New East Digital Archive

Dacha: an essay on the ‘Russian cottage’ and its place in the country’s imagination

One of the winners of the Notting Hill Editions essay prize explores the notion of the Russian dacha and its endurance from pre-revolutionary Russia, to the post-Soviet world

4 September 2017

Somehow everything built in Russia looks as if it has been made by hand.

— Ian Frazier, Travels in Siberia

If only. As if. What kind of hand?

Do you know anything about commonplace dachas, summerhouses of ordinary citizens in that part of the world? The dacha tradition goes back to Tsarist Russia, when it denoted land given by the state to its faithful servants. The word takes its root from the verb ‘to give’. Dacha was a sign of official grace. Sometimes this act of benevolence came with expectations: the newly-minted favourites were to improve the surrounding area, build roads and produce attractive residences. Nevertheless, the dacha idea was about leisure, enjoyment and pleasure.

I breathe the lightness of dacha air in Bunin’s world:

On Saturdays and Sundays even the morning trains from Moscow were crowded with people coming to visit dachas… The arriving passengers competed for carts on hot, packed sand near the station, then rode happily down lanes that had been cut into the woods, the sky like streamers over their heads. Soon a mood of pure country bliss took over the forest that spread in all directions and sheltered the dry, undulating earth. When the hosts took their Moscow guests for walks, they’d boast that bears were the only thing missing in the forest; they’d recite, ‘The dark woods smell of pitch and wild berries’ and shout out ‘hello’ to one another, enjoying their idle summer days and their free-spirited clothes – their long peasant shirts with embroidered hems and colorful braided belts, their canvas caps…

The dacha grounds were large, like those of a country estate. To the right of the courtyard entrance stood an empty stable with a hayloft, next to it the servants’ wing extended to the kitchen… To the left, old pines grew luxuriantly in firm, uneven soil; swing sets and giants’ steps stood in a patch of grass below them. A smooth lawn for croquet lay farther on, already at the wood’s edge. The house was large as well; it stood right at the end of the driveway with a disorienting mixture of garden and forest spreading out behind it. An elegant avenue of old spruces ran through this confusion from the back porch to the bathing house on the pond…

- Ivan Bunin, Sunstroke

The Soviets destroyed the old world, but kept dacha. The bestowal principle was similar. Nomenklatura (those who held influential posts in government and industry), distinguished scientists, and loyal artists, benefited from the regime’s grip. Common folk had a much harder time obtaining a dacha. Dachas were not built out of private caprice, but out of a privileged partnership between an individual and a higher power. An industrial enterprise (a plant or a factory) would be granted a piece of land from the state, which would then be divided into lots and doled out to comrades. This subinfeudation was called kooperativ (co-op). Sometimes, lots in the co-op might be bestowed upon people of other professions: teachers or doctors, for example. Schools or hospitals did not have their own co-ops because they had no means with which to contribute to ‘beautification’ – constructing roads, bringing in electricity, or creating an irrigation system. Every plant or factory was to take one of those institutions under its patronage – to incorporate them into the Union of Workers and Peasants. The representatives of non-proletarian professions were part of the classless society after all.

The higher-ranking administration, the senior staff and the stakhanovites (those who consistently overachieved) were at the head of the queue. The original recipient of the lot was awarded the bare land. The dream became a reality. The celebrations were over. The family then started building. Naturally, the children inherited the project that often completely destroyed their own young adulthood and their children’s childhood, as all the weekends were spent building. Often, the fence went up quickly. Nothing was easy, as in Rustam Ibragimbekov’s short story, ‘Dacha’:

But when summer came, it turned out that building a dacha was a utopian task for their family… The truck, which brought a load of stone cubes, got stuck in the sand, about 300 meters away from the dacha plot. After several hours of effort under the scorching sun, they managed to get the truck out; and then, with no break (to get everything done before nightfall), carried the cubes to the house. Each took two stones (more was too heavy), and, sweating, lugged them, struggling in the hot quicksand.

The next day mother hired an old stonemason from the locals and began building. The mason’s 12-year-old grandson brought cubes and water on a small donkey; mother mixed putty, and father, philosopher by trade, cooked for everybody…

Building a dacha proceeded with interruptions: money ran out; materials weren’t available. Bad roads made construction even more exhausting and slow. In two summers, mother managed to have fence put up, a well dug up…and walls go up.

