A Cottage Industry of Wealth
It wasn’t an easy way to find a nice spot for a country home, but it worked.
During the Nazi assault on Moscow, three Soviet airmen were shot down 25 miles north of the city. After parachuting to safety, they hiked out through a riverside forest of birch, pine and fir and rejoined the fight.
At war’s end, the men were invited to a victory celebration with Josef Stalin, who asked them, “Guys, what do you want?” according to economist Gennady Lisichkin, who first heard the story a quarter of a century ago. “They said that in 1941 they were shot down and fell here,” Lisichkin continued. “They said, ‘If you could allow us, we’d like to build our summer dachas there.’ So Stalin issued an order, and many famous pilots built dachas here.”
Thus was born the Test Pilot compound, where Lisichkin has had a summer home for 25 years (scored through his father-in-law, a well-connected pilot) and counts five former cosmonauts as neighbors.
In Stalin’s time, as in the time of the 18th century czars when the tradition began, the dacha was a privilege granted to the elite, a reward for loyalty and service. In fact, the name was derived from dat, the Russian verb “to give.” Later, ordinary Russians got a piece of the action, building dachas of their own, often from scrounged materials.
Today, the beloved retreats are more sought after than ever by city folk across Russia. For many urban dwellers, they’re the key to a treasured rural way of life reflecting the true Russian soul.
For others, old-timers mutter darkly, they’re status symbols that have more to do with the high life than the simple life, as evidenced by the surging construction of dachas around this booming capital, with its rapidly growing middle class and wealthy upper crust.
The classic dacha, kept in the family for generations, was a place to escape the city’s summer heat, to hunt mushrooms in the forest, to enjoy family life and to socialize with neighboring dachniki across picket fences or along dirt roads. Those on tight budgets grew large quantities of potatoes, onions and cucumbers and also canned pickles, jams and fruit for the long winter ahead.
A dacha can be a rough-hewn log cabin. It can resemble a peasant’s home, displaying intricately carved decorative motifs from village architecture. It can be little more than a shack made of wood or brick leftovers from construction sites. Leaders such as Stalin or Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev used spacious dachas, typically built of wood, that boasted elegance inside but still showed some respect for rustic traditions.
These days, some so-called New Russians, wealthy from the often-corrupt division of Soviet state assets, build palatial three-story dachas surrounded by high brick walls with corner watchtowers, more medieval fortress than cozy cabin.
The ostentatiously rich are decidedly unpopular with old-timers.
“Nobody knows who they are. There’s nothing to talk about with them,” Lisichkin said dismissively of a family that built a fancy brick mansion on a lot it bought in the no-longer-restricted Test Pilot compound.
A luxury dacha even plays the starring role in Russia’s biggest political drama this summer: Prosecutors have accused former Prime Minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov, a potential opposition presidential candidate, of illegally privatizing a heavily wooded lakefront villa that was once government property.
Prosecutors deny any political motivation, but critics say authorities decided to go after Kasyanov to ensure that he would not enter the 2008 race.
Another drama also has made headlines in these peak-of-summer days as authorities engage in high-profile confrontations with dozens of dacha owners to enforce court rulings against alleged illegal construction in nature protection zones. Three people reportedly were hurt in one clash as owners tried to block demolition.
From his vantage point as a renter in Peredelkino, a Soviet-era dacha compound for writers nestled in a forest at the southwestern edge of Moscow, poet Yury Kublanovsky sees how the dacha world is changing.
Kublanovsky, 58, a onetime dissident who spent 1982 to 1990 in exile working for U.S.-funded Radio Liberty in Paris and Munich, Germany, has been renting his dacha since 1992. But recently, he said, two-thirds of his once-spacious yard was turned over to two millionaires, who built fancy villas on the land.
Asked how he felt about that, this man who had worked to bring down Soviet communism replied with a straight face and apparent sincerity, “I have a feeling of class hatred.”
Kublanovsky, who heads the poetry section of the Novy Mir literary journal, may be bitterly disappointed in what capitalism has meant for Russia, but that doesn’t mean he’s nostalgic for the Soviet system.
In the old days, the writers’ dachas at Peredelkino were part of “a system of sticks and carrots” that enforced loyalty to the Soviet regime, he said. “There were various forms of encouragement and reward for lackey writers -- awards, state prizes with big money, travel abroad and, most of all, a dacha in Peredelkino.”
Elite dachas were not only a reward but also a potential punishment, because a writer, government official, army general or other favored recipient could always be disciplined by having the dacha taken away. Less posh dachas came from employers or professional organizations, so just like the vaunted test pilots, people with similar jobs often ended up in the same compounds.
These days, getting a dacha is straightforward: You simply need enough money to buy or rent one. Major highways leading away from Moscow are festooned with billboards advertising new dacha developments. Flying into any of Moscow’s three main airports, one sees innumerable old and new dacha developments carved into the forests and fields surrounding the capital.
The great majority of these homes, both old and new, are still used as weekend or holiday retreats rather than the owners’ main residences.
“Older generations got their dacha land plots from factories or the companies they worked for. They generally got small land plots free of charge, and they built dachas from the material they could find at the time,” said Sergei Ispiryan, project manager at a construction site 25 miles northwest of Moscow where second homes sell for about $150,000. “Mostly they built dachas to grow vegetables for food.”
