For over two centuries dacha remains the most beloved hobby for the Russians.
The reason: the taste of your labor is priceless.
Every Friday evening starting late spring I pack my backpack for the weekend and look forward to, first of all, get stuck in traffic to drive out of town. Secondly, use my hands and dig in the soil. And finally, spend some quality time with my family outdoors doing our favorite occupation — gardening.
Summers in Russia are short, and people try to get as much as they can from three to four warm months.
For many Russians, approximately for 48% according to sociologists, the best way to spend their leisure is to plant and grow vegetables and fruit at their dachas.
Fresh air, silence, and raw soil — are a paradise for those who crave to relax and escape from hectic urban life. No wonder, so many people rush to their dachas after a long working week every Friday night. It’s May now, and it’s high time to start planting and reviving gardens after a long winter sleep.
So what is a dacha? It’s hard to explain to someone, who has never been to Russia, what a dacha is. It’s more than just a small countryside house, usually without any city comfort perks like a bathtub or a toilet, with a piece of land where you occasionally host BBQs, read a Tolstoy novel under a blooming apple tree, and pick fresh berries right from the garden beds while sitting in a rocking chair. It’s a unique and complex lifestyle peculiar only to the Russian mentality.
If gardening for many Europeans is looked at as a hobby, planting flowers in the front lawn, for the hard-working Russians it is a voluntarily labor that starts as soon as the snow melts, late April, and lasts till the first frosts in late October.
For many generation these small country homes have been a phenomenon where Russian families spend all their weekends in summer not only for fun, enjoying fresh air and to BBQ, but also with purpose, growing vegetables (cucumbers, tomatoes, potato, carrots, beets, onions, radish, etc.) and fruit (strawberries, raspberries, apples, plums, current, peas, etc.) and then eating them fresh from the soil or trees, or preserving and pickling for a cold winter. The importance of gardening is tremendous — to see the fruits of your labor, literally.
Why are dachas so beloved by the Russians?
The answer goes back to the beginning of the 18th century, when the first dachas appeared. Peter the Great, the Russian Tsar, was the first one who introduced the notion by giving away pieces of land, called dachas, to the Russian nobility as an earned gift for certain achievements. The noble used their dachas for social gathering. They invited guests for tea under the trees or for dinners in the fresh air. They organized masquerade balls and quite frequently did fireworks to entertain the crowd.
As the aristocratic class grew in the country, by the end of the 19th century, a house in the countryside became one of the properties of the rich and the educated, poets, writers, doctors, artists. During that time many Russian poets and writers like Pushkin and Chekhov staged their stories at dachas. Dacha was a very popular and inspiring place, abandoned from crowded cities, in the midst of picturesque nature and wildlife. It was mainly used for leisure and family events, rather than planting vegetables. My grandmother has shared with me the tales about her grandparents’ country house. The must-haves of dachas at the time were cherry trees and flowers. In spring, when everything was blooming, dacha was a perfect place to be at to enjoy the beauty of nature and have a cup of good tea in a friends-and-family circle. Ladies would get dressed in white lace garments and hats and use fans to cool themselves in hot summer night, and gentlemen would wear nice linen suits.
Over a century has passed since then. The country has changed as well as its people. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the countryside picture reformed. The majority of dachas were nationalized, which means that many of them were given to the emerging working class as summer vacation homes.
The limited legal size of the living area of dacha houses was restricted to 60 sq m (646 sq ft).
An average family couldn’t live in those limited conditions with a lack of city comfort all year round. Although, dachas were poorly-equipped, without any heating and indoor plumbing, something without even electricity. Albeit, they had a huge advantage — working class families could grow anything they wanted on that piece of land. A huge dacha-boom started in the 80s, when almost one third of the urban population of the country had a dacha. With years, dachas became less restricted in size. If people could afford buying a bigger one, no one confronted.
As for my family, we have had a dacha since the early 90s. Gardening is our favorite hobby. In winter my Mom and my Grandmother plan the layout of our piece of land and decide what we are going to grow in the upcoming summer season. My grandmother is the one who guides us through the whole dacha experience and teaches the basics: from cultivating and fertilizing the soil to taking care of the plants and trees to make sure they give a rich harvest in fall. Since last year we had a lot of apples, plums, and pears, this season we’ve decided to plant more berries: strawberries, wild blueberries, and raspberries. Every year we tend to grow garlic, onion, and cucumbers. These veggies don’t need much care, so we can spend some extra time on roses and lilies, our favorites.
The basic skills of gardening are known to many in Russia since their childhood. Some citizens consider their dachas as one of the most vital sources of fresh fruit and vegetables not only in summer time, but also in winter. Self-grown products are much cheaper than the ones sold in supermarkets and imported from warmer countries. Organic onions, garlic, tomatoes, and bell peppers that you’ve grown yourself are so much tastier. You know what fertilizers you use, you know what it takes to grow them, you know what it takes to protect them from cold and rain and parasites. Many Russians still prefer to get dirty in the soil, crawl on all fours, and dig out weeds.
The reward is priceless — self-grown fruit and veggies.
And it doesn’t matter that many families can just buy them at a closest store. It’s all about the taste of your labor, the care, commitment, and time you spend to achieve respect-worthy results.