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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.”1

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 Strel’na and Peterhof on the Gulf of Finland were lined with sumptuous dachas built by aristocratic grandees like the Naryshkins and the Stroganovs, who competed for prestige and imperial favor by entertaining the tsar and his courtiers in their palatial “inns.”

In the early decades of the nineteenth century the aristocratic character of imperial resorts like Peterhof outside St. Petersburg was transformed by the emergence of a modern “leisure culture,” as coaches and then trains brought in urban dwellers for their summer holidays. Shopkeepers, craftsmen, clerks, and traders rented dachas, or rooms in town, and mingled with the aristocracy at public entertainments in pump rooms, concert halls, and amusement parks. This dacha-led democratization took place, for example, at Pavlovsk, the imperial estate built near St. Petersburg for the future Paul I in the final decades of the eighteenth century. Pavlovsk was, in Lovell’s phrase, the epitome of “upmarket hauteur” in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The Grand Prince Mikhail Pavlovich, the owner of Pavlovsk, “personally crossed off the names of dubious dacha ladies” who wanted to move there for the summer.

The opening of the railway from St. Petersburg, in 1837, however, turned Pavlovsk into a thriving pleasure town, with promenades and popular amusements (gulian’ia) in its many parks and orchestral concerts in its noisy dining rooms. In the early 1840s Franz Liszt and Robert and Clara Schumann visited Pavlovsk. In 1856, Johann Strauss the younger arrived for the first of many concert seasons there. Strauss insisted on performing in a special concert hall instead of the dining rooms, “where the musicians had to compete with loquacious diners and waiters.” The tsar built a concert hall in the railway station, which became a major social attraction, not just for its musical events but also for the entertainments—dances, dining, billiards—in an elegant glass-domed arcade alongside the station.2 Thanks to the dacha tourist trade, not to mention Strauss, Pavlovsk came to represent the mainstream cultural values of the rising middle class. It was a merry place, respectable yet popular, with a hint of imperial grandeur. Pavlovsk remained a lively center of Russian musical life until the end of the nineteenth century, when it began to lose its shine. In The Noise of Time Osip Mandelstam recalled the Pavlovsk of his childhood in the 1890s—when his family had a dacha there—as the incarnation of a “doomed provincialism.”3

The dacha rental market was a booming trade by the middle decades of the nineteenth century, when it became a national craze to escape the city’s summer heat and take in the fresh air of the forests and the sea. It was at this time that a new word, dachniki, entered into the language to denote these summerfolk. Most rented rooms in a “peasant home,” according to Lovell (though who these “peasants” were, with rooms to spare, remains unclear).

Wealthier summerfolk built their own dachas. These dachas offered the nobility richer possibilities for architectural self-expression than the urban palace or mansion, which generally conformed to the principles of neo-classicism. Many noble dachas were constructed in a simple rustic style—typically a double-storied wooden building, sometimes modeled on the English cottage (kottedzh), though many had a mezzanine veranda that ran all around the house or ornate window and door-frame carvings seen more commonly on Russian peasant wooden huts. The dacha also offered scope for “the whimsical and the exotic,” as Lovell demonstrates, with many dachas built, in the 1830s and 1840s, in a Gothic style that borrowed “national” elements, like onion domes, kokoshnik pediments, and tent roofs from the medieval (Greek-Byzantine) Russian style.

Lovell rightly links this architectural freedom to a new sense of personal and social relaxation with which the dacha was identified in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The dacha was a place for simple relaxations and pursuits: walking in the woods, fishing, hunting, spending the whole day in a dressing gown. A month in the country allowed the Russian to throw off the conventions of society and become more himself in a natural milieu. In 1844, the Northern Bee (Severnaia pchela), Russia’s first privately owned periodical and the first to aim specifically at the middle class, listed the important things about dacha life:

trees, a bit of water, and, above all, that you shouldn’t have to put on airs, that you can leave the house in your smoking jacket, with a pipe in your mouth, without making yourself, or anyone else, blush.

