a soviet painting depicting a man diving into the sea off the side of a boat

Soviet Stories: The Evolution of Dacha Culture

When we think of the archetypal summer house, images of whitewashed Mediterranean villas not unlike George and Amal’s Lake Como mega-mansion tend to crop up. Second homes evoke an air of luxury, of exclusivity that does not particularly reek of communism. And yet, dacha culture was pervasive in the soviet experience in a way that we may not have expected.  

What is a dacha? The term is deliberately vague. It is derived from the Russian ‘davat’ ‘to give’, meaning a thing which has been given. In the eighteenth century, certain lucky nobles were gifted country estates by the Tsar in an attempt to create several, smaller scale, versions of Peterhof Palace for his favourites to enjoy. These dachas were sprawling, beautiful manors later repossessed by early communist elites – both for their own use, and for selected athletes, celebrities, and writers (Pasternak, famed for writing Doctor Zhivago, fell into this latter group). Nonetheless, like in Imperial times, the ordinary citizen, with their inability to own property, had no access to the dacha and all the trappings that came attached.  

The turning point of dacha culture came after World War II, hand in hand with Khrushchev’s measures of destalinization. In 1958, soviet citizens gained the right to possess small dwellings on land allocated to them to grow fruit and vegetables – the very first DIY dachas! 

Of course, there were about a million caveats to this rule worth exploring before we delve into dacha culture fully. 

These new dachas did not come with the land, on the contrary, they had to be built at one’s own expense, with materials that could be hard to come by. When my grandfather, at that time an engineer at Tbilisi’s abreshumis fabrika (Tbilisi’s very creatively named ‘silk and textile factory’), was offered his plot of land about a thirty-minute drive from the city, he neglected to build it up at all. There was no choice involved in the location of one’s allocated land; even when built up the plot would always belong to the state and could not be sold or exchanged. For many factory workers, a semi regular trip to the sanatorium (a long-established R&R escape) was preferable because it was free. Indeed, it is interesting to note that dachas, whilst not at all abnormal, did not take off in the Caucasus and Central Asia the same way they did in Russia or Ukraine, perhaps due to less access to building material and funds.  

Nearly everything in the soviet sphere was subject to some type of regulation; the dacha was no exception to this. The plot of land it sat on was never more than 600 square meters, whilst the building itself was limited to a single story amongst other things. These self-built dachas would never match up to the grandeur of their officially constructed predecessors. They were ramshackle, often made of what was left over, distinctly amateur. This was the physical evolution of the dacha. Yet, by 1993, one quarter of Russian urban households (polled in 7 major cities) owned dachas.  

So, what was the point of owning a dacha? There were practical reasons of course. Unlike a sanitorium, the dacha could occupy the entire family, not just its breadwinner. Food could be grown to supplement an often barebones diet. Yet, the magic of the dacha was the liminal space it occupied. The dacha was the bridge between city and countryside, an escape for the urban family, a place of comparatively more freedom to run away to on weekends, with more randomness of architecture. The dacha was very much a creature of its environment, but could feel almost rebellious, in its inherent lack of structural uniformity. The built landscape of soviet cities (the beating heart of the red giant) was regulated and planned to the max, heavily populated with apartment complexes lauded for their external identicality. Rural dacha villages provided an antithesis to this – simply because they were homemade and thus inherently not uniform.  

The soviet dacha provides us with the unique example of a phenomenon that seems to have been mutually beneficial for the state and the common people of the USSR. Whilst it appears as if Khrushchev had no real intention to create a dacha-based leisure culture, he (and his successors) reaped easy benefits. Food shortages could now be palmed off on soviet citizens who now had an ability to be selfsustained to some degree. Additionally, undeveloped land could be built up for free; as dacha owners tended to cultivate the wider area somewhat by planting trees or creating roads. Most importantly, the dacha allowed soviet citizens to masquerade as genuinely established owners of property, however rundown, and thus is uniquely symbolic of the soviet experience. 

There are still dachas today, if anything they have increased in popularity – a 2019 study found that nearly half of Russian families owned or had regular access to a dacha during the weekends or on holiday. The dacha has moved beyond its soviet past but cannot fully escape it; still often whimsically rickety and self-constructed or, as is becoming increasingly common renovated. Nevertheless, the modern dacha lacks much of its soviet counterpart’s anxieties of uniformity and liminal spacing but, true to its roots, dacha culture is ever evolving.  

Title image: “Rouge, Art et utopie au pays des Soviets – Grand Palais, Paris” by corno.fulgur75 is licensed under CC BY 2.0