Russian Summer

At the dacha, the soul of Russia—and its cultural divide—is on display.

This story appears in the July 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Everyone in Russia has a dacha story. It may be a trace of childhood memory like playing ball late into evening by grace of a sun that won’t set, gathering pinecones to perfume the samovar fire, or swimming in an icy pond rimmed by the green spires of spruce.

It may be quietly romantic—a first love that fades with the season or blossoms into marriage. Or a narrative that is poignant, even redemptive. An older woman tells of coming home from work to find her husband in bed with her best friend. She kicked him out and, with retirement looming and no husband, wondered, What will I do now? The answer was the dacha she bought for 500 rubles, with a forest nearby for mushroom hunting, a lake, and a garden. “The dacha saved my life,” she says.

The story may be wreathed in sorrow, refracted through the lens of Russia’s tragic history. After Natalia Ivanova’s grandmother, a young widow with two children, remarried, her new husband bought a dacha outside Moscow. When he disappeared in a Stalinist labor camp, she stayed at the dacha for the rest of her life. “She never sowed anything, even flowers—only grass, which became thicker and thicker,” remembers Natalia, a Moscow writer and editor. “A childhood photograph shows it reaching well above my head.”

Sweet or bitter, lighthearted or dark, the story always takes place in summer. A dacha, after all, is a summer cottage.

Boris Veshnyakov has dacha stories too. They are muscular, with overtones of swagger. Once he confronted a group of teenagers who were drinking and blasting boomboxes in his dacha community near Valday, a town in northwest Russia. “I picked a couple of them up and dunked them in the lake. Physical force is the only language they understand.” Another time, a beefy lout, flouting dacha decorum, let his dog swim in the lake. “I called over my son-in-law, the wrestler. End of problem.”

When Boris isn’t at the dacha, he’s driving a cab. One day while speeding down a road, he pointed out a pit where dachniks from big cities open their car doors and fling their garbage. “That’s how it is in Russia today,” he groused. But Boris had a plan. He was going to set a camera trap to catch offenders.

Until then, Boris, a 63-year-old man with ice-blue eyes, a belly with the contours of an ingested basketball, and an array of short-sleeve shirts with tropical prints more typical of Maui than Moscow, was just Boris the cabdriver to me. Then I discovered his other identity. He was also Chairman Boris, the put-upon leader of Nertsy, a community of a thousand-odd dachas in Valday.

Boris’s kingdom, the realm of the dacha, is a Russian phenomenon. One out of three Russians owns a dacha. In the Moscow region, where there are some one million dachas, Friday night marks the onset of dacha rush hour, in which the laws of inertia decree that a car at rest in dacha traffic stays at rest for a very long time.

The dacha has threaded its way through Russian culture ever since Peter the Great handed out land on the outskirts of St. Petersburg to courtiers. (“Dacha” is derived from the Russian verb “to give.”) The dacha is the stage upon which the drama (or comedy) of Russian summer unfolds. Summer in Russia is precious and brief; winter, interminable. The growing season in the taiga around St. Petersburg is a short four months. In western Europe it stretches eight months or more. A fifth of Russia is above the Arctic Circle. More than half is underlain by permafrost. The advent of spring, then summer, is a fairy tale of sorts. The soil thaws, as does the soul.

A dacha community is Russia abridged, with its stories of love, loss, and suffering; frictions; conflicting narratives in which everyone seems to have the True Story but no one really does; free-flowing vodka; and opportunities for corruption. (Municipalities grab property illegally and sell it to developers for dacha subdivisions.) It’s a place to brood, ponder life, party, cherish the company of family and friends, and more recently it’s become a badge of conspicuous, over-the-top consumption for Russia’s new money. The dacha is a litmus test for changing Russian values and a celebration of those that stay the same.

Boris’s dacha, like most in Valday, is a garden plot with a cabin. Such plots, originally six sotkas (.15 acre), date back to Soviet-era land distribution programs that allowed Russians to endure postwar food shortages made worse by the disaster of centrally planned agriculture. With privatization in 1990, owners could buy land and expand beyond six sotkas, but the landscape remains a mishmash of shoulder-to-shoulder dwellings. Decor tends to out-of-date calendars, mismatched crockery, paintings of bears in the forest, and lace curtains hanging in doorways to defend against mosquitoes.

On the other end of the spectrum are kottedzhy (cottages), the name for the wannabe castles built by New Russians, postcommunism’s superspenders. Many communities of steroidal cottages—there are 500 around Moscow—have elbowed aside traditional dachas and sometimes become primary residences. “Oligarchs go to the Loire, see castles, and say: I need one of those,” Konstantin Kovalyov-Sluchevskiy, a local historian, says dryly. Interiors tend to early Las Vegas: marble columns that hold up nothing, gilt thick as a call girl’s mascara. On the outside are high stone or brick walls, sometimes with slits, as if to allow archers to shoot burning arrows at any peasant foolish enough to attempt a breach. “Their owners have not developed a soul,” Konstantin observes sadly.

