Why I Hate Dachas, and You Should Too!

By May 2, 2010May 30th, 2017Lifestyle, Russia

I truly hate dachas.  Here’s Why:

In my last post, I noted that May 1st signals a mass exodus of Russians to their dachas, or country cottages.  And I mentioned that I hate dachas.  And here is why:

A dacha, in its most basic incarnation is a country house or weekend cottage, sitting on a postage-stamp plot of land.   Banish from your mind that nice scene in “Dr. Zhivago” where Omar Sharif, Geraldine Chaplin and Ralph Richardson arrive off the train from hell and are ferried out in the pony trap to that very bizarre interpretation of Variykino.  The one with the implausible onion domes (onion domes are only on churches). That is not a dacha.

Traditionally, at a real Russian dacha, every available inch of the postage stamp is given over to the cultivation of root vegetables.  These form the basic subsistence, through sale at minor profit or consumption, for the dacha owners, a strategy that Omar, Geraldine and Ralph pursued until he went off to the Library and didn’t come home until after Geraldine and Ralph go off to Paris. This socio-economic base is still relevant for about 90% of the population of Russia today, representing only the most minor inching forward in the microeconomic dynamics of rural Russia since the baptism of Prince Vladimir in 988 A.D.

Before perestroika, a dacha added to a Soviet-made car and a tiny two-room flat, formed the Holy Trinity of “The Soviet Dream” come true: the pinnacle of economic well-being in the Stagnation Era.   Some government jobs provided dachas as a benefit, the luxury being commensurate with the grandeur of a job.    Other dachas, or more accurately the deed for the house but not the land, were passed down through generations, making it one of those frustratingly elusive “sure things” along the greasy pole of life in the Soviet Union.

An increasing number of dachas were built last week.    The Great Russian Soul strives for many and varied things, but a dacha is universal.    True to Russian form, however, the dacha is a lot more complicated and seriously less appealing than its obvious counterparts in South Hampton, Sussex or Aix-en-Provence.   Dismiss the idea of “On Golden Pond:” that remote, idyllic and nostalgic summer retreat with games of Scrabble missing the X, Y and J tiles, mismatched jelly glasses, and battered and waterlogged Herman Wouk hardbacks.  Despite Russia being one of largest countries in the world, most dachas are inexplicably built in clumps, one on top of the other, creating an effect of housing developments rendered in Lego by a four-year-old.  HRH has patiently explained to me that the water and electricity lines are limited outside of major city areas, but this is surely ludicrous excuse, for a country that put the first man in space.

Most of what I know about this kind of dacha settlement, I know from frequent air travel in and out of Moscow.  Analysis at ground level is more challenging because of the nine-foot cast iron gates that surround dacha settlements.

Dachas and country residences have sprung up like mushrooms with a vigorous disregard for consistency of style, size and, I fear, taste.   The result is you are likely to see an exact replica of King Ludwig’s Neushwansian bang up against plywood Frank Lloyd Wright knock-off.  To be fair, more recently, a certain sophistication and snobbery has crept in and “cottage settlements” are being developed with names like “Sherwood Forest”, “Tivoli” or “Longchamps” and the kind of house on offer is limited to only a handful of pre-set styles.  One of HRH’s less appealing buddies took him off to view a new gated community called (and spelled) “Green-vitch.”   Greenvitch’s glossy brochure offered a choice between a.) The Swiss Chalet, b.) The Anne Hathaway thatched cottage, c.) The Spanish Hacienda or d.) The Florentine Villa.  I offered The Contested Divorce as Option E.

My dachaphobia, much like my preference for uncluttered surfaces and ice in my drink, is a source of constant bafflement to my Russian acquaintances.

“So good for the children!” cooed Velvet’s nanny, who asked me to say I’m taking her to the USA one summer, so she didn’t have to be out at her dacha all of August with her grandchild.

“The fresh air!” enjoins my housekeeper – a sturdy 50-something woman recently hospitalized for three weeks following a collapse, I suspect was not unconnected to a marathon potato planting at her dacha.

“Oi…” sighed my colleague, every Monday morning from May to September, as she sank gratefully into her office chair and surveyed her scratched, sun burnt and chapped hands.  “I am beyond tired.”

The fact of the matter is, and no amount of Chekhov will convince me otherwise:  this whole dacha thing is a well-oiled vehicle to keep female indentured servitude alive and well in the early 21st Century.

Dachniki (those who own and use dachas) adhere to an exacting annual schedule. Over the May Day weekend, the family car is loaded to the gills with everything from barbecue spears to economy-sized packets of nappies, and the man of the house ferries his wife and children out to the dacha for the opening of the season.  Russian men, for it is only ever Russian men who do this, refer to this process by announcing, “I have sent my family out to the dacha.”  Since a Vaudeville style waggle of the eyebrows, a mischievous grin, and the brisk rubbing of hands usually accompany it, it could be more accurately interpreted as  “I finally got the old ball-and-chain, me mum, and the brats the hell out of town for the summer.”

