The Dacha

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.

Unknown author, Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow House of Photography

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.

Unknown author, Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow House of Photography

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.

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Polls taken by the Public Opinion Fund (FOM), July 2013 and July 2014







The matryoshka is probably the most popular symbol of Russia, and the most common souvenir.


It is basically a nested doll made of wood divided in two halves that can be split apart and which contains increasingly smaller versions of itself, from a minimum of three up to 25 or even more. It is usually painted to represent a Russian peasant woman wearing traditional Russian clothes, and while each figure (from the largest doll to the smallest) resembles the others, they are not necessarily identical (colors may change, facial expressions as well). Flowers are probably the most traditional theme and are usually painted as part of the designs on the shawls and aprons of the matryoshka.

Sometimes, matryoshki may also be painted to represent other images than the traditional Russian woman, for example the are sets depicting political leaders, celebrities, pets, or scenes from Russian folk tales and fairytales.


How did it originate? 

While the first matryoshka was designed and painted by Sergey Malyutin and carved by Vasily Zvyozdochkin at the Abramtsevo artistic colony in 1890, the whole concept of the nesting doll was popular in China and Japan long before that time, with nesting boxes dating back as far as 1000 AD in China.

The first matryoshki were meant for children, however their price was so high that people could only afford them on special occasions and men would usually give them as a present to their beloved.

In 1900, Russia participated in the World Exhibition in Paris with several styles of matryoshka dolls and won a medal and many admirers, so much that in the 20th century the dolls became very popular and began to be produced in big quantities in manufacturing centers (one of them in Sergiev Posad) and to be exported abroad.

Today, matryoshki are collected in Russia much like paintings or icons on the reputation of the specific artist.

How are matryoshki made?

Whereas the first nested dolls came from Japan, Russian artist, with their refined skills in woodworking, have definitely made the matryoshka a symbol of Russia, using embroidery, traditional patterns and peasant culture as sources of inspiration.

Originally, matryoshki were made from birch or linden wood, which was carved in a cylindrical form. The production process would start from the smallest doll, carved from a single piece of wood that wouldn’t separate as opposed to the larger figures. Then the dolls would be covered with special glue to fill the cracks and smooth the surface, and finally painted according to a particular theme.


What is the meaning of the matryoshka?

The woman painted on most matryoshka dolls is a mother, as the name of the object itself means “little mother/matron”, underlying the idea that the outer doll holds her babies inside like an expectant mother and that each daughter in turn becomes a mother. These dolls hence represent a strong female matriarch, a central figure in the Russian family, and can therefore be seen as symbols of fertility and motherhood.

Where to buy a matryoshka?

You can find matryoshka dolls literally in every souvenir shop in Russia, but the best place to get one is definitely in Moscow’s Izmaylovo Market, where hundreds of vendors offer tons of varieties, along with all types of souvenirs and other objects.



Un translatable Russian Words

Russian is such a rich language, full of shades of meaning, and many of its words are literally not translatable. This makes it both a nightmare to learn but also incredibly interesting, and being able to speak it is probably the only true way to actually understand Russians and how their minds work. Here are some of such words!

тоска (toska) – as Vladmir Nabokov put it: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.

бытие (bytie) – often translated as “being”, this word holds an added metaphysical meaning, indicating a state of hyper-consciousness or a very analytical mindset. Some even translate is a “enrichment of one’s life”.

душа (dusha) – while “soul” may apply to most contexts for this word, it indicates a combination of deeper inner elements including heart, spirit and feeling.

смысл (smysl)  it means both “meaning” and “sense” in Russian as it indicates a binding of thoughts (c + mysl), explaining in a very precise way how Russians make sense of things.

белоручка (beloruchka) – literally: a person with white hands. This word indicates a person who doesn’t want to do any rough or dirty work. It can also be used to refer to a lady or gentleman but in quite a sarcastic way.

