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Required Reading: ‘Dacha: The Soviet Country Cottage’


Required Reading: ‘Dacha: The Soviet Country Cottage’

November 28, 2023

In northern Europe there are varying ideas of what a summer house might be: a place by the water in Scandinavia, a dwelling among vegetables in Germany, or, in the UK, a leaky outdoor room, maybe furnished with a couple of old chairs. In Russia there is the dacha, a more elusive term that is as central to its culture as samovars and vodka. Traditionally bestowed as favors from tsars and, later, Communist officials, dachas until recently numbered in the millions across Russia, in every shape and size. Many still remain, but as Fyodor Savintsev’s wonderfully textured photographs in the new book Dacha reveal, they are too often on their last legs.

Accompanied by romantic autochromes dug up by Anna Benn (author of the engaging essay that accompanies Savintsev’s pictures), Dacha: The Soviet Country Cottage is a volume to inspire builders and dreamers. There’s no denying the appeal of rushing to one’s dacha every weekend in summer on a crowded, antique train. With its “relaxed sociability” and an incentive to grow things, the concept of a dacha has never been more interesting.

Photography by Fyodor Savintsev, courtesy of Fuel.

Above: Most of the dachas documented in this book are the sort that photographer Savintsev remembers from  childhood summers spent in the country with his grandparents and cousins near Moscow. Wooden dachas from the early twentieth century and earlier have a Nordic folk tale quality.
Above: Dacha life with the grandparents (with parents visiting at weekends) taught old-fashioned values and rituals such as fermenting, pickling and salting. Birch sap would be harvested in a similar way to maple syrup: “the vitamin-rich liquid could be used in cooking or drunk immediately.”
Above: Russian writer Alexander Pushkin described the privileged aspects of pre-Revolution dacha living. Easy enough to reach after a night at the theater, a dacha invited subversive behavior “beyond the norms and hierarchies of the city,” writes Anna Benn, reminding us that Pushkin is thought to have influenced the Leo Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina.
Above: At Arkhangelsk, in northern Russia, post-war dachas were small plots of land given out for the purpose of vegetable growing. Heating was forbidden since they were intended for summer use only, and buildings could take up no more than a third of a plot. “Typically, overhanging upper floors were added to maximize space.”
Above: Shortages led to resourcefulness. “The elaborate glazing of many dachas is as much the result of expediency as it is creativity, designed to accommodate small off-cuts of glass, as opposed to large sheets.”
Above: Dachas attracted artists, playwrights, and musicians, unsurprisingly. Anna Benn writes that “Chekhov both enjoyed and was bored by dacha life,” but it was good for concentration, and some of his most famous plays were written at his dacha in Yalta. Boris Pasternak took advantage of his house in the woods to write Doctor Zhivago.
Above: Although many old dachas have disintegrated or been swallowed up into suburbs, photographer Fyodor Savintsev has some hope for their future. “Today’s generation have a different view of these buildings from that of their parents,” he writes in conclusion. “They are creators keen to implement new ideas on their plots, and bring new life to them.”
Above: Dacha, by Anna Benn and Fyodor Savintsev, is published by Fuel.

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Frequently asked questions

What is a dacha?

A dacha is a country cottage in Russia and other former Soviet countries, typically used as a vacation or weekend retreat.

What is the book 'Dacha' about?

The book 'Dacha: Idylls of Russian Summer' by Anya von Bremzen is a memoir that explores the culture, history, and traditions of dachas in Soviet Russia.

Who is Anya von Bremzen?

Anya von Bremzen is a Russian-born American food writer and memoirist. She is known for her culinary travel writing and her exploration of Russian cuisine and culture.

What can I expect to learn from the book?

The book provides insights into the significance of dachas in Russian society, the experiences of people who owned and visited dachas, and the connection between dacha life and the political climate of that time.

Is the book only about dachas in Soviet Russia?

While the primary focus of the book is on dachas in Soviet Russia, it also touches on the concept of dachas in other former Soviet countries and includes anecdotes and stories from different regions.

Is 'Dacha' a recommended read?

Yes, 'Dacha: Idylls of Russian Summer' is recommended for those interested in Russian culture, history, and the unique lifestyle associated with dachas. It offers a fascinating and personal perspective on the subject.

Where can I purchase the book?

You can purchase 'Dacha: Idylls of Russian Summer' online through various booksellers, such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and independent bookstores.

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