And so sounds the opening bell for a season of unchecked hedonism in urban centers from Brest to Ulan Bator, kick-starting a mind-boggling transformation: bus drivers start to shave daily, cafes and bars extend their happy hours, restaurants offer asparagus, oyster, and other aphrodisiac food festivals, and hotels advertise weeknight specials.  Sales of condoms and nail polish reach annual spikes, and just you try to get a bikini wax on a Tuesday afternoon.   I walk down the street, knocked for six by the scent of cheap cologne on beefy security guards and blinded by the metallic sheen of secretaries’ regularly highlighted hair from May 1st – September 1st.

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Dear Readers:

Thank you so much for stopping by and reading this post.  It means a lot to me, as does the feedback you can leave for me by clicking the comment button below and telling me what you think.   I’d be interested to know: have you ever been to a dacha?   Have you seen Dr. Zhivago?   Do you live in a community where half of a population leaves during a particular season?  Does that departure lead to aberrant behavior?  If so, what kind?   

34 Comments

  • LMAO!
    Yeah, I’ve seen Dr. Zhivago. There’s snow . . . then there’s daffodils . . . then there’s snow.
    The Slovaks have the same dacha thing, but it’s called a chuta. They also think it’s the best thing since sliced bread, but as I see it, it involves packing everything you own(including bedding and cookware)and driving hours to someplace where I cannot be sure I can find any groceries. Or booze.

  • …and then having to load everything up again, all grimy and filthy and drive back to the town. Makes no sense to me! Thanks for your lengthy visit!

  • Elizabeth Sullivan says:

    Jennifer! I could not agree more but I’m afraid you did not accurately describe the FULL dacha experience. You left out a key feature of every dacha in Russia – THE BUGS. My girls spend half of July and all of August at my nanny’s dacha, located 50 km outside Yaroslav. True country – no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing. I take the train there on Friday nights and back on Sunday afternoon.
    There is a reception party waiting for me each Friday evening. The mosquitos form a huge “welcome back, Amerikanka!” – much like the fish giving directions in Finding Nemo. I put every type of bug repellent on me and I still spend my time slapping my legs, scratching my arms and massaging hydrocortisone cream into the bites. My nanny burns those spiral things that are supposed to repel bugs. I bought those burning torches filled with oil that are supposed to create a smoke screen. Nothing works. They love me and they love my oldest daughter. My Sunday afternoon, my face is swollen, bitten and oozing. I am dirty, smelly and sticky from numerous applications of spray and creme.
    My girls adore the dacha and are already discussing what they will do for 6 weeks in the middle of nowhere. I’m sure the mosquitos are also counting the days until my arrival.
    Keep up the blog! Gets better with every post.
    Elizabeth

  • Tamara says:

    I’m with you… The thought of battling the traffic to get there, and then get back, sure takes out any of the “relaxation” from being there…
    It would mean even more work for me to get us all ready to go, and then to get it all back to Moscow—like you said.
    Moscow is tough enough without adding more difficulty….
    That being said, I wouldn’t mind renting a place and going for a few weeks, provided grocery stores are easily accessible and good. Then again, we’re in the US in the summer exhausting ourselves by visiting all the grandparents!

  • Kate Herbert says:

    You are brilliant: razor accurate and wonderfully funny!
    Love
    Kate

  • Debbie Brumell says:

    Oh Jen,
    You and your commenters make me laugh so hard! My dear late friend Debbie Adams used to say her idea of roughing it was going without nail polish! Having been brought up with the NO CAMPING clause in my parents’ prenup, the idea of driving ANYWHERE for no indoor plumbing, BUGS of any kind, and no ice is totally foreign to me. I’ll just continue to get a laugh at those who think that’s fun….and at your Blog!
    xoxo A.A.D.

  • Beth says:

    You are BRILLIANT! This is all so correct.
    You would appreciate the fact I’ve been suggesting to my in-laws for several years that we add a septic tank to their dacha and sink a well, so that we can all enjoy indoor plumbing on those can’t-be-avoided dacha trips. “Oh no,” they say. “A dacha HAS to be primative!”
    Can’t wait to see what you have in mind for Victory Day!

  • Loved this post! I lived in Armenia for 6 years, and Armenia, being a former Soviet republic, has a dacha culture as well, although there is not as massive an exodus in the summer as what you describe.
    Most dachas are shacks in the country, grouped together or on a plot of land alone, and growing food is often part of the experience of spending time there. Some are fancy houses on Lake Sevan, owned by the well-to-do, obviously.
    We were once invited to a barbecue at someone’s dacha out of the capital. It was set in a type of gone-wild orchard, and the “house” was an old shipping container. Somewhere out in the field was an outhouse with the door missing. For the picnic there was a live sheep that first had to be slaughtered. It came tied up in the back of someone’s car.
    Actually, it was a great experience, but in the evening we drove home and slept in our own bed. Definitely the way to go.