капель (kapel’)a sunny day when water starts dripping from icicles

дача (dacha)translated as a vacation house in the countryside, it is not merely a second house, but involves a completely different pace and style of life (banya, fishing, singing over a bonfire..)

пороша (porosha) fresh powdery snow that fell during the night

попутчик (poputchik)used to refer to a total stranger who happens to be travelling in the same direction as you are and with whom you connect by sharing the deepest stories of your life.

недоперепил (nedoperepil)literally “under-over-drunk”, it indicates somebody who drank more than they should and less than they could.

терпение (terpenie) – this word does not exist in any other language and it means suffering through waiting.

почемучка (pochemuchka) – someone who asks a lot of many questions, often a child who keeps asking “why?”.



VKontakte – the Russian Facebook

If you live in Russia for a while, it won’t take you more than a couple of weeks to realize that Facebook and Twitter that are not the biggest social media. People actually use another platform: VK, “VKontakte”.

I personally realized this when I started to notice that I was missing out on most of the online conversations among my classmates at MGIMO, who used the platform to share notes and various communications about courses and assignments. So when I showed up for the third time in the wrong auditorya (which had been changed at the last minute once again), and asked how everyone else knew about the change, one of my Russian classmates looks at me like I’m some kind of social outcast and goes: “We posted it on VK. What, don’t you have an account?”.

With more than 350 million users (mainly Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Kazakhs and others), VK’s layout and functionalities are actually very similar to Facebook: private and public messaging, pages and groups, events, image sharing, games and so on.

Still, there are some added functions too, as VK basically works as a music and video database: you can listen to literally whatever song you want straight from your page and watch tons of movies and videos!

You can join at:

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White Nights

It was a wonderful night, such a night as it is only possible when we are young, dear reader.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights

While the phenomenon of the “White Nights” or “Midnight Sun” is common to many northern cities, in no other place like in Saint Petersburg is it more celebrated, as no other major city can compete with the atmosphere that is created here during the summer nights.

Standing at a latitude of 59°57′N, St. Petes is the world’s most northern city with a population of over 1 million, and from late May to early July the sun never goes below the horizon so that nights and days become almost indistinguishable, creating the so-called “Beliye Nochi”. In a way, they could be seen as some kind of reward for all the cold an darkness that characterizes the city during winter time.

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Officially lasting from June 11 to July 2, this is the time when Saint Petersburg is at its best, emanating “zhizni radost‘”, joie de vivre, from all its corners. During the day, people enjoy the warm weather along the canals, drink coffee at the many cafes on Nevsky Prospekt and sunbathe in the parks, while at night they indulge in the many concerts, festivals and parties all across the city.

So here are some White Nights experiences not to miss in Piter!

During the day:

  • Eat morozhenoe (Russian ice-cream) from one of the many ice-cream carts and take a walk around the canals. You can start on Vosstanya square and explore the three intersecting canals, Fontanka, Griboedov and Moika (all worth visiting), as you walk to the Hermitage and continue on to the Admiralty embankment of the Neva.


  • Sunbathe along the riverside of the Peter and Paul’s Fortress, or at one of the many parks, such as the Summer Garden or Aleksandrovsky Sad.
  • Go swimming on Lake Ladoga, a short drive away from the city.


During the night:

  • Stay up all night, obviously. You can start your evening with a nice dinner at some place like The Idiot (designed to resemble a Dostoevsky-era apartment), or Biblioteka, then go bar-hopping around Dumskaya ulitsa (cool bars: Fidel, Stirka, Mishka, Terminal, Tsvetochki), and finally head to one of the many nightclubs, like Dom Beat
  • Watch the bridges split (but make sure you’re on the right side of the river to head back home, or you’ll be stuck there till 5 or 6 in the morning, here is the schedule)
  • Go to the Mariisnky Theater and enjoy the Stars of the White Nights Festival, with its daily operas, ballets and open-air concerts
  • Go to the Scarlet Sails Festival, or Alye Parusa, a huge celebration with fireworks that takes place on a night in the middle of June and that is hosted to remember the fairytale of a woman who was whisked away by her love on a ship with scarlet sails. Every year millions of visitors gather on the banks of the Neva to watch the reenactment of the ship and dance under the sky.