There was no ownership of private property. The dacha was a totalitarian version of a fee tail. It could be inherited. The lot (the land itself) could not be sold, but any buildings on it could. This meant that in the event of an occupant wanting or needing to dispose of a dacha, the land went back to the co-op but he or she could sell the buildings. For those on the waiting list, buying a dacha building was a chance to jump the queue to obtain a dacha lot. In the event of a ‘failure of issue’, that is if the comrade-in-residence was not survived by any heirs, the dacha would escheat to the tenant-in-chief (plant or factory) and a new sub-tenure would be established.

When building a dacha, one could not allow free rein to the imagination. The central authorities specified sizes of plots, maximum dimensions of houses, the number of stories (one) and windows, the number of outbuildings, and any amenities (stoves were forbidden). A choice of standard models was state approved. Design and architectural endeavours were frowned upon. ‘Extravagance’ was out of place. The state sent inspectors to check if cooperatives complied with rules. But resourcefulness won. Bribes and ‘blat’ made things possible. [Blat – the use of one’s network and acquaintances to sidestep the system: to procure deficit goods, organise special circumstances or secure benefits which were not possible to obtain by regular means.]

Dachas did not have heat or running water. Instead, there would be a community well somewhere. The electricity was not always reliable. To water your lot you had to join the ‘watering line’. One had to be inventive when building a dacha. Building materials were not available. Deficit ruled. The store shelves were empty. One could not buy lumber, bricks or hardware. One could snatch some wood or bricks from the state building sites, pilfer hardware from a factory or a job site and ‘arrange’ getting some doors and windows from a state construction or demolition project. Imagine an inspector asking for receipts. One could not pass the initiation into this cooperative without a compelling answer to the question: What will you do for the cooperative? One had to be useful in a tangible way.

The Soviet Union collapsed. The factories died. Perestroika gave way to privatization. Temporary possession transformed into ownership, the fence left untouched. Dachas became real estate and were bought and sold. The demographics of any given co-op changed. Dachas were bought by non-proletarians unable to have one before. Often improvements were made, but they were usually cosmetic. Major reconstructions were rare. Thus, the original architecture was left almost intact. As a result, traces of the lives of the initial occupants were preserved for the generations to come.

Come with me for a walk in one of the dacha communities, just outside Bishkek (former Frunze), Kyrgyzstan (in the former Soviet Union). These dachas – the mostly self-built summerhouses of average Soviets – were (and still mostly are) hidden from view.

Railroad and transportation officials had the easiest time building – the passenger car would become a house while the freight car was utilised for a barn. A bus could also be turned into a barn. The wheels would be taken off, and the tyres used for flower beds.

The phone booth was quite common – a no-brainer outhouse. Another omnipresent item was an old cast-iron bathtub – almost every dacha had one, usually placed next to a gutter to collect rainwater (to be used for watering). Heavy, bulky, it was probably no less difficult to transport than a railroad car. In a society where bathrooms were easily the ugliest spaces in apartments, usually ‘decorated’ with off-square tiles of hideous colors, the white, older-style cast-iron bathtubs were containers for rainwater in people’s gardens. Sometimes kids bathed in them.

Look at the house that has a shed for the car, built from the Soviet-era towel dryers which, essentially, were a bent pipe. A friend of a friend bought a house with all the little walkways constructed from 213 metal plates – the original owner’s grandfather, who had worked at the airport, took advantage of the runway reconstruction and brought small portions of heavy plates home on a bicycle for several months. Another friend’s former colleague without access to anything useful (he worked in an office) had a very inventive mind. He pre-dated Green Design by years – using wine and beer bottles as bricks, laying them horizontally, and cementing them together to build a house. It still stands.

It wasn’t so much the ingenuity borne of scarcity, but the flight of a trapped imagination, that tore the covers off the life behind the walls. I will never forget a stucco building decorated with medallions – the round and oval tops of 10-inch diameter herring cans were set right into stucco. I have seen this house since: the medallions are gone (the owner must have changed), but the round and oval traces of the cans are still there.

If you see a regular house, built from standard construction materials, you can still deduce the original family member’s career path: military. They could get anything. Nobody knows why, but a house like that was called ‘prosecutor’s dacha’. An acquaintance bought a house from a low-rank former military official. The house was modest, but the basement was full of gas masks.

During the Soviet era, my family did not own a dacha, but they acquired one in the early 2000s. The original owner was in the military, and his son was an airplane mechanic. This dacha was a sturdy brick house. It boasted a little patio with two airplane seats under a pear tree. The airplane toilet was installed into the outhouse, its structure covered with aircraft exterior metal sheets. There were stacks of aluminum airplane parts in the attic (some unfulfilled improvement?), as well as a pile of pilot uniform blue shirts (garden work clothes?). The kitchen was filled with the airplane single-use dishes.

