Russian Lessons: The Dacha Life

Again, with the musty old essays! I wrote this one three or four years ago and just rediscovered it last week.

da·cha (däch) n. A Russian country house or villa.

Buffalo River at Sunset

For years, I have wanted my very own dacha.

Maybe there’s something about dying empires that stirs longing. In September of 1991, I boarded a train to Moscow for a semester of study abroad, during what was to be the Soviet Union’s final autumn.

That September was a glorious one. I explored Moscow’s streets and suburbs beneath a brilliant canopy of yellows and reds. Old women—babushki—gathered at colorful ad hoc markets near metro stations, selling fresh flowers and dill, mushrooms and cucumbers. I recall one hunched barrel of a woman sitting beside a wooden cask full of the most delicious pickles I have ever tasted, pickles the size of a man’s fist.

By early October, spent leaves crunched under my feet, and the first snow fell soon thereafter. It so happened that the late autumn of 1991, though certainly no 1931, saw nationwide shortages. State-run stores’ shelves stood empty, and by November, even the ubiquitous potato had grown scarce. With the onslaught of Russian winter hanging gunmetal grey over the city, I’d expected the old women to melt away into indoor havens. But the stolid, resourceful babushki remained, silently offering plump potatoes, cabbages, sacks of dried herbs, and beets in informal market stalls—supplementing their meager pensions, and feeding hungry Muscovites in yet another time of Russian want. How did they come by such rare delicacies in this vast concrete wasteland?

One day on the metro, I met Valya. Her broad face evoked the Russian countryside, the mud of which still clung to her black felt boots. She was of that singular generation that somehow survived the famines and purges of the 1930s and what Russians call the “Great Patriotic War.” It was she who let me in on the secrets of babushki in the markets.

In summertime, she, along with most Muscovites, escaped on weekends to dachas, or summer homes, just outside the city. These dachas were mostly not the lavish country estates of Communist apparatchiks and the tsars’ lackeys before them, but simple shacks with a small plot of land for a garden or orchard. These plots supplied fresh produce during periods when centralized Soviet agriculture failed to provide enough.

That day on the metro, Valya invited me to her dacha. I called her several times that autumn to try and arrange a trip, but it never worked out. I wish I had tried a little harder, because now, I wonder whether the era of the dacha is passing.

Thousands of Muscovites still escape the city on summer weekends, riding an elektrichka train to the little villages of ramshackle huts and shared garden plots. But with Moscow real estate prices soaring, lavish Western-style suburbs and gated communities are marching out from the city, supplanting dacha “villages.” Progress, unrelenting progress.

For now, the dwindling armies of babushki remain, still clutching their flower bouquets and sprigs of dill for sale near metro stations in Moscow. Modern Russia has brought them little but uncertainty, and it’s still their sweat and their dacha plots that keep them fed through the winter. When those women pass away, so too will the time of the dacha as a way of life, a method of survival, an escape from life’s various cruelties.

What is it about the dacha that’s captured my imagination? I have no illusions about what Soviet life must have been. But the collective nightmare of state repression somehow made possible the astonishing brightness of Russian private life. Imagine escaping for the weekend, from not just a hot, teeming city, but specifically from that steely Orwellian fortress of fearful silence that was Soviet-era Moscow. Picture, in an hour’s journey from the city, riding a train out of the dreary march of apartment blocks and official ears everywhere and into the sunlight, to fires and outdoor feasts, songs and berry-picking, to the blissful illusion of a private, inner world. By comparison, it must have felt, for just a moment, like freedom.

Of course, no one in his right mind could mourn the fall of the Soviet empire. Good riddance to gulags, communal apartments, and fluttering red Lenin-head banners. And yet…with bitterness, there usually comes some searing sweetness, as a recompense.

I was a victim of violence that turbulent autumn of 1991. The ordeal left me fearful, depressed, and terribly in need of a dose of forgetting. Russia, with its bipolar swings between disappointment and delight, managed to deliver plenty of counterbalancing kindnesses. I spent my happiest moments in Moscow in bright, cozy kitchens with dear Russian friends, toasting into the night and sharing a simple meal. Those evenings seemed to somehow pack years of friendship into one flawless, glowing moment—as if a seed buried for centuries in snow had suddenly, at that very minute, decided to unfold a brilliant blossom. The generosity my friends showed me those evenings–putting on feasts they could scarcely afford, showering me with gifts—humbled me to speechlessness. I imagined that if a kitchen could nurture this flowering of goodwill, a dacha would do so tenfold.

I wanted to experience a dacha’s transformative power for myself. In those cheery Moscow kitchens, I felt like a better version of me. I loved people just a little bit more, laughed louder and longer, spoke Russian more easily than in the classroom, and felt certain that one day, everything would be all right again. What kind of person would I be na dache? Free of fear, I imagined, and with the ability to decline all six Russian cases effortlessly. But 1991 ended, along with my semester abroad and the USSR, and I never went to Valya’s dacha.

Last fall, it occurred to me that there might be a dacha in my future, after all. Some friends invited my husband Hal and me to their cabin on the Buffalo River, about an hour west of Nashville, Tennessee. All day Saturday we sat on the front porch of our friends’ tiny log house, watching the river go by. A bald eagle beat the air with its great wings; wild turkeys scuffled by in the crunch of autumn leaves. Food tasted better there, the fire burned brighter, and stories and songs stretched well into the night. I felt healed, complete.

The plot of land next to our friends’, it turned out, was for sale. When Hal and I got home, I found myself dreaming of it: of building a simple cabin, eating outside on summer weekends, planting a small garden, and just being there, in the quiet, whenever I needed a moment of sweet forgetfulness.

Why not have my dacha here? I thought. Dacha is a state of mind as much as it is a place, I now realize. An endless stretch of golden afternoon with no ticking clock; late-night, escalating toasts with friends; the aroma of fresh dill and roasting mushrooms; learning to find sparkling droplets of joy within life’s churning seas–that’s what makes a dacha. I’ve kept in touch with my Russian friends. Maybe I’ll have them over to tutor me—how to offer the perfect, over-the top toast; how to prepare the perfect pot of ruby-red borsht; and how to be a perfect friend, to love someone without holding anything back, without asking for anything in return.

We bought that piece of land by the river.

3 thoughts on “Russian Lessons: The Dacha Life

  1. Having been to a dear friend’s dacha, having drank many bowls of perfect borsht, having some very similar memories of awe-some moments with unforgettable friends in far flung spots in Eastern Europe, I rejoice for you and Hal and your land by the river!

  2. Pingback: Autumn 1991 « Red Sky, Black Death

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