Russia and the Environment


The History of Dacha Life
Posted by: , November 27, 2011, 8:15 pm
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Introduction

Dachas are common in Eastern Europe.  Russian dachas resemble American country homes, which center on a rustic lifestyle and community building; however, a great difference is that not all Russian dachas have modern plumbing.  Dachas are generally located not far outside of urban cities; their residents occupy land plots for summer gardens or leisurely activities (Zavisca 786).  The term “dacha” in Russian has the same root as the Russian verb meaning “to give” (Lovell, “The Making of the Stalin-Era Dacha” 255).  Historically, Russians have had traditional dachas since the late seventeenth century as established by Peter the Great.  The Russian dacha lifestyle and culture is still carried out through modern times.

While the size of the dacha varies from family to family, today, gardening is a key focus and value of the dacha culture (Zavisca 786).  Throughout Russian history, the Russians have been plagued with food shortages especially during times of war and during the Soviet Union, particularly in the 1930s and during her collapse.  Therefore, gardening is a popular activity at dachas.  This leisurely activity represents the value of the Russians who have pride for their land and produce.

The importance of the dacha and its role, however, are controversial in Russia because while some Russians assert that dachas are intended for food cultivations, others argue that leisure is the prime focus of the dacha culture (Zavisca 799).  The function of the dacha is controversial; therefore, there are various types of dachas: departmental dachas owned by organizations, Soviet dacha plots, dacha garden plots and privately owned dacha plots (Lovell, Summerfolk: A History of the Dacha 211).  Over the course of Russia’s history, the dacha has changed in form as denoted by society and the government; however, ultimately, dachniki focus on both gardening and leisure; however, the government often plays a role in the control and production of the dacha gardens depending on the economic state of the country (“The Making of the Stalin-Era Dacha” 256).

Here is a modern day picture of dacha you may find in Russia:

This is an image of what a modern day dacha in Russia looks like (Zavisca 807). Please note that this is a dacha from the Russian elite; therefore, not all dachas are necessarily this size.

The history of the dacha from the 17th century up to the Soviet Union

The modern definition of the dacha emerged in the eighteenth century under Peter the Great.  As defined in the 1700s, dachas were intended for summer use and located not too far outside of major cities.  Although presently, dachas can be associated with economic value and prosperity due to agricultural produce, this is a more recent phenomenon, and agricultural surplus was not attached to the original intent of the dacha (“The Making of the Stalin-Era Dacha” 255).  Pleasure gardens, however, have existed at the dachas for aesthetic purposes since the eighteenth century (Caldwell, Dacha Idylls: Living Organicallyin Russia’s Countryside 40).  Historically, for Russians, dachas were places of leisure and rest.  The rise in popularity and usage of dachas throughout the nineteenth century helped to establish the middle class (Zavisca 794).  Furthermore, they continued to gain popularity prior to the Revolution in 1917, and represented not only the middle class, but also the bourgeois lifestyle (“The Making of the Stalin-Era Dacha” 255).   The early roots of the dacha trace back to the reign of Peter the Great, and its initial intent was to have a summerhouse to spend time in nature and away from the chaos of the city.

Soviet-era dachas 

The Russian Revolution in 1917 and the Soviet Union drastically changed the purpose of dachas to correspond to the government needs of the time period.  The Soviet meaning of “dacha” combines both the past and present-day definitions (“The Making of the Stalin-Era Dacha” 288).  Soviet dachas demonstrated the need to have a place for relaxation but also to have a place for food cultivation, which will be later discussed in this article.