It was not just the exterior that unveiled people’s former or current lives. I went into one dacha that belonged to a film studio facilities director: he furnished it with historical drama gear – I sat in Ghenghis Khan’s throne. Pressboard bedside tables and closets, their doors slightly off square, decorated another dacha. Somebody must have worked in hotel management.

Fences are really something. They are much more than a territory demarcation. On an individual level, they are an emblem of possession in a world stripped of private property (and full of stolen ones). Look at the fence built from small metal bed headboards – somebody was likely employed in a kindergarten.

A barricade assembled from the metal net bed springs, suggests a hospital or hotel as the workplace of some member of the family.

Pipes of various dimensions used in construction expose a plumber owner. Do not miss a fence made from wall-sized net partitions, each with a sign, ‘Don’t Climb, Danger’, revealing its previous life as a high-voltage enclosure. From a distance, fences composed of the sheets from which agricultural parts were pressed look like giant rusted stencils standing in the middle of a garden. Large fire extinguishers serve as columns.

But the classic and most common fence did not reveal the external life of an individual, but an unseen, unspoken of, and to most, unimaginable dimension of collective existence. It was a barbed wire fence. The barbed wire was hard to obtain, but certainly possible. It was ubiquitous; as if a collective unconscious was manifesting itself in the midst of people’s leisure, in their most private spaces and moments.

I am looking out the window of the apartment in the capital city where I was born and raised. The flower beds made from tyres are painted a cheerful yellow and red. I wonder what else is passed down to the next generation, to my generation.

Soviet ideology appropriated building as one of its main propaganda tools. The language of physical construction labour that was about to produce Communism became native in the Union of Workers and Peasants. Labour defined the new society and moulded the ‘new man’ Socialism promised to create. The 1930s propaganda publication SSSR na Stroike (USSR in Construction) about building a new life in the Soviet Union boasted a number of foreign subscribers.

The ‘idiocy of rural life’ had to be dispensed with. The 1930s in the Soviet Union witnessed population migration from villages to cities unprecedented anywhere in the world. In his Magnetic Mountain Stephen Kotkin notes ‘the centrality of labour in personal identity’ in the USSR. The new life that this labour would soon produce would redeem the harshness of the current conditions. The new Soviet Man would come into existence.

In the 1920s, Leon Trotsky hoped the Soviet man would be altered in his body:

Man [. . . ] will learn how to move rivers and mountains, how to build people’s palaces on the peaks of Mont Blanc and at the bottom of the Atlantic.… More than that. Man at last will begin to harmonise himself in earnest. He will make it his business to achieve beauty by giving the movement of his own limbs the utmost precision, purposefulness and economy in his work, walk and play. He will try to master first the semiconscious and the subconscious processes in his own organism, such as breathing, the circulation of the blood, digestion, reproduction, and, within necessary limits, he will try to subordinate them to the control of reason and will. Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated Homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho-physical training.

The construction was fine-tuned to mean the building of the new society, never mind that it was built with the helping hands of camp inmates. In the Soviet propaganda films Solovki (1928) and the White Sea Canal (1935) the cruelest labour was depicted as leisure. Watching Solovki, one might think it is a film about a Soviet resort… situated among 492 lakes joined by channels. People are gardening, strolling around, attending a concert, and reading books. Somebody is feeding a dog; someone is distributing papers. People are going about their lives. Embroidering, hanging laundry, knitting, mailing, getting haircuts, pipe smoking and talking; playing guitar, balalaika, accordion; swimming and weightlifting. When travel was possible, visitors came on excursions came and got acquainted with prisoners and the island’s monuments. The monastery that was located on the islands before they were turned into a camp had much harsher policies. It took advantage of the free labour to construct a dam. But the camp provided literacy education. Inmates are learning to read in their free time – the lettered cubes on the screen say ‘not slaves’.

The films were a perfectly-orchestrated confusion. Linguistics helped, as the word ‘camp’ also means a collective organised holiday for children. Dmitrii Likhachev, a renowned historian of ancient Russian literature, was a prisoner at Solovki for four years in the early 1930s. He described the film as an absolute lie, noting that when he was free, he found himself in a different camp, of much bigger scale.

In 1964, the communist-printed Pravda (Truth) cited Brezhnev’s words that ‘it [was] not secret to anyone that in the years of Stalin’s personality cult, housing construction was much neglected and the housing problem became quite acute.’

