Wednesday, 10 August 2011

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.

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