Click this link to see pictures of Soviet-era dachas:
 http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?p…

Initially, during the revolutionary period between 1917 and 1921 dachas were abandoned, and the focus of the Russian culture was not on f leisure, but, rather, the focus was political and social (“The Making of the Stalin-Era Dacha” 256).  At the end of the civil war, however, there was a housing crisis (“The Making of the Stalin-Era Dacha” 259).  In turn, the dacha community was affected, and Soviet officials thus gained control the dacha properties and supervised the dacha communities.  This difference is exemplified by the Soviet regime seizing control of dachas and mandating that they be rented out to organizations, rather than to individuals (“The Making of the Stalin-Era Dacha” 275).  This control of the dachas corresponds to the Soviet system, which infiltrated the private lives of its citizens.

Soviet officials were advised to supervise previously abandoned dacha homes in order to prevent further chaos from remnants of the Revolution (“The Making of the Stalin-Era Dacha” 257).  While in the past, dachas represented a Russian bourgeois lifestyle and culture, the Soviet government tried to prevent this association (Zavisca 805).  The Soviets greatly valued equality and sought to discourage class distinctions; thus they strived to eliminate the association of dachas with bourgeois homes.  Furthermore, elite dachas were turned over to Soviet control throughout the 1930s (Zavisca 794).  In addition, the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, was sent in the 1930s to keep vigilance on the Russian dachas (“The Making of the Stalin-Era Dacha” 262).

Ultimately, the Soviet government sought to control dacha life in order to prevent suburban expansion that they had witnessed in England and the United States (“The Making of the Stalin-Era Dacha” 266).  Throughout the Soviet Union, Soviet officials sought to strive for excellence in all aspects of a culture and wanted to be represented as the best and unique.  If the Soviets were to mimic the West and create more suburbs, the Soviets would not be as unique, or in their minds, superior.  The shift in dacha culture is caused by the desire and implementation of the Soviet government to regulate and keep a better watch on their citizens and land.

In order to further allocate and control dacha properties, the Soviets manipulated the dacha property particularly during food shortages to benefit the whole of the Soviet state.  For this reason, starting in the 1930s it became more common for Soviet citizens to live in the city year round but make constant trips on the weekends to the dachas, rather than to only occupy the dachas in the summer (“The Making of the Stalin-Era Dacha” 278).  Soviet dachas often became associated with food cultivation due to the many food shortages that occurred throughout the Soviet Union.

Listen to the song “At the dacha” by Veronika Darina At the dacha Lyrics to \”at the dacha\”

 

The emergence of dacha gardens

The dacha gardens gained more importance during the Soviet Union and were viewed not only for aesthetic purposes, but they were crucial for the survival of the Soviet Union.  It became a Soviet initiative to support garden-plot dachas for food production (Summerfolk 214).  The notion of garden plots greatly increased and gained support during the Brezhnev regime.  The expansion of urban plotting and food cultivation and collectivization of potatoes and vegetables were crucial elements for Brezhnev (Zavisca 794).  Furthermore, the Soviet Party in 1985 supported the garden-plot movement (Summerfolk 213).  Stemming from the Soviet period, during the economic crises throughout the 1990s in Russia, gardening at the dachas in post-Soviet Russia allowed Russians to avoid an entire food shortage (Dacha Idylls 81).  While the Soviets drastically changed the value of the dacha garden, its legacy is carried out through modern day, and Russians seem to enjoy this leisurely work.

Be sure to look at the picture of the Brezhnev era dacha!

Here is a picture of a dacha from the 1970s during the the Brezhnev era (Zavisca 795).

 

Although the Soviets implemented and supported the dacha gardens for food cultivation, many Soviet citizens thoroughly enjoyed the gardening and labor.   Additionally, competitions arose among the dachas to create the largest surplus and quantity rather than having the dacha with the most square feet (Zavisca 796).  The main incentive, however, was for people to manipulate their crops and gain a surplus of food at their dachas.  This has become a more recent phenomenon from the Soviet Union and lasting until modern day Russia.