Stalin’s years were not only years of Second World War destruction; the attention went to the construction of camps, a different type of living space in the Soviet Union. It was during these years that the camps formed an important part of the Soviet economy and slave labour was used for the most ambitious construction projects, administered by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The stunning disregard for the natural environment of many of these enterprises is notorious.

The Decree on Construction of Summer Dwellings of 1958 sanctioned the building of summer cottages by Soviet citizens. These summerhouses, or dachas, though subject to many regulations and the constant need to lie to circumvent the system, were the least monitored spaces of Soviet life, allowing the illusion of privacy and, if not freedom, then some liberties. In her memoir, Galina: A Russian Story, Galina Vishnevskaya recalled:

When Krushchev was in power, people were allowed the private use of small bits of land for growing fruit and vegetables. On those garden plots they were permitted to build little one-room shacks as shelter from the summer rains and to keep their gardening tools in. But the Soviet people, who had learned not to be choosy, live in the shacks during the summer months – whole families at a time – and remembered Tsar Nikita with gratitude.

The rural dimension was re-admitted into the lives of the citizens. The summer plots helped address food shortages. The planned economy operated in another unseen space. Many citizens filled their leisure with labour of the most primitive kind – manually building summerhouses from found or stolen materials, in a way analogous to camp life, where extreme scarcity produced inventiveness that made one tremble. The impossibility of freedom in captivity was really manifest in the spaces people created.

By 1960, Soviet urban planners declared that the USSR led the world in the number of apartments built per 1,000 persons. In 1959, Great Britain built 5.4 apartments per 1,000 citizens, France 7.2 and the USA 7.9. All the while the Soviet Union counted 14.5 units per 1,000 citizens. The Soviet construction programme for 1966–70 aimed to move 65 million people into new housing but it was not expected to solve the housing crisis. Much of the new construction was flawed to the extent that immediate repairs were needed: the roofs leaked, the top floors sometimes didn’t have running water, the doors and floors were warped and the walls cracked. Nothing quite worked in the Soviet Union and everything was in need of endless repairs. One of my American friends expressed it best, saying that so much in the former Soviet Union looked as if it were built by somebody whose hobby was popular mechanics. I only recently understood the accuracy of this observation. In the 1950s there was a lot of enthusiasm about the Gorkii methods of voluntary labour in housing construction, which was lauded in the 1957 Decree on Developing Housing Construction in the USSR. The Gorkii automobile workers were constructing houses themselves in their spare time, often using industrial waste and cheap materials. The Decree expressed hope that this experience would become an important nationwide movement. Although some houses were built in such a fashion, all poorly constructed, the movement never took off on the aspired scale. It certainly blossomed in the dacha construction.

In their essay ‘Mourning in the hollows of architecture and psychoanalysis’ Maria McVarish, a practicing architect, and Julie Leavitt, an MD and a psychoanalyst, remarked:

A further complication of space, in the everyday sense in which we use this word, is the extent to which our bodies are in it and of it, reflexively. We internalise the standards of everyday architectural space to such a degree that we rarely reflect on what its walls, windows, and roofs keep from us. Through lifetime of repeated movement, we incorporate the spatial conventions of environmental design down to their smallest and most detailed nuances: the feel, in one’s feet and legs, of a stairway’s standard proportion of rise to run; the sense of inside as distinct from out; a window’s relationship with light, air, and view; the meaning and utility of a door, a floor, ceiling or wall.

What kind of consciousness plants geraniums into truck tyres and puts airplane seats under a pear tree?

What kind of body can relax in those chairs?

What kind of pain blankets the dissonance of old tyres and flowers?

What kind of numbness allows feeling at home in such unease?

What kind of touch does not sense the discord of debris and bloom?

Lying in a hammock in the orchard marked off by barbed wire, I cannot imagine. I read testimonies, history and fiction. In the epilogue of her Journey Into the Whirlwind, I come across Evgenia Ginzburg’s afterthought about her eighteen years spent in the camps:

During those years I experienced many conflicting feelings, but the dominant one was that of amazement. Was all this imaginable – was it really happening, could it be intended? Perhaps it was this very amazement which helped me to keep alive. I was not only a victim, but an observer also.

