If you’ve spent more than a few weeks in Russia, you surely must have bumped into the whole concept of “dacha”, the country cottage where Russians go to get away from the city on weekends or during the summer. This custom is actually so widespread that a real exodus takes place in Moscow every weekend, so much that the city’s usual traffic jams reach unbearable limits. But spending time at the dacha is more than merely going to a secondary home, as it involves a completely different lifestyle where people eat vegetables and fruits from their own garden, drink tea from a samovar on the porch, take long strolls in the countryside, pick mushrooms in the woods, go fishing, hunting and so on.
What’s the origin of the Russian dacha?
Literally, the word dacha means “something that was given”, from the verb “dat'” (to give) and the noun “dar'” (gift). The first dachas were, as a matter of fact, a reward from the Tsar to the streltsy (guardsmen) for their service, starting from the 17th century.
Still, the mastermind behind the whole concept of dacha as a place for summer holiday was none other than Tsar Peter the Great, who started to reward his closest friends with plots of land outside Saint Petersburg, thereby giving them a comfier, closer residence for the summer than their personal estates in the remote parts of Russia. It was an attempt to keep his courtiers nearby, so that they could be constantly in touch and reachable to serve him.
Soon, by the beginning of the 19th century, the dachas stopped to be a privilege of the nobility and city dwellers started to rent cottages in the countryside for the summer, and doing so was seen as a matter of honor and a way to sort of safeguard the health of family members.
By the mid 19th century, dachas had turned into the favorite place to rest and have fun for the aristocrats and the emerging middle class.
Then, after the October Revolution of 1917 and the beginning of the Soviet rule, private ownership of land in Russia got forbidden, forwarding the idea that all citizens should be equal and entitled to use the country resources. Hence, instead of privately-owned dachas, state-owned sanatoriums and dacha-cooperatives were created as group facilities in the countryside for the general population.
Of course the rule did not apply to exactly everybody, as Joseph Stalin was known to have many dachas all around Russia for him to spend his recreational time. He also figured that giving summer dachas to his closest collaborators would be highly motivating for them to remain loyal to him. Such dachas were also state-owned and were not formally given to the person, but to the position, and passed from one employee to another.
After the Second World War, the widespread food shortages then led the government to allow people to get plots of land and grow vegetables to support their families. Still, building a house on that plot was initially strictly forbidden and soon the regime, to protect its socialist principles threatened by private gardening, imposed a restriction so that lands could not exceed 0,06 hectare (known as “the zero point zero of a six hundred rule”).
During the 60s, under Nikita Khrushchev, ordinary people were finally allowed to get dachas on a merit-based distribution, however the rules could always be bent over if you knew someone who could significantly expedite the process.
The gardening function of the dacha became again very handy during the 90s, when food was scarce in the stores and people really fed their families by growing potatoes, cucumbers, berries and apples and conserving much of such products for the winter in pickled or salted form or as home-made jams.
Finally, after the collapse of the USSR, private property was re-allowed, restrictions on the dimensions of the owned land were also lifted and people could do whatever they wanted with their property. So those who already had dachas privatized them and those who didn’t began to buy one, if they had the money obviously. Rich Russians started to build huge mansions and villas on their land, replacing the traditional wooden cottages.
How do Russians spend their time at the dacha today?
To this day, the traditions of the Russian dacha have remained unchanged, with many families moving to the dacha for most of the summer, where they do some gardening, breathe the fresh air and enjoy tea parties on the veranda. Why they keep growing potatoes when they could obviously get them at the store has really no rational explanation, but it most likely has to do with the experience of frugality and the shortages of food and other products during the Soviet period. This is also why Russians don’t like throwing stuff away, even if they don’t need it, and move it instead to the dacha! Still, many people do see the dacha as place to have fun, and instead of spending all the time in the garden, they invite friends and grill meat, eat berries, play sports and enjoy other recreational activities. In a way, the dacha is a fundamental element in Russian culture, just like a balalaika or a samovar.