It wasn't an easy way to find a nice spot for a country home, but it worked.

During the Nazi assault on Moscow, three Soviet airmen were shot down 25 miles north of the city. After parachuting to safety, they hiked out through a riverside forest of birch, pine and fir and rejoined the fighting.

At war's end, the men were invited to a victory celebration with Joseph Stalin, who asked them, "Guys, what do you want?" according to Gennady Lisichkin, an economist who first heard the story a quarter of a century ago. "They said that in 1941 they were shot down and fell here," Lisichkin continued. "They said, 'If you could allow us, we'd like to build our summer dachas there.' So Stalin issued an order, and many famous pilots built dachas here."

Thus was born the Test Pilot compound, where Lisichkin has had a summer home for 25 years (scored through his father-in-law, a well-connected pilot) and where he counts five former cosmonauts as neighbors.

In Stalin's time, as in the time of the 18th-century czars when the tradition began, the dacha was a privilege granted to the elite, a reward for loyalty and service. In fact, the name was derived from the verb "dat," Russian for "to give." Later, ordinary Russians got a piece of the action, building dachas of their own, often from scrounged materials.

Today, the beloved retreats are more sought after than ever by city folk across Russia. For many urban dwellers, they represent a treasured rural way of life that reflects the true Russian soul.

For others, old-timers mutter darkly, they are status symbols that have more to do with the high life than the simple life, as evidenced by the surging construction of dachas around this booming capital, with its rapidly growing middle class and wealthy upper crust.

The classic dacha, kept in the family for generations, was a place to escape the city's summer heat, hunt mushrooms in the forest, enjoy family life and socialize with neighboring dachniki across picket fences or along dirt roads. Those on tight budgets grew large quantities of potatoes, onions and cucumbers, and they also canned pickles, jams and fruit for the long winter ahead.

A dacha can be a rough-hewn log cabin. It can resemble a peasant's home, featuring intricately carved decorative motifs. It can be little more than a shack made of wood or brick leftovers from construction sites. Leaders such as Stalin and former premier Nikita Khrushchev used spacious dachas, typically built of wood, that were elegant inside but still showed some respect for rustic traditions.

These days, some so-called New Russians, wealthy from the often corrupt division of Soviet state assets, build palatial three-story dachas surrounded by high brick walls with corner watchtowers, more medieval fortress than cozy cabin.

The ostentatiously rich are decidedly unpopular with old-timers.

"Nobody knows who they are. There's nothing to talk about with them," Lisichkin said dismissively of a family that built a fancy brick mansion on a lot they bought in the no-longer-restrictive Test Pilot compound.

A luxury dacha even played a starring role in Russia's biggest political drama this summer: Prosecutors accused former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, a potential opposition presidential candidate, of illegally taking private ownership of a heavily wooded lakefront villa that was once government property.

Prosecutors deny any political motivation, but critics say authorities decided to go after Kasyanov to ensure that he would not enter the 2008 race. The investigation is continuing.

Another drama also made headlines this summer as authorities engaged in high-profile confrontations with dozens of dacha owners to enforce court rulings against alleged illegal construction in conservation zones. Three people were reportedly hurt in one clash as owners tried to block demolition.

Getting a dacha is straightforward these days: You simply need enough money to buy or rent one. Major highways out of Moscow are festooned with billboards advertising new dacha developments. Flying into any of Moscow's three main airports, innumerable old and new dacha developments can be seen carved into the forests and fields surrounding the capital.

Most of these homes are still used as weekend or holiday retreats rather than as the owners' main residences.

"Older generations got their dacha land plots from factories or the companies they worked for," said Sergei Ispiryan, the project manager at a construction site 25 miles northwest of Moscow where second homes sell for about $150,000. "They generally got small land plots free of charge, and they built dachas from the material they could find at the time. Mostly they built dachas to grow vegetables for food."

But the company managers and professionals buying this project's new concrete-and-brick dachas, which resemble suburban American homes, "love to grow flowers, make lawns, design landscaping," Ispiryan said. "I don't think people will be growing potatoes in these land plots."

In the decades after Stalin's death in 1953, his successors encouraged the distribution of standardized 6,460-square-foot land plots ordinary Russians could build modest dachas and grow vegetables.

Klavdiya Khlebnikova, 63, and her husband, Vasily Khlebnikov, 70, still treat their dacha in the classic style of the millions who were granted such plots: Every year they grow about 1,300 pounds of potatoes, 1,000 pounds of tomatoes, 200 pounds of cucumbers and lesser quantities of beets, carrots, onions and garlic.

The lure of the dacha is so strong that well-to-do or upper-middle-class Russians who don't own one often rent for a few weeks, for a season or sometimes for years.

Yelena Topnikova, 32, and her husband, who works for a literary journal, have rented out their 430-square-foot Moscow apartment to move into a rented 1,000-square-foot dacha. They have two boys, a 4-year-old and a baby, and they plan to live at the dacha "for the sake of the children" until the older boy, Gosha, starts school in two years, she said.

However fancy some new country places may be, it is still rare for people to give up a Moscow apartment and move into a dacha as if it were a suburban home. That is partly because the roads from Moscow's outskirts to downtown are so clogged at rush hour that a two-hour commute is a distinct possibility.

Gennady Lisichkin at his dacha in the Test Pilot compound near Moscow. Acquiring a dacha is easy these days.