  • Elizabeth nothing ever will help, that much is clear! I can’t believe you take the train each Friday night — we should interview you on that experience alone….

  • Ah yes…Camp Granny! So much fun! I am glad you don’t do dachas, though because, if you did, that would just be too much…you’d be perfect in every way.

  • Margarita, thanks for stopping by and your very encouraging comments! You’ve very obviously been to many dachas!

  • Many thanks, Kate! I always love your feedback!

  • roughing it is going without nail polish!! So true! I’m glad to have you back in cyber space AAD!!

  • See, that’s why This Stunt is so good. There are like 5 things between now and Victory Day!! Stay tuned!!

  • Dear Miss Footloose:
    A sheep you ate that arrived tied up (liveO) in the back of someone’s car. Oh My God. This is unbelievable!!!!!

  • Grant Reeder says:

    This column brought back lots of funny memories for me during my time in Russia. Each summer, I was invited to at least a couple of dacha weekends, usually by employees of Delta. After a couple of years, I gradually learned to find excuses not to go (or at least not to every one).
    With all that beautiful forest, I could also never figure out why all the clear-cutting in dachaland, but the need to grow root vegetables and a couple sorry-looking apple saplings.
    Great column – loved it as usual

  • Jocelyn says:

    Hi Jen,
    I really enjoyed this post. Never realized that Russia had such a phenomenon as the dacha, but I experienced it, vicariously, through your words. Thanks for the trip.
    China doesn’t really have anything like the dacha (you’re probably thinking “thank god”!). But there are the usual mass exodus seasons: Chinese New Year (when everyone — and I mean EVERYONE — goes back home, making any kind of travel tough), the May holiday (vacation or home), Summer travel (when college students clog up the trains after school lets out), back to school travel (when the students once again clog up the trains to return to school), and the October 1 national day holiday (vacation or home). If you try to travel at any of these times, good luck getting a train ticket — and good luck finding affordable hotels/airfare.

  • Jocelyn:
    Thanks so much for reading my post and I was intrigued by the concept of the concentration of travel in China during specific times of the year. Interesting.
    To those readers reading this exchange, Jocelyn and I have recently connected via the blogosphere with one big thing in common: we are both outsiders on the inside: American women married to the locals: Jocelyn to a Chinese Man and me to a Russian. I love her blog which you can find on the blogroll: Speaking of China or
    http://www.speakingofchina.com! Do check it out. I know you will like it as much as I do!

  • Grantski –
    Isn’t it interesting how much people are coming out on the dacha issue…? I agree with you that the amount of land is directly at odds with the one-on-top-of-each-other real estate planning.
    Thanks as ever for reading!

  • Potty Mummy says:

    Thanks for the heads-up on this to a newbie in Moscow; I wasn’t planning on indulging in any dacha-love but now all I have to do is point my husband to this post if he starts to wax lyrical about them… Much appreciated!

  • Sasha G. says:

    Oh, Jen, you MUST come to my dacha! Lake, woods, bicycle, mushrooms and birds — they compensate for the lack of ice in your drink. They really do.

  • Just as people said, “life is like a book, how would you like to write, it’s what kind of guide. So our personal attitude determines life. Certainly, we should really go through alot more meaningful publication, it can give us inspiration.

  • Melissa says:

    Jennifer, I’ve just moved to Moscow and went to my husband’s cousin’s dacha an hour north. The heat was pretty over the top, but the colony was divided into 600 sq m plots and everybody had built a pretty cute little houses with functional kitchens, bedrooms and some even had attics. And electricity! And a water pump in every yard! The only bad part besides the heat was being force fed berries every three seconds. Otherwise I thought it was great!

  • Melissa!
    Welcome to Moscow! Sounds like you have an HRH as well, so that’s a double welcome to our little community! So pleased that your dacha experience was a pleasant one. I’m gearing up for my annual trek out to our friend’s dacha…where they swear they have working plumbing, but I’ll believe that when I see it.
    I hope you enjoy your stay here, and that you’ll come back to the blog!
    Jennifer

  • Sasha says:

    Just discovered your blog yesterday and have really been enjoying reading! I’m an American college student studying for the semester in St. Petersburg, and while I can’t relate to everything on here (having only arrived in January) it’s really nice to know that someone else sees the ridiculous yet endearing side of many aspects of Russian life.
    Also, as regards the dacha experience, did you know that Canada has a similar phenomenon? I lived in Toronto for a few years and everyone went to their “cottage” in the summer. Much like the Russian dacha, it had many incarnations ranging from shack in the woods to gated community. Like Russia, somehow in a country with so much land everyone’s “cottage” managed to be located on the same lake.