The dacha was also seen as a private space where social rules could be relaxed. It was a place for informal socializing without the strict conventions and status distinctions of metropolitan society. As Lovell emphasizes, this idea became entangled in a cultural stereotype that often reappeared in nineteenth-century Russian literature and political discourse: the notion of the countryside as a “democratic” sphere.

Lovell is particularly good at highlighting the interactions between social practice and literary representation. As he demonstrates, the dacha’s social informality made it something of an ideal scene for nineteenth-century novels and stories—allowing as it did for the unexpected visits and encounters that were so essential for the plot development of socially complex works like those of Dostoevsky and Chekhov. The dacha setting of Part 2 of The Idiot, for example, was perfect for Dostoevsky to recreate the intense, almost claustrophobic, atmosphere in which Myshkin, having come for rest to recover from his epileptic fit, finds no peace from scores of impromptu visitors.


As everybody knows, Chekhov’s cherry orchard was cut down for dacha building land. The turn of the century, when the play was set (it was written in 1904), was the heyday of the dacha movement. This was when the summer house became a truly mass phenomenon, with scores of dacha settlements along the major roads and railway lines and modern dacha suburbs springing into life outside Moscow and St. Petersburg. But the economic forces that had led the Ranevskys to sell their orchard were not as new as one might think. Ever since the 1860s, when the emancipation of the serfs had forced the gentry to survive in the marketplace, landowners had been cashing in on the sale of arable land for dacha building. Entire dacha colonies, like Pushkino, on the railway between Moscow and the monastery town of Sergiev Posad, were built from the sale of gentry land. Peaceful ancient villages, such as Lakhta on the coastline north of St. Petersburg, were transformed into dacha towns by landowners building on their land.

The driving force behind this movement was the expansion of a middle class defined by the values it placed on private household property. For a long time the middle class was neglected by historians of Russia: it played Cinderella to the three sisters of the aristocracy, the proletariat, and the peasantry. But perhaps partly in response to the reemergence of a middle class since 1991, historians have paid renewed attention to its antecedents in the decades leading up to 1917.4 As Lovell makes clear, the dacha was important in the formation of “middle-class values”—i.e., the pursuit of private property and privacy—because it was a form of private property that a good many people could afford, or at least aspire to. Indeed, as Lovell might have pointed out, since most people rented housing in the city, the dacha was the only form of household property for most moderately prosperous families.

In 1914 an influential handbook for architects recommended the “detached house” (dom-osobniak) as the best form of dwelling for the “middle class of people” in Russia:

Here a person can spend his private life in peace, satisfying his personal requirements and inclinations, without troubling himself or others. Everything takes on the imprint of his individuality, everything acquires the more enclosed, intimate character that is so valuable for concentrated and productive work, for the development of independence, self-awareness, and the cultural strength that follows from these.

Cramped for space in the cities, these domestic ideals found a home in the suburban dacha. Once again, the social meaning of the dacha changed, as summerfolk were joined by increasing numbers of full-time residents in suburban dacha settlements. Most of the houses which they built were double-storied wooden “cottages,” the window frames and doorways often in the peasant style, and picket fences around small gardens or vegetable allotments facing the street. These were architectural statements of middle-class respectability, individuality, and self-sufficiency. They were designed as private homes for the nuclear family. And through illustrated magazines, local sporting clubs and associations, hobby circles and reading groups, their inhabitants became involved in the suburban world of leisure and consumption that practically defined this nascent middle class.

This suburban culture was anathema to the intelligentsia, whose cultural roots were in the older gentry world of the estate, and whose social values were defined by ideals of public service. The private pleasures of the dacha way of life were condemned as “bourgeois” and “materialistic” by Maxim Gorky in Dachniki (“Summerfolk”), his “sub-Chekhovian” play in 1904. They became a “synonym for vulgarity” in intelligentsia families like Alexander Blok’s, where, in the words of the poet’s cousin, “It was always emphasized that we live ‘in the country’ and not ‘at a dacha.’” Even Che-khov, who was generally sympathetic to the rising middle class, took pains to dissociate himself from the dacha when he purchased the estate of Melikhovo, to the south of Moscow, in 1892. Melikhovo’s previous owner, the stage designer N.P. Sorokhtin, had “dachafied” the place by installing an elaborate carved porch and neglecting the landholdings; but the Chekhovs, Lovell tells us, turned it back into the character of a functioning estate by planting trees and “taking very seriously their role as owner-managers.”