Valday doesn’t have many over-the-top kottedzhy, but it does have a dacha used by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who drops in from time to time by helicopter. Boris insists that when Putin visits, scuba divers patrol the lake in front of the compound, which has a Turkish bath, a Russian banya, a Chinese teahouse, and a Finnish sauna. It might be true; then again, it might not. It isn’t easy to know when to take Boris—who believes in angels but has a tattoo of a devil playing guitar on his left shoulder—seriously.

The pride of Valday (population 16,000) is its 390,000-acre national park. The terrain, a slow roll of birch-covered hills dotted by 200 lakes, overlies a watershed that sources two great rivers: the Dnieper and the Volga. Cool, green, quiet, it is an idyllic refuge from the heat of the city. In summer the population doubles, according to an informal census based on bread sales.

Though it is only about 225 miles from Moscow to the south and 180 miles from St. Petersburg to the north, the two cities might as well be on the moon as far as Valday is concerned. Big-city dachniks are regarded as an alien species best avoided, in the way that one tries not to brush against stinging nettles in the forest. Though I suspect he is mistaken, Boris insists that only city folk trash their surroundings; locals would never be so remiss.

It’s a cultural divide, says Maxim Semyonov, editor of Valday’s weekly. “Our village past is still present. Our first multistory building went up only 40 years ago.” City folk, Maxim explains, consider the dacha a place to relax. “In Valday a dacha is about hard work and serious gardening.” Nadezhda Yakovleva, a soft-spoken woman with delicate features who runs the local museum, provides more evidence. She points to an 1839 photograph of Muscovites picnicking in Valday. “With French wine and sandwiches,” she says in pitying tones. The habits and attitudes of modern-day Muscovites are no better, she implies. “They don’t eat healthy. They lie in hammocks and don’t worry about bad weather like us. In their kitchen garden, called a supermarket, there will always be crops.”

In Boris’s community of Nertsy about 30 percent of the thousand dachas are owned by people from St. Petersburg or Moscow. “They have generators and pumps,” says Raisa Stepanova, a retired bookkeeper, with a tinge of envy. She has neither. A dacha with no running water or electricity is the rule. Raisa’s small wood dacha, painted three different shades of yellow, stands next to a birch tree. Rather it leans on the tree as if for support. There’s an outdoor privy in back.

A word about the dacha dress code in Valday: Women favor two-piece bathing suits with a faded ’50s look or cotton housedresses. For men: Speedos, sometimes paired with rubber boots. (Why do Russian men wear Speedos? “I don’t know, but it is truly Russian,” says Melissa Caldwell, a social anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “I once almost had to burn my eyes after walking through a park in St. Petersburg and encountering what seemed like thousands of middle-aged men sunbathing in their Speedos.”)

Nina Marmashevya, Raisa’s best summer friend, joins us for green schi, a summer soup made with sorrel. Nina, a sturdy woman with hair the color of paprika, does not so much hug as crush me against her bosom. Small glasses appear on the table. Raisa fills them with homemade brandy. Soon the women are pleasantly tipsy, and Nina wanders over to Raisa’s garden and starts picking potato beetles off leaves.

It is hard to say if Raisa’s garden represents a labor of love or love of labor. Raisa, who is 68, makes fertilizer from compost, waters plants by hand with buckets from a well, and lugs her harvest home in shopping bags on the bus. At the end of summer she has more than 200 jars of preserves to see her through winter. “Each year I say that’s it, I am not planting. But then in spring I do.”

“So why not taper off?” I suggest. “It doesn’t seem terribly relaxing.”

“It’s relaxing to me,” Raisa says.

But a dacha means different things to different generations. Recently her daughter, who has two kids, bought a house in the city. “She is struggling,” Raisa says. “I offered to sell my dacha to help her out.”

“No, you can’t sell it,” her daughter said firmly. “At least I can still come here with the kids and go swimming.”

Valday is where Joseph Stalin had a secret dacha he probably never used. One story says the paranoid dictator took one look at the dacha —known as Object No. 201—at the end of a solitary road at the end of a peninsula and said something like: I’m never staying in that mousetrap. But Valday historian Galina Zimina suggests that Stalin, who had 20 other dachas around the Soviet Union, just never got around to it. “We’ll know when they release more of Stalin’s archives,” she says.

In 1935 Stalin ordered the creation of a dacha colony for writers in Peredelkino, outside of Moscow. In Soviet times political and cultural elites were rewarded with country homes. Artists, party bosses, even cosmonauts, had their own summer compounds. The dacha was the carrot to the stick of the gulag. “Peredelkino was Stalin’s way of keeping writers under control,” says Konstantin, the historian. “He could keep an eye on them in one place.”

In his study on the second floor of his dacha, in the green shade of Peredelkino, Boris Pasternak wrote Doctor Zhivago, the novel that won him the Nobel Prize in 1958. He accepted. “Proud, astonished, abashed,” he wrote the Swedish Academy. The Soviet state thought otherwise. A vicious campaign against him, the possibility of exile, the threat to family (secret police surrounded his dacha) forced him to retract. One can only imagine his pain. At Peredelkino he would tend his garden, bent over, covered with dirt. “The natural world revived him,” says the dacha’s curator, Irina Samokhina. His tweed cap, plaid scarf, and black overcoat still hang on the wall, as if he had just returned from a walk. Pasternak loved striding across the fields near his dacha, especially the one that led to the church where he prayed. Today the field is covered in newly constructed kottedzhy.