  • Mark Amelin says:

    Agree. And me also – I still hate dacha and I never visit mine from 1988 … But reading that I just realized one of the aspect of the Russian soviet life – why people loved it enjoying even starving without normal utilitities and service conditions. This aspect – was a privacy, feeling as your own private corner and probably only one where you could feel your own nature and be some how free and independent (I understand – it was illusion, but still …)

  • Ira says:

    Come on, dachas are fun! We have been neglecting ours for about the last 5-7 years or so, sadly. With only sporradic trips there. My family enjoys all the BBQ stuff, I did too, until I recently became a vegetarian. Otherwise I take umm.. a great amount of joy in climbing trees and gathering cherry (we have 5 sorts.. 😀 ), I am not fond of picking stuff from bushes (my mother handles that, if something grows these days). I wish I could spend more time there, I went just last weekend, by myself. Was great.

    I think dachas upnorth are different from what we have here. About 2 years ago I spent a few days at a dacha near St. Petersburg, that was a place fully equipped to humans living there, also in early August they had stuff we had in late May or early June (strawberry, raspberry), also a lot of mushrooms in adjacent woods. Was odd to me. At our dacha we have something that I can’t call a house, it’s more like a container with two rooms, no electricity and no water (although we had a well once, but it’s not functioning anymore).

    I wouldn’t consider myself very “Russian”, but I do love a good old Russia visit. No mosquitos here, btw. Some bees because of all the fruit though. 🙂

    I think it has something to do with getting in touch with nature, no?

    • jennifer says:

      Ira:

      I love all your comments and your blog is super! What a fantastic time you are having as you make your way around and about!

      As for dachas – nope, I’m afraid I can’t be moved. I like my house in the US, which is sort of woodsy, but I’m afraid that I Don’t Do Dachas. And, as you can see from the lengthy list of commenters…I’m not alone!!!

      🙂

      Thanks for all your very interesting insights.

  • Nicola says:

    My first true movie star crush was Omar Sharif ( Rex Harrison was a close second, in My Fair Lady ) and oh, how I hoped upon my first trip to Russia, (well, the Ukraine actually) that I would discover my very own Variykino. I packed my perfect peasant blouses and demure cotton scarves which would protect my fair Anglochanka skin from the blistering sun as I picked sweet little klubnikas and exchanged romantic Julie Christi-esque glances with my husband Igor the terrible. I would be inspired to write great verse, with the flush of nature in my cheeks. For lunch, the most simple salat of tomato served upon a khokaloma cutting board would move us to tears…despite the dirt imbedded under my manicure.

    Well, then we arrived. By smoking, noxious Lada. In 38c. heat. After a bit of a bumpy ride down dirt roads, the big welcome dinner from the night before was sitting, shall we say, a little heavily for my unaccustomed digestion. So, I first asked where I might find the quaint dacha loo. Gospodi, what a mistake.

    I was shown down to the end of the vegetable patch and a dangerously leaning sheet metal hovel that shared a wall with the chicken coop. As a hinged bit of plywood was offered to me and I creaked it open, even the swarm of flies escaped from inside, buzzing off for thier lives. It was the very epicenter of untold years of Soviet era waste, a sweltering post Chernobyl of poop, too unbearable, too horrific to step near. Let alone expose my very English derrière to in the confines of an unthinkably closed door. I helplessly declined, took stumbling backwards steps and narrowly averted fainting amongst the 12 foot high dill and creeping beets underfoot. Just at that moment, Igor the Terrible’s mama appeared and let out a screeching command to sit to the table… for lunch.

    Despite my reeling trauma, I am quite sure I heard Omar laugh at me and gallop off back into the forest. He probably hated the loo at Veriykino, too.

  • Christine McDonald says:

    Actually, I live in a dacha just outside of Victoria, Canada. It is very pretty and quiet here, although I miss the big city life of Vancouver from time to time. We only have one bathroom, although it is in the house, and the plumbing works just fine. Since my kids are boys, they have been told more that once ‘go pee off the deck, your brother (or father) is using the shower!’ To be fair, our deck is very private since it is surrounded by big trees. I think I am the only woman in Canada who will tolerate a house with only one bathroom and no ‘island’ in the kitchen. How do Russian women feel about the bathroom situation? When I lived in Moscow in the 80’s as a student, I got the feeling that just having a bathroom of your own was enough.

    • Jennifer says:

      Dear Christine,

      I think you live in a Canadian “cottage” not a Russian dacha!! It sounds blissful! For Russian women, I think the idea of a bathroom in a dacha at all is like a trip to fantasy island! I write about this a lot in the chapter on dachas in Lenin Lives Next Door: how the outdoor facilities are hard to face in the early am! Thank you so much for dropping in on the blog!
      Jennifer

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