The Soviet regime was opposed to private property, but it made a rare exception for the dacha, not least because it was so essential for the resolution of the food and housing crises of the Revolution’s early years. In the 1920s, when the state was committed to a mixed economy (the New Economic Policy), private and cooperative dacha-building were encouraged by the state. But increasingly the local Soviets were empowered to assume control of the dachas, setting rents and sometimes even evicting the old owners to move in “laboring families.” Then, at the start of the Five-Year Plan in 1928–1929, there was a violent crackdown against dacha owners from tsarist days. Many were evicted from their homes, sometimes to be packed off to the Gulag as “former people” (i.e., alleged members of the bourgeoisie).

Having taken control of the dacha housing stock, the Stalinist regime set about dispensing it to its loyal servitors. It built exclusive dacha settlements, like Peredelkino, the famous writers’ colony southwest of Moscow, where the literary elite, including Boris Pasternak, was rewarded with large mansions, or Kuntsevo, on the favored western side of the capital, where Stalin himself moved to a new dacha in 1934. In many ways, as Lovell notes, the dacha was reclaiming its original meaning: “a piece of property that was bestowed at the discretion of the leader and could just as easily be taken away.” Increasingly, the only way to get a dacha was through one’s place of work—the institute, the factory, the academy—where loyalty to the Party, or good connections, were rewarded.

Yet, at the same time, the everyday routines of dacha life, largely leisure activities such as swimming, hiking, mushroom-picking, and lounging in the yard, remained rooted in the “middle-class” culture of the dacha in the nineteenth century. Lovell links this to the idea proposed by the sociologist Nicholas Timasheff that a “Great Retreat” took place in the 1930s—from the revolutionary (collectivist) social policies and values of the 1920s to the “bourgeois” tastes and lifestyle of the Stalinist elite.5 But there was no “Great Retreat” in dacha life: from the start of the Revolution the dacha was seen and indeed cherished as a place where families could live their private lives according to principles of domestic life inherited from generations before 1917.

Indeed, to judge from the intelligentsia’s memoirs, insofar as the Revolution was perceived as a threat to these old patterns in the Soviet city, the dacha’s role was reinforced as the last stronghold of family values and traditions after 1917. Perhaps Lovell is too young to recall what Soviet life was like (Summerfolk is his first book), but he overlooks the vital cultural fact that the Soviet dacha always was an extension of the communal kitchen—a warm and private place, safe from unknown listeners, where family and friends could sit and talk in ways that were inconceivable and perhaps even dangerous outside the house.

This is the enclosed atmosphere in Nikita Mikhalkov’s Oscar-winning film of 1994, Burnt by the Sun. The film is set at an elite dacha during the high summer of 1936 and, according to Mikhalkov, it is largely based on his own childhood memories of dacha life. The film is an ensemble of cliché dacha scenes: a visit to the bathhouse, swimming in the lake, lazy lunches, the sound of a piano from the next room. The owners of the dacha are a family from the pre-revolutionary Moscow intelligentsia—one of the few to hold on to their property. The older generation still recalls receiving guests such as Boris Chaliapin and Rachmaninov. But the daughter of the family has married a Bolshevik, a military hero from the Civil War. Tensions grow when her former sweetheart, now an agent of the NKVD, appears on the scene and then arrests her husband, bringing to an end the Russian family’s peaceful life.

