Dacha (Russia)

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Location: Russia
Russia map.png
Author: Stephen Lovell
Affiliation: King's College London, UK

Original text: Stephen Lovell, King's College London, UK

The dacha is an out-of-town dwelling and plot of land for intermittent use by urbanites. It may be thought of as the Slavic equivalent of the ‘country cottage’ or ‘log cabin’ or ‘second home’. But we should not be too hasty with such analogies: over the three centuries of its existence, and especially since the mid-19th century, the dacha has taken a wide variety of forms, many of them far more modest in dimensions and appearance than any Western equivalent; it has catered to many different social constituencies; and it has been subjected to varying, but often severe, economic and political pressures.

Summer relocation to the dacha became a social norm for the urban middle strata in the second third of the 19th century, and the dacha had become something close to a mass phenomenon by the end of the century with the spread of the railway network and the growth of the population of Moscow and St Petersburg to one million and beyond. During the revolutionary period, dacha settlements saw their share of depopulation, looting and expropriation. But the dacha as a social institution made the jump across the 1917 divide: there was a flourishing dacha market in 1920s Moscow and Leningrad, not least because overpressed urbanites continued to need respite from the squalid and overcrowded city. In the 1930s, a variety of Soviet institutions – from the Central Committee down to trade unions and individual enterprises – began to take charge of the dacha stock, handing out summer dwellings or plots of land to favoured functionaries or employees. The dacha, then, had reinvented itself as a perquisite of a privileged Soviet ‘middle class’. During the war and just after, it once again changed its character, as the authorities handed out ‘garden plots’ to much wider sections of the urban population. Although this was designed purely as a subsistence measure in desperately hard times, and recipients were forbidden from building habitable dwellings on their plots, over time the boundaries of the permissible were pushed back. From the 1950s onwards, a widening range of workplaces and other ‘collectives’ set up ‘garden associations’, which allowed members to build modest summer dwellings in which they could spend nights alongside their potato patches. Besides allowing hundreds of thousands of urbanites to supplement their diet, this mass Soviet dacha fostered a more demotic kind of exurban sociability: vodka and shashlyki by the fire rather than Chekhovian hammocks and far niente. The fall of the Soviet Union gave this model of dacha life a further boost: the severe hardship and economic uncertainty of the 1990s once again made urban Russians preoccupied with subsistence and committed to toiling on their garden plots. At the same time, the lapsing of Soviet restrictions on land use and the rewards (for some) of the market economy led to a diversification of models of dacha existence: by the early 2000s it was quite common to see hulking American-style brick houses alongside Soviet-era shacks.

As this historical sketch begins to suggest, the dacha exemplifies well the ambivalence of the informal domain. Its defining ambivalence is this: although invariably used by urbanites, and for that reason an outgrowth of urban civilization, dachas have often been conceived as a return to nature – a way for Muscovites and Petersburgers to reconnect with their rural roots, shed urban pathologies, and rediscover the virtues of agricultural toil. But if we look more closely, the balance between the urban, the bucolic and the downright agricultural has tilted this way and that over time. In the 19th century, the spread of dacha use from a small elite to a broad urban public gave rise to apprehensions that dacha life was falling prey to a familiar range of urban vices (crime, marital infidelity, vulgarity, ‘petty bourgeois’ materialism). Many of these fears would gain a new lease of life in the Soviet 1920s, and then again in the post-Stalin era, as the guardians of communist morality policed the number of windows in people’s garden plot houses. The debate on what constitutes ‘authentic’ dacha life has never really ceased. In the 19th century, the more austere commentators focused on the health-giving properties of the dacha (which were very real, given the dreadful sanitation in Russia’s cities) without setting much store by the more frivolous pastimes of the dachniki; other stakeholders in the dacha experience were more interested in entertaining guests and playing games. Revolutionary Russians did not, however, make the connection between dachas and subsistence, seeing out-of-town living as restorative and/or recreational. In Soviet times, the intelligentsia model of dacha as recuperation for overtaxed urban minds coexisted with the peasant-infused garden plot model. In the post-Soviet era, many dachniki continued to insist that their plots were primarily a survival strategy, even though hard-nosed economists pointed out that they could have obtained their potatoes and tomatoes more cheaply at the market. The breakneck rural-urban migration of Russia’s twentieth century has left many traces and imposed many costs, and the dacha has proved an excellent way for modern Russians to finesse the rural- urban divide: to engage in more or less refined recreation or to demonstrate their enduring connection to the soil, as circumstances dictate. It has also provided a genuine protection against the uncertainties of Russian life: urban housing has always been scarce, apartments are usually tiny, and Soviet people exercised very little control over their immediate urban environment. The dacha (or garden plot) was, by contrast, a patch of land that was their very own (even if it was often only ‘theirs’ at the discretion of the cooperative). And the community of the dacha settlement – its open-air visibility and legibility – made for a striking contrast with the closed-doors anomie of the typical post-Stalin apartment block: the dirt tracks and fences of dacha settlements evidently did more to engage the Soviet spirit of collectivism than the (usually urine-soaked and graffiti-ridden) stairwells of apartment blocks back in the city.

Further reading:
Galtz, Naomi Roslyn. 2000. ‘Space and the Everyday: An Historial Sociology of the Moscow Dacha’, PhD dissertation, University of Michigan.
Hervouet, Ronan. 2003. ‘Etre à la datcha’: Eléments d’analyse issues d’une recherché exploratoire’, in François Dépelteau and Aurélie Lacassagne (eds), Le Bélarus: L’Etat de l’exception. Quebec: PUL: 257-317.
Lovell, Stephen. 2003. Summerfolk: A History of the Dacha, 1710-2000. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Zavisca, Jane R. 2003. ‘Contesting Capitalism at the Post-Soviet Dacha: The Meaning of Food Cultivation for Urban Russians’, Slavic Review, 62(4): 786-810.