Dacha activities

In addition to gardening, hunting and fishing are popular activities at the dachas (Zavisca 787).  Russians are able to cut back on spending and be self-sufficient by gardening at their dachas (Hervouet 159).  Moreover, Russians take great pride in growing their own food rather than buying produce at local markets (Zavisca 797).  Russians find it more desirable to pick and gather food together because of the social gathering rather than the solidarity of buying food at a market (Dacha Idylls 93).   Another crucial aspect is that for Russians, collecting their own natural foods represents a step away from capitalism (Dacha Idylls 99).  Russians thoroughly enjoy this relatively new purpose of dachas not only to fully avoid food shortages but as a means to relax and gather with friends.

Look at the picture of the dacha from 1991 and note the differences between the dachas from the 1970s and from the early 1990s.

Here is a picture of a more modern day dacha from 1991 (Zavisca 790).

 

While many Russians enjoy gardening and see the economical benefits, others feel that gardening is too much of a physical burden (Zavisca 804).  Regardless, dachas, even nearly three hundred years after their original establishment, still exist in Russia.  By 1995, there were over 1.5 million dacha garden plots, and 1.65 million urban families own dachas (Summerfolk 216).  The Russian government established Garden’s Day as a national and public holiday in 1999.  This reiterates the importance and legitimacy of the modern Russian gardening movement (Summerfolk 216).  Additionally, because of the shift of the dachas to be year round and to have more of a focus on gardening, there are now two terms for dachas: kottedzh and dacha.  Kottedzh refers to a year round dacha-like home, which resembles the western tradition, whereas dachas maintain their original roots of being primarily summer cottages located outside of urban cities (Summerfolk 220).

Natural foods movement at the dacha

The dacha garden can help a family economically while also helping them to create and maintain an identity (Hervouet 166).  Natural foods are grown at dacha gardens such as: peppers, zucchinis, radishes, carrots, onions, peas, lettuce, pumpkin, cabbage, beets, garlic, cucumbers, green beans, strawberries, raspberries, red currants, grapes, herbs and spices (Hervouet 160).  Mushroom picking and berry picking are highly common activities for Russian today to participate in while at their dachas (Dacha Idylls 23).  It is not uncommon for Russians to travel to their dachas with the sole purpose of gathering produce, particularly berries and mushrooms (Dacha Idylls 74).  For example, the Tver region is a popular location for berry picking (Dacha Idylls 74).  Caldwell explains, “Russians’ affection for and preoccupation with mushrooms and berries are not isolated phenomena but belong to a culturally pervasive set of concerns with natural foods” (Dacha Idylls 77).  The Russian natural foods movement represents the shift of dachas to focus more on food cultivation and gardening compared to gardens for aesthetic purposes or dachas as solely places of relaxation and solidarity.

Watch this video about berry and mushroom picking at dachas: Modern dacha practice of berry and mushroom picking

Similarly, Melissa Caldwell explains the modern use of the dacha garden-plot and elaborates on the importance of natural foods in Russia, and the role of the dacha in the production and collection of natural foods.   Russians often grow vegetables and fruit at their dacha garden-plots.  It is not uncommon for a Russian to go the dacha to pick their ­­produce, in particular, berries and mushrooms.  Caldwell explains for most Russians, the benefits of picking food at dachas outweigh the convenience of getting produce at grocery stores that are more local (Caldwell, “Natural Foods” 83).  Additionally, Caldwell explains that, Russians take pride in their produce, and the food is also ecologically clean, which is a large benefit (“Natural Foods” 88).  Furthermore, Russians like knowing where their food came from and the soil in which it was grown, so growing and eating their own produce is another benefit for this reason (“Natural Foods” 88).

For most Russians, there are too many benefits of the dacha gardens not to take advantage of them.   In the mindset of most Russians, another benefit of cultivating their own food is that they would be succumbing to the Capitalists if they ate mostly commercialized, packed, and distributed food (“Natural Foods” 87).  As a whole, the importance and focus on dacha culture and lifestyle has created a new movement favoring natural foods, and the Russians take great pride in this movement, and their ability to eat that which they have grown on their plots.  Although this has become more of a recent phenomenon, the origins of this movement traces back to the desire to have dacha gardens throughout the dacha history.

