Roughing It

In the opening pages of Dostoevsky’s story “White Nights” the narrator wanders around St. Petersburg trying to explain why the streets are so empty. For three whole days he walks about in a state of anguish—he does not see a single one of his nodding acquaintances—until at last he realizes what is wrong. “Blow me if they’re not all sneaking off to their dachas!”

The reader must forgive me this trivial remark, but I was in no frame of mind for lofty turns of phrase…because every single person in St. Petersburg had either moved or was in the process of moving to his summer residence; because each respectable gentleman of solid appearance who hired a cab was in my eyes instantly transformed into the respectable head of a household who, after an ordinary day at the office, was setting off lightly clad for the bosom of his family, for his dacha; because all the passers-by now bore a quite special sort of air that more or less said to each person they met: “We, ladies and gentlemen, are here for no particular reason, merely in passing, and in two hours’ time we shall be going off to our dacha.”

As Dostoevsky intimates, the dacha was far more than a summer refuge from the metropolis. It was a mark of propertied respectability, a reason even to be smug. It was a sanctuary for the family, an intimate and informal place for relaxation and casual dress in a world apart from the strict conventions of society. But for the city-bound intelligentsia the dacha was a symbol of vulgarity.

Stephen Lovell’s Summerfolk is a wonderfully rich yet concise history of this peculiar Russian institution which brilliantly illuminates its diverse cultural and social themes. Lovell argues that the dacha was defined not so much by its physical appearance or location (it could be a country mansion or a suburban shack) as it was by the routines, values, and ideologies of its inhabitants. The narrow linear subject of his book is the dacha’s history, but its broad theme is the complex interplay of “cultural meanings and social practices” across several centuries.

As Lovell demonstrates, the story of the dacha is a good way to reflect on the zigzag history of the relationship between the Russian state and private property. This history can be divided into three stages: the eighteenth century, when the dacha was something given by the tsar to his loyal servitors; the nineteenth century, when it became a form of private life and property for the emerging middle class; and the Soviet period, when once again the dacha became something people received from the state.

The word “dacha” has its roots in the Russian verb “to give” (dat’), and until the nineteenth century it tended to denote land given by the state as a reward to servitors. By the middle decades of the eighteenth century, the road from St. Petersburg to the imperial palaces of …

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