Literally, dacha means “something that was given,” and originated in the 17th century from the verb ”davat” (to give). Initially they were given by Russian tsars to “Streltsy” (their closest guardsmen) as a reward for services as early as the 17th century. This custom was introduced by Peter the Great, the founder of modern Russia. At the beginning of the 18th century during his reign dachas became popular as summer holiday retreats. A dacha could be everything from the great Massandra Palace, which was Joseph Stalin’s dacha, to a tiny wooden village house.
The Russian dacha is a gateway to a simpler, more fulfilling life away from the confines of the hot smelly city. These places are often simple, sometimes only sporting a vault toilet, but they can also boast swimming pools and banyas. The main requirement is that it be located outside the metropolis.
At the beginning of 20th century, before the 1917 Revolution, dachas were like estates, as depicted in The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov. They consisted of an old wooden house with a terrace, a butler, postprandial promenades, family concerts, and readings in the evening. In winter, people would move back to the city.
After the Revolution, everything changed. Such estates were branded as “bourgeois” and confiscated by the state. Life in the new Russia required everyone to work, not sit around sipping tea and strolling along leafy paths. After the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet government distributed plots of land. They were tiny pieces of land (600 square meters, or 6,500 square feet), commonly known as “six hundredths.” Dacha owners built small houses on their plots and used the remaining land for subsistence agriculture.
The dacha was a paradise for those seeking privacy – an island of internal exile in the Soviet Union. During summer breaks children were sent to the dacha for three months with their mothers or grandparents. It was here that they fell in love for the first time, learnt how to ride a bike, swam in the lake and went fishing.
A lot has changed in the 21st century. Now Russians can buy as much dacha land as they want, and some dachas no longer look like typical wooden houses in Russia, but more like cottages. But they are still called dachas and many families spend their summers there. The whole family goes there for a few months, while only the poor father (or other breadwinner) has to travel back and forth to the city for work.
The dachas is sacred for Russians because people feel free in their private territory. Dachas offer an opportunity to escape the chaos of the city. People often grow vegetables in their gardens, and the fresh air invigorates the soul. Usually there’s no hot water at the dacha.
But everything is constantly in need of repair, and finally there isn’t always a proper working toilet, but rather, a wooden outhouse with a hole in the floor. Russians are big fans of spending weekends and holidays at their country houses, but they can have a rest only if they’re guests. Otherwise, they have to work a lot.
It seems foreigners often relate to the Russian country retreat. It’s kind of exotic, it’s a perfect place to gather with friends, and it’s just a relaxed pace of life. Wooden houses with patterned window frames; babushka in a shawl sitting by the entrance; and a samovar heater in the living room - that’s how most foreigners imagine the Russian dacha to look like. This exotic summer getaway is far from the noisy city, and here you can find a small bit of paradise and silence.
Dachas usually don’t have central heating, so people mostly live in their country houses during the summer. As the first warm days hit the city, people flock en masse to the shire to open the dacha season. But there’s work to do: Dust, dead flies, and unmelted snow all needs to cleaned. After everything is finally looking tidy, it’s time to get gardening. Of course, modern Russians are not so obsessed with planting vegetables, but every babushka has their gryadki [garden beds] with strawberries and parnik [a greenhouse] with tomatoes.
All this work is to taste homegrown, cooked and pickled food that’s absolutely incomparable with what is sold at the store. There are at least few dishes considered “a la dacha.” The most traditional is shashlyk or classic BBQ meat. What does grilling mean for Russians? Much preparation! You need to buy meat and choose the best piece to avoid being cheated at the store. Then cut it into pieces and marinate. And ukha – fish soup, svekolnik – is the second most popular beetroot soup, homemade jam, a wholesome vodka-based drink nastoikas, and many others. The idea of heading out to nature, working on your patch of land and growing your own vegetables and fruit is very relaxing compared to sitting at home in your apartment.
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