Alongside this old form of elite dacha life, a new type of Soviet dacha appeared during World War II: the shack on a suburban allotment where city dwellers went to grow their vegetables. There had been times of stress before when the urban food supply collapsed and city residents were forced to forage in the countryside. During the Civil War between 1917 and 1921 millions had left the hungry cities to farm or barter for food in the countryside. Ideologically the Soviet authorities were opposed to this peasantization of the urban population; but economically they relied on it to make up for the failure of collectivized agriculture and the state system of distribution between the country and the towns. Indeed, as Lovell might have pointed out, even inside the collective farms every peasant family had its own “dacha,” in the form of its household yard and garden, where it grew most of its food. By most estimates during the 1950s and 1960s, 27 percent of the total value of Soviet farm output was produced on these private plots, which occupied less than 1 percent of the nation’s agricultural lands.6

After the disastrous famine of 1946 and 1947, the Soviet government authorized the local Soviets and trade unions to allocate small plots of suburban land to the city population so that they could feed themselves. Within a year the Moscow Soviet alone had registered a total of 1.2 million allotment holders in the city, many of them growing their “whole year’s supply of potatoes and vegetables.” Allowed to build small sheds, many people paid a bribe and built a little dacha on their plots. The dacha plot became something of a national institution in the postwar period. By the 1970s, one quarter of all families in Leningrad and Moscow had a dacha plot. They spent their weekends in the growing season there, going out in spring with packs of seeds and coming back to town in the autumn with baskets laden down with jams and fruits and vegetables, strings of dried mushrooms, pickled garlic and cabbage, and home-made vodka to see them through the long winter, when nothing but essentials could be bought from Soviet shops.

Today, more than ever, the dacha plot is a vital means of subsistence for millions of Russians, especially the elderly, who have lost out in the transition to the capitalist economy. Families that earn just $80 per month, pensioners who receive even less, can at least grow their own food. Yet, as Lovell underlines, the post-Soviet dachniki have been “drawn mainly from the thick middle strata of urban society,” and the values they look to are broadly “middle class.” At the top end of this new dacha market are the palatial “cottages” (kottedzhi) of the New Russians in exclusive wooded compounds around Moscow. Built in a pseudo “English style,” with well-kept lawns and high fences, private roads and tight security at the compound gates, they are not unlike the mansions of the Soviet elite, although they clearly cater to the suburban pretensions of an emerging Russian middle class. But lower down the economic scale there is a different sort of trade. The members of the old Soviet intelligentsia (doctors, engineers, academics, writers) are becoming poor and are selling off the dachas that they received through their institutions, mostly in the 1960s and the 1970s. The people moving in are the newly well-to-do middle class. They come in four-wheel drives, via Ikea, on the weekend, having hired teams of builders who are doing up the house, building garages and even tennis courts. This is not the dacha anymore. Gone are the traditions of the communal kitchen, the domestic patterns of a Russian family. It is something else.

  1. 1

    Fyodor Dostoevsky, “White Nights,” in Uncle’s Dream and Other Stories, translated by David McDuff (Penguin, 1989), p. 73.

  2. 2

    This may explain the peculiar origin of the word vokzal—Russian for a railway station—which is named after Vauxhall in London. Andrei Shtakenshneider, the architect of the Pavlovsk station, was a fan of the Vauxhall Gardens and called his building “Vauxhall à l’anglaise.”

  3. 3

    Osip Mandelstam, The Noise of Time, translated with introductions by Clarence Brown (North Point Press, 1986), p. 69.

  4. 4

    See the two collections of essays Between Tsar and People: Educated Society and the Quest for Public Identity in Late Imperial Russia, edited by Edith W. Clowes, Samuel D. Kassow, and James L. West (Princeton University Press, 1991), and Russia’s Missing Middle Class: The Professions in Russian History, edited by Harley D. Balzer (M.E. Sharpe, 1996).

  5. 5

    Nicholas S. Timasheff, The Great Retreat: The Growth and Decline of the Communism in Russia (Dutton, 1946).

  6. 6

    On this see the superb book by Lev Timofeev, Soviet Peasants (or: The Peasants’ Art of Starving), edited with an introduction by Armando Pitassio and Victor Zaslavsky (Telos, 1985).

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