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Dacha, Glorious Dacha! Posted by on Mar 25, 2010 in Culture, Soviet Union, Traditions

It’s that time of the year when many Russians get ready for another «дачный сезон» [dacha season]. «Дача» is something I came to think of as uniquely Russian. You can see it translated into English as an allotment, a vacation home, a house in a country, a summer cottage, a hobby farm or a weekend retreat. Yet none of these translations truly reflects the meaning of the word «дача» which is a combination of all of these things.

 What do Russians call their dachas? Well, there’s of course the good old «дача». There’s also «шесть соток» [six hundreds, referring to the size of a typical dacha plot – 600 sq meters]. Then there’s the ironic «фазенда» [a hacienda], adopted back in the early 90s after Russians lived through the Brazilian teleseries «Рабыня Изаура» [Isaural the Slave Girl; lit: Escrava Isaura].

The history of dachas goes back to the early 19th century. The first dachas were the places for the well-off townsfolk to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city life, especially in summer. A lot has changed in the last 200 years, yet many dacha owners still view their «надел» [plot of land] as a refuge and a vacation destination.

 «Чем в дом отдыха на море, лучше к нам на дачу приезжай!» [Instead of going to a sea-side resort, you better come over to our dacha!]

 In Soviet Union, dacha owners couldn’t build any structures on their plots. Then the regulations were relaxed to allow small, under 25 sq meters (225 sq feet) buildings with no electricity and indoor plumbing. In other words, the dacha was where one «должен пахать, а не баклуши бить» [must toil, not waste time in trivial pursuits]. After Perestroika, the 25 sq meter limit was dropped altogether.

 Of course, there were always two different types of dachas – «для простых людей» [for ordinary people] and «элитные дачи» [dachas for social elite, such as academics, generals, Communist Party functionaries, etc]. The later ones, as you might imagine, were bigger, better, and more conveniently or scenically located; some of them were downright palatial in size and amenities. These were the dachas for leisure and entertainment, not for growing tomatoes.

The dachas for ordinary people, on the other hand, were less than scenic. I remember very well when my family received our dacha in the late 80s. We all got into our baby-blue «Запорожец» [a relic Soviet car with a 30-horse-power engine and no air conditioning] and drove fifty miles to the entrance to our «садоводо-огородническое товарищество» [dacha community; lit. garden-vegetable community] and another 3 miles over a rutted dirt road to our 600 square meter allotment. And what an allotment it was!

 Imagine a flat rectangle of former «колхозная» [belonging to a collective farm] land, depleted of all nutrients and overgrown with «сорняки» [weeds]. The nearest «пляж» [beach] was 30 minutes away and no scenic «луг» [meadow] or «роща» [grove] anywhere near.

 All around us were similar newly minted dachas, some already fenced in and sporting freshly built outhouses. These were the first two improvements every sensible dacha owner made – «забор» [fence] and «туалет» [toilet, here – an outhouse].

Pretty soon, however, «сараи» [tool sheds] would be erected next to the outhouses; «грядки» [vegetable beds] laid out; «фруктовые деревья и ягодные кусты» [fruit trees and berry bushes] planted. And then the owners would start building their tiny «дачный домик» [cottage].

 A few years later, the wasteland would be turned, square meter by square meter, into a beautiful garden with enough fruits and vegetables, except potatoes, to support «среднестатистическая семья» [an average family] for a year. Every weekend and a few times during the week, this average family would drive their «машина» [car] or ride «автобус» [bus] to their dacha. Once there, they’d plant, water, weed, and harvest until it was time to go to bed or to go home.

 From November to February, dacha owners led regular lives with maybe just one or two quick winter trips to their “haciendas” to make sure trees were overwintering ok and thieves didn’t break into cottages.

 But come March, the windowsills of dacha owners’ apartments would become crowded with tiny «овощная рассада» [vegetable seedlings, plantings]. Soon after that, with the first warm days, «переполненные автобусы» [overcrowded buses] would fill up with people carrying «лопаты» [shovels], «мотыги» [spades] and «грабли» [rakes].

 As the economy stabilized, the attitude towards dacha as an intensive mini-farm has relaxed. More land is now given to flowers, evergreens, lawns, water features and areas for grilling and relaxing. Once again, it seems that dachas are emerging as places to get away from it all and enjoy quiet evenings and endless conversations over a bowl of freshly-picked «малина со сметаной» [raspberries with sour cream].

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Comments:

  1. josefina:

    Отличный пост, Лена! Много нового для себя узнала – несмотря на то, что я бывала на русских дачах немало и не одно лето! Not all dachas are that far away from water, though, but it depends on in what area they’re in. In the Urals – where there are plenty of rivers and lakes – one doesn’t have to walk far to have a place to cool off 🙂 I love the Russian dacha!

  2. trudy ringer:

    This was really interesting. I didn’t receive it on my Russian Blog, but found it on Russian Facebook. Odd.

  3. RICHARD BARNDON:

    Hello Yelena,
    I am anglo saxon.
    May I say that I love your blog service. They are always clear and refreshing. I live in Perth Australia. I try to teach myself some Russian language. (I find it hard to learn!!!). I bought a dacha at Morskaya near Elets…I love it and want to return there. maybe I will retire there. I plan to teach English possibly in Lipetsk. I am very thankful for you posts. I always save them carefully..to study and use a bit later.It is true that the Russian mind and culture is wonderful.I really miss the food. My dacha has the best water I have tasted.I like the local people also. Well I hope you like my comments…and please feel free to write back. Richard

    • yelena:

      @RICHARD BARNDON Hi Richard,

      thank you so much for reading this blog and taking a moment to reply. We love comments, especially such nice ones as yours! It really keeps us, bloggers, motivated to write more and better! I’ve never met a non-Russian who plans on retiring in Russia (although a friend of a friend knows this one guy…). But you are definitely the first one I know who took it a step further and bought a dacha! Wow!

      What Russian food do you miss the most? And yes, Russians are very warm and friendly, especially the further one gets from Moscow 🙂

  4. Mary Tracy:

    I wasn’t sure from the article whether the dacha is purchased or received by allotment from the government. It sounded like they had a lot of variety in size and furnishings and that wealthy people could have very large ones. So who determines what a person gets?

    • yelena:

      @Mary Tracy well, nowadays money is the only thing that determines the size, location and features of a dacha one can buy. Back in the Soviet days dachas were “allocated” for free or for ridiculously low sums of money. In those days, it was one’s position in the society that determined the kind of dacha one would get. This social position itself was a combination of factors – profession, organization one worked at, status within that organization, whether the future owner was a Communist Party member or part of the local bureaucracy, etc. One could circumvent or bend some of the rules either by being connected to just the right people or simply by greasing the right paws (or doing both).

  5. alexsutter@freesurf.ch:

    I can only add to all the commets, that these blogs are a real refresher, it helps switch off from daily work much faster and thoughts go back to Russia where one day I would like to spend some months (not retire), as I have a дача in Ticino, Switzerland. But till I retire, I keep on dreaming and shorten my time in Riyadh on Business at 35 degrees, with reading your refreshing blogs.
    Thanks and best regards,
    Alex.