The dacha as represented in literature

In addition to Caldwell’s article on Natural Foods, dacha life is depicted in Russian texts such as Anton Chekhov’s “Dachniki”.  Anton Chekhov wrote the short story entitled “Dachniki” in 1885.  “Dachniki” encompasses the values of the Russians with their emphasis on the importance of the dacha.  In the story, two young newly weds begin their new married life together at the dacha.  The subject of the story emphasizes the value of a simple, not ornate, lifestyle of the Russians in the late nineteenth century.  Furthermore, Chekhov describes the couple’s routine and daily walks in the countryside, which are more meaningful due to the natural setting surrounding them.  Chekhov writes that the moon is jealous of the solidarity of the couple in such a serene and natural setting (Dacha Idylls36).   Chekhov’s “Dachniki” represents the Russian value of nature and desire to have a less urban lifestyle, even in the late 1800s.

Watch this video to see a short clip about Anton Chekhov’s estate and dacha where he wrote many of his famous works. Birthplace and dacha of Chekhov

 

Conclusion

Although dachas were perceived as initially being only for the elite prior to the Soviet Union, the Soviet government strived to ensure equality including land plots, even dachas.  In present times, many families, regardless of socioeconomic status, own dachas; however, their purposes can vary from being dacha plots to garden-plot dachas or a combination of the two.  While some Russians view gardening at dachas as a peasant activity, the gardening and natural food movement indicates the popularity in such activities and that it is not an issue related to social class for the majority of Russians.  Presently, the size of the dachas varies from large villas to more cottage-like dachas; however, the overall dacha community does not differ greatly (Dacha Idylls 18).

Though the function of dachas has changed over time as asserted by the government, the overall dacha community remains untouched.  The focus on dacha life represents the value of the Russian culture to not focus solely on modernization, urbanization, and rather to also desire a slower paced lifestyle on the weekends at their dachas (Dacha Idylls 53).  Dachas do not have copious amounts of private land; in fact, the dachas are often very small plots and shared by their communities.  The open dacha gardens and dacha lifestyle depicts the Russian value of community and togetherness, which is something that has remained constant since the origins of dachas by Peter the Great (Zavisca 805).  The overall culture and community established by the dacha has changed slightly over time; however, it is based largely on the governmental needs.  Nonetheless, the dacha community remains popular and of large importance for the Russian culture, particularly in the garden-plot movement and the focus on leisure and down time at the dacha.  The dacha community exemplifies both the aesthetic and leisurely values of the Russians.

 

Works Cited

Caldwell, Melissa.  Dacha Idylls: Living Organically in Russia’s Countryside.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

Caldwell, Melissa.  “Natural Foods: Feeding the Body and Nourishing the Soul.”  Dacha Idylls: Living Organically in Russia’s Countryside.  Berkeley: University of California Press, N.y.

“Check out Chekhov’s dacha, birthplace of his most famous works.” Youtube.com.  YouTube, 23 September 2011.  Web.  27 November 2011.

Hervouet, Ronan.  “Dachas and Vegetable Gardens in Belarus: Economic and Subjective Stakes of an ‘Ordinary Passion’.” The Anthropology of East Europe Review 21.1 (2003): 159-168.

Lovell, Stephen.  Summerfolk: A History of the Dacha 1710-2000.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Lovell, Stephen.  “The Making of the Stalin-Era Dacha.”  The Journal of Modern History 74.2 (2002): 253-288.  The University of Chicago Press.

Seventeen Moments in Soviet History.  http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php

Zavisca, Jane.  “Contesting Capitalism at the Post-Soviet Dacha: The Meaning of Food Cultivation for Urban Russians.”  Slavic Review 62.4 (2003): 786-810.

“Дача.avi.”  Youtube.com.  YouTube, 6 July 2011.  Web.  20 October 2011.

 

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