Hands dirty, stomachs full: Cottaging in Russia

Should you find yourself visiting friends or family in Russia over a weekend, there’s a good chance you’ll need to bring your appetite, a fondness for tea and a getting-your-hands-dirty sort of enthusiasm. You’ll likely be packing your bags and catching a train to the dacha, or cottage, for a couple of days of relaxation. But this is cottage living Soviet style, so don’t expect to lounge on a deck and waste away the hours.

The dacha, meaning “something that was given,” is a place where many Russians escape for a bit of privacy. Away from the crowded city apartments where neighbours are privy to every conversation, the dacha has grown to become a unique and integral part of Russian culture over the past few centuries.

To learn more about the rich and deeply rooted Russian tradition of visiting the dacha, I spoke with Melissa Caldwell, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz and author of Dacha Idylls. Caldwell was always intrigued by the depiction of this lifestyle in literature and her interest was fueled by several visits to dachas while doing fieldwork in Russia years ago.

According to Caldwell, the first dachas were created in the early 18th century by Peter the Great, Tsar and first Emperor of Russia when he began allocating land outside the cities to nobility. The first instances of dachas being used by common citizens occurred more than 100 years later, when the emerging middle class started to rent dachas from the elite for their summer vacations. “During the Soviet era in the 1920s,” Caldwell explains, “the state tried to make property ownership egalitarian, so ordinary people were given plots of land for cottages.” Parcels of land then became akin to a work bonus, allocated to workers for exceeding quotas on the assembly line, having the strongest political convictions or making the most valiant contributions to the State during WWII.

Today, Soviet citizens from all socioeconomic strata pay a nominal, symbolic rent to the State to use the dacha, but they understand the land as belonging to them. “In some cases, people have been able to buy plots from the State,” Caldwell says. “New plots are also becoming available on the regular real estate market, so you can now buy from developers or whoever owns the property.”

Caldwell estimates that only a third of Russians have a dacha, but the vast majority have access to one through friends or family. While the dacha has become accessible to all, differences in socioeconomic background are still reflected in the details. “You see monstrous McMansions replacing tiny cottages, and those are associated with the nouveau riche,” explains Caldwell. Interestingly, these imposing red brick mansions often boast turrets, columns, balustrades and satellite dishes, but they still lack indoor plumbing.

A traditional Russian dacha - Melissa Caldwell © 2012

The more traditional dacha is a small wooden cottage with a few multi-purpose rooms. The kitchen is essentially a separate building with hot plate and small fridge. The bathroom is a wooden outhouse. Brightly coloured, ornate scalloping cheerfully decorates the eaves and windows, while cherished furniture that no longer fits in the city apartment creates a cozy, informal interior.

Despite the diversity in cottage sizes, the size of land is relatively uniform. Upon this standard unit of land, called a “sotka,” everyone has a garden. Gardening and growing supplemental food used to be an important means of sustaining the family, but it’s now less expensive to buy food at the market than to haul the necessary fertilizer, seeds and tools to the dacha. “People still want to retain the ‘hands in the ground’ practice, so they cultivate flower gardens,” Caldwell says. “It’s also a form of cosmopolitism to transform a veggie garden into more of a Western flower garden that requires care and maintenance.” Although it’s no longer based on necessity, gardening remains a quintessential dacha pastime.

Here’s a typical day at a dacha: Arriving mid-morning, we immediately change from our city clothes into informal attire and settle in with a late breakfast of freshly picked berries, yogurt and tvorog—a Russian farmer’s cheese, similar to cottage cheese. After a cup or two of tea, our host gives us a tour of the dacha then the garden, pointing out prize cucumbers and favourite flowers. This is followed by visits to the neighbouring dachas and their gardens, with many “What lovely roses!” and cups of tea along the way. This can often lead to a walk in the nearby woods for a bit of mushroom hunting.

Before we know it, it’s time for lunch and we enjoy boiled sausages, home-grown potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers and dill. Lunch is followed by a walk down to the nearby river for a swim and visit with friends before returning yet again for tea and sweets. Like all meals, supper features the freshly grown or picked vegetables with mushroom and potato dishes as well as the requisite protein—sausages, boiled chicken and ground beef “kotlety.” There’s more tea with neighbours before retiring on a pull-out sofa bed in the living room, as daylight bleeds into midnight in the summer months.

Eating is a big part of dacha culture - Melissa Caldwell © 2012

It’s obvious that there are many parallels between life at the dacha and a typical Canadian cottage experience. “What’s really important is that this is where people socialize, invite friends and family, hang out together, and spend important holidays,” Caldwell tells me. Eating—frequently and a lot—is integral to dacha culture, and the cottages serve as a means of escapism from city strains. There’s also the same enjoyment of fresh air, swimming, hiking, fishing and berry picking that we might enjoy at our cottages on this side of the world.

But Caldwell notes one important difference: “The point in [North American] cottage culture is to do nothing. Even though Russians are escaping from work to the dacha, they’re actually much more active at the dacha—constantly on the move, always visiting someone, walking, picking berries, working in the garden—they don’t ever sit down and just veg out,” she explains. In Russia, people will often complain, “I need a vacation from the dacha!” And that’s something you don’t often hear from Canadians dozing off on their cottage decks, feet up in the shade of the pines.