YAROSLAVL AREA, Russia – My mother-in-law Tatiana watches over her half acre of paradise. It is located at the end of an overgrown path, a few kilometers down a dirt road from the main highway to Moscow. The property consists of a three-room cottage without running water, a vegetable garden and a well-trimmed lawn bordered by lilacs, firs and pines.
Tatiana and her late husband built the dacha, or summer house, in 1992, the year after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She remembers arriving in a truck that left their furniture in front of the little two-story house surrounded by fields of wheat and oats. At first, the dacha did not even have power.
“We lived very well without electricity,” Tatyana says. “All day we were busy walking in the woods exploring. And at night we would sit around a kerosene lamp and play Monopoly.”
In the Russian imagination, the dacha occupies an almost mythical place. Formerly a reserve for the landed nobility, the summer house gained popularity with city professionals at the end of the 19th century; in Soviet times, the dacha became accessible to everyone, from writers to factory workers.
Nowadays, a dacha can be anything from a two-room hut in imitation of a French oligarch castle. Every summer, Russian cities empty as millions of people escape cramped, cramped apartments to reconnect with their roots in the countryside.
Tatyana, a Muscovite, was first drawn to the dacha because of the nearby forests with their abundance of berries and mushrooms. It was only later that she started gardening. Now Tatiana and her husband Alexander spend their summer weekends on the property, though the 80-mile drive can take up to four hours with dacha traffic. She often thought of selling the place.
“But I just can’t, because I always come back in the spring and want so much to do here and go to the woods,” Tatyana says. “For some reason I can’t sell it, even though it takes so much physically.”
The downsides of dacha life – outhouses, uneven cellphone coverage, and trips to the well – are more than outweighed by its therapeutic effects.
“Here, these city problems just go away,” Tatyana says. “Savagery clears your mind of all that is unnecessary.”
There’s always something going on at the dacha, and it’s that existential physical activity that stressed city dwellers crave.
In the nearby village, Andrei Kuznetsov sweats in the midday sun as he piles up firewood in front of his parents’ quaint house, which has intricate woodwork around the windows. During the pandemic, Andrei lost his job as a manager in Moscow and now has time to repair the house his great-grandfather built a century ago. The family farm has a vegetable garden, chickens and five goats.
“Country life is romantic when you get used to it,” says Andrei. “That means 80% work and 20% love life. No work, no play.”
His partner, Natalya, a teacher from Moscow, agrees.
“It’s a real vacation away from the city, the noise, the people and the hustle and bustle. When you work in the garden or with the animals, you rest,” she says. “I can’t imagine my life without this place.”
One of my mother-in-law’s neighbors, Vladimir Beresnev, loves his dacha so much that he installed the plumbing and central heating to make it comfortable in winter as well. But the retired accordionist says his two sons rarely visit him.
“My youngest said: ‘I haven’t been back for five years and I won’t be for five years,” says Vladimir. “The dacha is not for everyone.”
In 1986, Vladimir became the first Muscovite to buy a piece of the state farm that once owned the land here. Little by little chalets have emerged, farmland has been privatized and dacha owners have started to replace the inhabitants of the hamlet. Now there is only one villager left, says Vladimir, and he spends most of his time in Moscow.
Galina Boyarinova, who owns the property adjoining Tatiana’s, works weekdays as an accountant in Moscow.
She remembers her first years of dacha life with nostalgia and laughter.
As a young mother, she says, she slept with an ax next to her bed, though the only dangers she faced were an angry goat and drunken shepherds in search of moonlight.
Her daughter married a local man, and they celebrated their wedding during the village’s annual summer vacation, with Vladimir playing the accordion.
“We used to set up tables for the holidays here under the trees,” says Galina, standing at the door of her dacha. But now there is no one left to celebrate the holiday.
The country store in a log cabin a few miles down the road is also missing. Twice a week, the avtolavka – a shop on wheels – went through with a bang. Galina remembers how the village the babushkas donned silk dresses for the occasion and waited for the food truck on a large log. They memorized foreign words like “Hubba Bubba” and “Snickers” to buy treats for their grandchildren.
The children at the dacha spent the long summer days wandering the gardens and forests.
“Our kids do shows,” says Galina. “They were hanging curtains on the swings, and the stage was right here. They were making their own costumes and handing out tickets to all the babushkas in the village.”
The elderly have since passed away and the children have grown up.
But now a new generation returns to the creaking swing of Galina’s front door. My wife Svetlana sits with our 15 month old boy Leo on the same swings she used to play as a girl.
Galina and her husband want to retire here. Maybe one day she will tell Leo about her first visit to the family dacha when he comes with his own child.
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