Sunday, 14 August 2011

up and onward

Back in my London flat, with the gorgeous smell of dacha-grown apples and the lingering sour taste left by our recent sporadic, meaningless riots.

And the end of another year in Moscow - with the beginning of the next only a few weeks away. A friend asked me how I coped with the winter snows and then laughed at the involuntary grin on my face. So, must mean I am looking forward to it.

that time again

At the end of each of my 'years' in Moscow, I have this (impossible) idea of trying to sum up what I have learnt in one single picture. This is last year's - and for this year, I wanted to capture something of that endlessly interesting but confusing juxtaposition that seems central to life here; the combination of lots of (often mindless) rules and regulations with little bother as to whether these are actually obeyed. It is illegal to cross the railway tracks. And everyone does it.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011


The other glory was that the dacha sat in a pine forest, next to a river. We went for a walk through the woods and then 3 of the group - all in their late 60s - stripped down to swim. Because of the current, this involved going some way upstream and then being carried back in the water to our waiting place. So peaceful, just someone fishing and some other swimming people at various points along the edge.

on new russians

Everyone at the dacha was dismissive of New Russians who buy up dacha plots nearer to Moscow and build huge mansions. They said that being at an hour and a half distance from the city made the group of dachas here too far for NRs in their 4X4s to be bothered to drive each weekend (given that - especially in the hot weather - everyone goes to their dacha for the weekend, and for as much of the summer as possible, making the already bad traffic jams even worse.)

This means that many of the buildings around here are small and elderly, picturesquely decaying, very basic in terms of kitchen and washing facilities. In old peasant houses, most of the volume was taken up with a huge masonry stove, built to retain heat - which people slept on, used for cooking and smoking, and for sitting inside to wash. A wanted to build one in her dacha, but it was too big and too difficult to fit in. She says that such stoves are becoming trendy again (again with the NRs), but that is hard to get good stovemakers and that many are just for show. 

on compote

One of the regular visitors to the dacha was a biologist, who brought me many samples of herbs and plants and described their medicinal qualities. She also made several variations on Russian compote - a catch-all phrase without any English equivalent as it seems to cover everything from various forms of fruit pureed desserts, to a drink I often have of tepid, boiled up fruit in a (relatively) liquid form, to the  fruit- tasting wetness of boiling water poured onto a melange of fruit, leaves and whatever. The latter perfect for both freshness and immediacy.

why the dacha is a thing of beauty

Finally got to go for the weekend to my landlady and landlord's dacha, about an hour and a half's train ride away from the city.

And what a blissful honour. The building and its fruit trees, cucumbers, marrows, berries and herbs were very much what I had expected, together with the freshness of the air, the purity and cold of the well-water and the strength of smells (dill, coriander, apples). And I expected the constant round of fire-building, cooking, mending, digging, pruning, salting and compote-making. But I found myself also witnessing a personal and social life with direct continuities back to Soviet times as A and N, together with several old friends from their student days at Moscow State University, reminisced and joked and drunk and ate together; around a large table, under a open, outdoor roof, in the midst of apple and plum trees.

I knew that dachas had originally been given as rewards for loyalty by Peter the Great, a tradition repeated by Stalin. But I didn't realise that in the 60s and 70s workers organisations were given plots of land to share out (together with some restrictions on plot size and building height, so as to not echo the previously elitist context) which means that a surprisingly large minority of Muscovites still have access to a dacha. A and N have developed theirs since the 1970s, but the type of life dachas enable remains central; that is, social, convivial and sharing as much as connecting back to the country, to land and to growing your own produce.  I can't say if these spaces 'made up for' the constraints of communal housing and in public life, but but they certainly open up my images of, and assumptions about, everyday life and pleasures in the old Soviet Union.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

sunny walking

It was a major joy to be ambling in a park in the summer sun with the trees in full leaf. Kolomenskoye park is big - it has a stream through the middle and a dipping hill down to the Moscow river.  Lovely. And there are a whole band of these big parks and forests around Moscow, still to visit.

(Also some lakes and beaches; here is Moscow Elements magazine's top 7.)


Got taken for a lovely afternoon walk in beautiful summer sunshine by V, as part of his on-going campaign to improve my education in Russian history and architecture. We went to Kolomenskoye park (conveniently accessible by metro on the green line) and visited the exquisite little group of buildings around the 16th century Church of the Ascension, a UNESO World Heritage site. And got into a discussion about how it looks like a rocket ship, so the space race must have started earlier than we thought... 

road works-not

Back in Moscow, albeit briefly, and start out very grumpy as I appear to have been completely re-Londonised in my time away.  Horribly flustered by heaving chaos, queue-barging and being stood very close to whilst going through Domodedovo airport passport control. And in the centre of town find that all the pavements have been (half) dug up, making walking about a bit haphazard (as well as a hazard), as if some disruption to everyday life must always be essential here.

And of course, the rumours are that the works - commissioned by the new mayor, Sergei (I will stop corruption) Sobyanin - are happening because his wife owns a brickworks, and yes you have guessed, all the pavements are being bricked. And now the city has run out of bricks.

Which is so typically crazy that you have to laugh, so then I remember that this is one of the many reasons I like Moscow and find I am very glad to be back.....