If it was hard for her to imagine, how can I, three generations apart? It may be that this inability was protective – that one can remove oneself to stay alive. Another attempt at imagination: I make believe I belong to my grandparents’ generation. As the regime built, it destroyed. In the midst of the epic construction, the familiar world has been shattered. The language has become foreign. All these new words, the meanings of which are unknown. Who are these ‘stakhanovites’ cramming five-year plans into four years? Why do they do it? People quietly vanish. It’s better not to ask any questions. The churches are gone. The sound heard is of a jackhammer. Nature is no longer to be understood, but to be conquered. There’s fear in the rustle of leaves.

I would not have been able to put any feelings into words. I would have been lost, suspended, adrift. The split between generations would have been unbreachable. What would I talk about? What would I not talk about? Would I have tried to protect my children with silence? What would it take to keep silent on a daily basis? Would they have understood my language? I would not have thought about them living without the past. Would I and would they feel the rupture separating us? Could I reach across the rift with my touch? What kind of touch would it have been? Careful, cautious, and trying to make a connection? Or effortless, natural, and knowing?

This make-belief is an inversion and it turns my eye inward. I observe the gone generation in my body and in my mind, feeling disoriented when I do this research. Shellshocked? Why do these words come to me? Whose are the war dreams that I see sometimes? Why am I on the trains a lot in my sleep? Why do cemeteries give me a feeling of comfort? Does my neck pain, as I write this, carry the memory of the silence which must have been suffocating and which now I am trying to break? To fill? The free-wheeling feeling of powerlessness, of confusion, of inability to comprehend. Now I can imagine. The lives lived in fear, invisible, since even being seen was dangerous. The bodies effacing themselves, tension, eyes careful when meeting eyes, living as if absent from life. Members of my family stayed silent. Some died before I was born. They left no diaries. In his essay about Varlam Shalamov’s The Kolyma Tales, Andrei Siniavsky, a Russian novelist who spent five years in the camps, writes that ‘a human being does not endure; he turns into material – wood, stone – from which the builders build what they want … in such conditions a human being doesn’t think about anything, doesn’t remember anything, loses his mind, his feeling, his will.’

Rachel Rosenblum, a French psychoanalyst, remarks that ‘survivors who remain silent are often condemned to a desiccated existence, a dried-out life, a death in life […] But when they speak out, and in particular when they do so in public, they are running an even greater risk. Telling the “ghastly tale” may, in some cases, trigger not only serious somatic trouble, psychotic episodes, but suicide.’ There seems to be no way back to life.

In the film Architecture and Power, Ioan Augustin, Romanian scholar and practicing architect, describes totalitarian architecture as built ideology. Probably, dachas will never be thought of as architecture. Yet in a way these everyday spaces constitute a built ideology more than the glorious construction projects for which the ideology wanted to be remembered.

We are so habituated to each of these (and myriad of other) more-or-less standardised features of environmental design that, in the course of using and moving through the built environment, any apperception of physical details remains largely unconscious. Indeed, standardised units and configurations of space are fundamentally integral to our corporeal schemata. We depend on them in our daily navigations of the human world.

– Maria McVarish, ‘Mourning in the Hollows of Architecture and Psychoanalysis’

When we step out of our private spaces, what kind of world do we find? The maps of Gulag show the dense lay of the prison and camp land. Yet most of the camp sites have disappeared, unidentified, or have been demolished by the state once the Soviet Union collapsed. What has been memorialised was done by private groups and individuals. There’s only one museum in the whole of Russia that was built on the site of a former camp – Perm 36, run by the private historical memory and human rights society until 2014, when the state took over the property and the collections. The museum is no longer about repression and the cruelty of forced labour, but about the timber production that made the Second World War victory possible.

History is reconstructed to bury crime. The painful past is not part of our public discourse. The official historical space being designed is of unmarked graves, unburied dead, and arrested collective mourning. Justifications of Stalin’s terror are loud and clear. Confusion. For the next generation it is already hard to imagine the evil which took place. What kind of world will they create? What kind form will the expelled past take in their private and public world? Will they recognise it?

I can no longer live my life in a double absence. The gap of my private silence. The void being created by the current official refusal to acknowledge, remember and commemorate. Living in a different country and free society I ask myself to what extent I still exist in the land of ever-present melancholy and fear of being seen. I can find my way in the personal space of my past and collective history, but the public lacunae fashioned by the state I can no longer accept. I write this so as not to be a part of the hollow of my generation and the next, and of those not yet born. I want truth and reconciliation so that the past does not (re)confine our present and future, and our individual lives.

Author: Dasha Shkurpela

Dasha Shkurpela is one of six winners of the Notting Hill Editions third essay prize