Georgian dish that has become the specialty at dachas throughout the former Soviet Union. Making the shashlik is such an absorbing process that it’s all you talk about. First you have to choose the right meat, then the right recipe for the marinade. Then the fire has to be made and allowed to burn until it’s almost out, but still smoldering. If you catch it just at that moment, there’s a chance the meat won’t burn and will roast evenly. You’ll be so involved in all of this, you won’t even notice when it’s time to go back to the city!

BOX:

First Lady’s Garden

During the Obamas’ recent visit to Moscow, First Lady Michelle garnered respect from the Russian press for “working the White House like a dacha” with her kitchen garden.

As her visit demonstrated, a great way to bond with Russians is to till your own soil and plant a few potatoes or basil. Meanwhile, Americans are just rediscovering their plots of land as more than a place for patios and manicured lawns. More Americans are pulling up the annuals and planting a vegetable garden. In cities like Brooklyn, it is suddenly cool to have your own chicken for fresh eggs.

Russia Now

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