“Nertsy is not a collection of dachas,” Chairman Boris tells me as I sit on the deck of his dacha admiring the lake view. His sister-in-law, who has been drying garlic, brings us a plate of fried fish, sliced cucumbers, and potatoes sprinkled with dill from the garden. There is no such thing as an unfed guest in a Russian dacha.

“It’s family,” he says. “When my neighbor grieves, I grieve. When I am joyful, so is he.” He repeats a common refrain: “There is no conflict. Everyone gets along.” True enough, though small irritations that abrade goodwill between neighbors seep out like water from a slowly dripping faucet. Nertsy, unlike the fortress dachas of Moscow suburbs, is a no- or low-fence community, but property lines still matter. Woe to the dachnik whose cucumber vines stray an inch onto public space or an adjacent holding.

A slight chill descends when discussion turns to Katya, a neighbor of Raisa Stepanova’s. Katya lives near the path leading to Lake Nertsy. “Her garden keeps edging closer to the lake,” Raisa complains. “If her plants get trampled, she has only herself to blame.” Scratch a disagreement, and you’ll find a boundary issue. When arbitration is required, Boris appears with a survey pole to map the parameters of the dispute.

The penalty for infractions?

“A fine,” says Boris. “But just try and find the person to pay the fine.” His face darkens. Boris would like someone else to take over the unpaid post of chairman. But no one wants the job.

The soil is sacred, almost mystical to Russians, a legacy of pagan beliefs and peasant tradition. “The religion of the soil,” philosopher Nikolay Berdyayev called it. A dacha provides the opportunity to dig in that soil and be close to nature. “By the end of the day I am tired and stressed,” a Valday woman tells me. “I go to the garden, touch the ground, and bad things go away.”

In July the soil yields cucumbers and feathery dill, also squash, peas, and green onions. July is for berries: black, red, and white currants; blueberries; blackberries; raspberries; gooseberries; and delicately perfumed wild strawberries, which, even more than the resinous astringency of pine, is the smell of summer. August brings mushrooms (a light rain is known as a “mushroom rain”): the prized beliy, or white mushroom, and boletes that grow near birch trees and can be dried. Also potatoes—always potatoes. A Valday garden is unthinkable without them, although they cost less to buy than grow.

Galina Yertseva, an economist for the town, grows potatoes along with her two sons’ families and her in-laws. “Why? It’s in the blood,” she says. Perhaps, I suggest, it’s a genetic memory associated with times of famine, like after World War II, when people picked over fields for rotten potatoes to mix with weeds to make flour. Galina agrees. Her six-year-old granddaughter is playing in the garden. I ask if she has any aptitude for growing potatoes. “Hardly,” Galina answers.

The work of growing food may be an instinct passed on from generations that knew hardship, but a younger generation with no such memory or interest is stepping into place. “Given a good enough economy, I think in the future the dacha will be purely for investment and entertainment and not a source of food,” says researcher Tatyana Nefedova of the Institute of Geography in Moscow. As the dacha shifts from the Soviet-era ideal place for dutiful toil to a retreat for the sheer fun of it, the decorative replaces the practical: flowers instead of potatoes, plaster gnomes instead of onions.

In Soviet times the dacha also was a respite from the communal apartment. In a world where the word “private” was missing from the dictionary and a drape served as a wall, the dacha provided room to breathe and escape from watchful eyes. “A dacha has no address,” Konstantin says. “In detective movies the criminal always hid out in a dacha where he could not be found. A dacha was freedom.”

Now that the Iron Curtain has been lifted and Russians can come and go as they please, there is a wider world beyond the dacha. In 2011 three times as many Russians traveled abroad for summer vacation as in 1997. “When our daughter was little she came to the dacha,” says Tatyana. “Now she prefers Croatia.” “Visiting is good, but home is better,” a Russian proverb avers. Sometimes we need distance to appreciate what is near at hand. Will a more affluent and worldly generation of young Russians buy into that thought and cherish the homely dachas of their parents? Naturally, Boris, from his summit view at Nertsy, has a story about that too.

One day his 30-year-old daughter, Vladislava, came home to visit after a trip abroad. “She travels everywhere,” Boris says. “Egypt, Italy, Turkey.” This time, Vladislava, who works in advertising and lives in St. Petersburg, had gone to comfortable, orderly Switzerland. But Vladislava had had her fill of Swiss perfection. Now she longed for the familiar warmth of cobbled-together, unruly Nertsy. She sat on the deck of the family dacha and gazed at the calm, green oval of Lake Nertsy. Sunbathers stretched out on half-sunken docks splintered by winter ice. Water lilies floated like tiny yellow coronets. “Lake Geneva,” she said airily. “It’s just a pond.”