  • Hang out at Taiga, an underground creative space that has a bunch of exhibition, event and creative spaces, a cafe, a book shop, even a hostel, and a nice courtyard with DJs and live music. A great place to hang out a meet cool people.
  • Hang out on Nevsky Prospekt, which is constantly buzzing with activities, as a variety of cultural events, including street theater and jam session go on throughout the night.

And once you’re done, get ready to do it all over again!

Because it begins to seem to me at such times that I am incapable of beginning a life in real life, because it has seemed to me that I have lost all touch, all instinct for the actual, the real; because at last I have cursed myself; because after my fantastic nights I have moments of returning sobriety, which are awful! Meanwhile, you hear the whirl and roar of the crowd in the vortex of life around you; you hear, you see, men living in reality; you see that life for them is not forbidden, that their life does not float away like a dream, like a vision; that their life is being eternally renewed, eternally youthful, and not one hour of it is the same as another; while fancy is so spiritless, monotonous to vulgarity and easily scared, the slave of shadows, of the idea, the slave of the first cloud that shrouds the sun… One feels that this inexhaustible fancy is weary at last and worn out with continual exercise, because one is growing into manhood, outgrowing one’s old ideals: they are being shattered into fragments, into dust; if there is no other life one must build one up from the fragments. And meanwhile the soul longs and craves for something else! And in vain the dreamer rakes over his old dreams, as though seeking a spark among the embers, to fan them into flame, to warm his chilled heart by the rekindled fire, and to rouse up in it again all that was so sweet, that touched his heart, that set his blood boiling, drew tears from his eyes, and so luxuriously deceived him!” – Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights



Samovars are a cultural symbol in Russia, as getting together and drinking tea around these ornate devices is part of Russian tradition. References to samovars are indeed commonly found both in Russian literature, like in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Russian art, like in Malevich’s painting “Samovar”.

A big samovar in Moscow’s Red Square during Christmas Season

But what is a samovar? The word literally means “self-boiler”, which is a direct hint at its function: to heat water, usually for tea.

How does it work? The largest part holds the water, which gets heated through a vertical pipe inside the body of the samovar and is then released through a spout. Originally, samovars functioned with wood or charcoal, while the modern ones use electricity. They are normally made of some type of metal (iron, copper, tin, even silver) and go from plain to heavily decorated kinds.

While the origins of the samovar are unclear and some claim it as a Russian invention, it was most likely imported from Persia around the 18th century and quickly gained popularity among the heavily tea-drinking population, which soon began to decorate it and transform it into an element of interior decor.

A curious fact is that people in Russia actually believed that the samovar has a soul, and it was common to say “самовар поёт”, “the samovar is singing”, which was based on the peculiar sounds produced by the body of the device as the water is boiled inside it.

Samovars are actually so typical in Russia that even trains have one at the end of every carriage. On trans-siberian trains, the samovar is actually some sort of social gathering place, where passengers meet to make tea, coffee or instant meals. Also, when traveling for days on a train, the samovar can be a real life-saver, both as a means to kill the time and meet people, and as a way to actually feed yourself or enjoy a hot drink in the morning.  Well at least that’s how we survived!

The samovar on the carriage of a Russian train

“You see, you are made for each other! […] You’ll come to it in the end! […] There’s an attraction here—here you have the end of the world, an anchorage, a quiet haven, the navel of the earth, the three fishes that are the foundation of the world, the essence of pancakes, of savory fish-pies, of the evening samovar, of soft sighs and warm shawls, and hot stoves to sleep on—as snug as though you were dead, and yet you’re alive—the advantages of both at once!” – Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, part III, chapter 1.