But the company managers and professionals buying this project’s new concrete-and-brick dachas, which resemble suburban American homes, “love to grow flowers, make lawns, design landscaping,” Ispiryan said. “I don’t think people will be growing potatoes in these land plots.”
Alexander Trashchenko, 50, a mechanical engineer, is among the new breed of owners.
“This is my place of rest, where I pass my time with pleasure,” said Trashchenko, wearing only brown shorts and sandals as he sat on a terrace at his two-story red brick dacha. “Moscow is a place where you sleep between working days. Here, if it’s winter, we cross-country ski, use the sauna and enjoy pleasant company. In summer, I cultivate my garden, and if the weather is good we go down to the Istra River to swim.”
Trashchenko added that his garden “is not for food but for pleasure.” “Of course I have apple trees and raspberry bushes, but it’s just for fun,” he said. “We grow lettuce, cucumbers, melons. Tomatoes are too much work.”
Biologist Nina Roslyakova, 71, has more of the soul of a traditional dacha-lover: She loves growing tomatoes. “I just like the idea -- to take it from a seed and grow it into a plant that bears fruits,” she said.
Roslyakova is also an almost mystical mushroom hunter.
“You know how I go mushroom picking?” she said. “I go into the woods, and I start walking, and then I realize that I’m not looking at the ground. I’m looking inside myself. I’m a bad mushroom picker, but I adore it.”
Roslyakova tried to explain what she meant by recalling a scene in Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago,” in which Lara, the protagonist’s lover, is heading to a dacha.
“It totally described my own feelings,” she said. “People’s fates are crushed, Russia is breaking down, everything is broken, and Lara disembarks from the train and she’s walking along a path -- I don’t remember the exact quote -- but with every step she feels united with those tall pine trees, and with every step her problems leave her. She suddenly begins to feel that the nature around her is more dear to her even than her mother, her relatives, anything in the world. Life straightens out for her when she walks in the woods.”
Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in 1958, the year after “Doctor Zhivago” was published, but the novel also marked him as a political dissident. He had been granted a Peredelkino dacha in 1939 and managed to hang on to it until his death in 1960. After coming to prominence as a young poet, he avoided Stalin’s wrath for many years by focusing on translations of works such as Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Goethe’s “Faust.”
His masterpiece, which reflects the horrors of World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution and the civil war that followed, was published abroad after Stalin’s death. Although Soviet authorities were angered by the book, his fame helped protect him from losing his beloved dacha.
That dacha, now a museum, looks out across a field romanticized in his poetry. Today, the field is being torn up to build fancy new dachas despite an effort by old-timers to block the development.
Pasternak was buried in a cemetery at the far side of the field, and the site became a favored place for his admirers, dissidents almost by definition, to gather and read his poetry aloud.
Some years ago, lightning struck a pine tree near Pasternak’s grave, said Tatyana Neshumova, a guide at the Pasternak dacha museum. “The tree broke down, and when people came to remove it, they found a wire that ran down the pine tree and led to the bench opposite the grave of Pasternak, where a KGB bug was found,” she said. “Their logic was that people who would come to the grave of Pasternak were unreliable people who didn’t feel much sympathy with Soviet power.”
Even today, groundskeepers at the museum keep up the dacha tradition of a vegetable patch. But pine trees towering behind the two-story brown wooden structure and a long driveway lined with birch and maple trees give the place an enduring elegance.
In the decades after Stalin’s 1953 death, his successors encouraged the distribution of standardized 6,460-square-foot land plots for ordinary Russians to build modest dachas and grow vegetables.
Klavdiya Khlebnikova, 63, and her husband, Vasily Khlebnikov, 70, still treat their dacha in the classic style of the millions who were granted such plots: Every year they grow about 1,300 pounds of potatoes, 1,000 pounds of tomatoes, 200 pounds of cucumbers and lesser quantities of beets, carrots, onions and garlic.
“The dacha is everything for me,” Khlebnikov said. “You work here with all your heart, and you have a rest here with all your heart. And when you harvest all these things, you realize it’s the fruit of your own labor.”
The lure of the dacha is so strong that well-to-do or upper-middle-class Russians who don’t own one often rent for a few weeks, for a season or sometimes for years.
Yelena Topnikova, 32, and her husband, who works at a literary journal, have rented out their 430-square-foot Moscow apartment to move into a rented 1,000-square-foot dacha. They have two boys, a 4-year-old and a baby, and they plan to live at the dacha “for the sake of the children” until the older boy, Gosha, starts school in two years, she said.
In Soviet times, people such as Topnikova and her husband could have hoped to be allocated a dacha plot by one of their employers, but in today’s world they doubt they’ll ever be dacha owners. “Even if you sell your apartment in Moscow, I’m not sure that would generate enough money to buy a dacha near Moscow,” she said.
However fancy some new country places may be, it is still rare for people to give up a Moscow apartment and move into a dacha as if it were simply a suburban home. That is partly because roads leading from Moscow’s outskirts to downtown are so clogged at rush hour that a two-hour commute is a distinct possibility.
But there’s a more spiritual reason. After all, a dacha should be a dacha -- a retreat.
“For me, it’s very important,” said Larisa Vishnyakova, 55, an airline employee who has enjoyed the same family dacha for 40 years. “You come here, you dig in the garden, and you feel happy.”