Dacha

Reading a recent article on the excellent Earthlines blog about Gerry Loose, and then finding out more about the Scottish hutting movement and specifically the Carbeth hutters community in Stirlingshire, I have come to the conclusion that I am probably something of a closet hutter at heart. The best that I can ever probably hope for though is to have my own shed one day.

It is a common enough passion – indeed, books have been written about British (predominantly male) shed culture. But, with no rear garden and a backyard too small to comfortably squeeze a shed into, the closest I currently get to fulfilling my fantasy is my city allotment where I have inherited a tumbledown structure without door or window glass that is filled with garden tools and grumpy secretive spiders. Too small and decrepit to serve as a comfortable retreat, this shed is clearly no place to linger but at least I have a plastic chair en plein air for whenever I need a rest from wrenching couch grass out of the ground. 

In northern Europe, and especially in Scandinavia and Russia where even the middle classes live in apartment blocks,  the situation is quite different. Here, many city dwellers have a wooden hut and a patch of ground to call their own – a simple rural haven where they can enjoy a little R&R and temporary respite from urban life. No nation embraces this tradition more than Russia, where a country dacha is seen not only as a place to grow vegetables but something akin to a holiday home: a base for collecting berries and mushrooms in autumn, for fishing, for sunbathing; a place for friends and family to gather around food, to drink vodka, play games and sing. A dacha is a place to spend summer weekends al fresco, a place where city children can learn about nature. In Russian society, a dacha serves a function that is a combination of allotment garden, beach hut and social club. To have a dacha is not a Walden-like solitary pursuit but, rather, something that proudly shouts out ‘community!’

I was lucky enough to visit a dacha a couple of years ago on a long, late-summer Russian journey from Pskov, close to the Estonian border, to Irkutsk near Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia. At Krasnoyarsk, 18 hours west of Irkutsk on the the Trans-Siberian railway, I had arranged to stay in the family apartment of a local tour guide and political science lecturer called Anatoliy. After picking me up at the station and meticulously showing me all the permutations of the city bus route to and from his identikit Khrushchevki apartment block (the very last stop, thankfully) he took me out to show me his country dacha that, coincidentally, was close to the railway tracks that I had just travelled along. 

There is more to Siberia than gulags and permafrost but life is hard nonetheless. In the few months of the year when the ground is not snow-covered there are plenty of other things to contend with, notably predatory mosquitoes and nasty infective ticks everywhere in the grass. Given such limitations, I was hugely impressed by the size and vigour of Anatoliy’s cabbages and also by the efforts he took to tend them given that we had driven for more than an hour to reach the dacha. Even more  impressive was the air of autumnal tranquility that seemed to hang over the place like a healing balm. In Siberia, autumn may be just a brief golden precursor to a long dark winter but  September is the most glorious of months.

About East of Elveden

Hidden places, secret histories and unsung geography from the east of England and beyond
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6 Responses to Dacha

  1. dianajhale says:

    I have read so much about Russian dachas I would love to see one. I have a bit of a Russian obsession anyway but some females also love sheds! There are some sheds and allotments in the Lea Valley near Tottenham Hale, which have not been flattened for the Olympics, where Turkish or Cypriot families have outdoor meals on Sundays in a very European fashion. I have looked on enviously when walking along the footpath. I actually got to the top of an allotment waiting list some years ago but didn’t take it up because I thought I was moving out of London. No chance of getting one now!

  2. Thanks for your comments, Diana. It is interesting that it seems to be mostly newer, younger allotmenteers, often immigrant families, that use their allotments more like Russian dachas – outdoor meals, a place of leisure etc. All to the good of course. A shame that allotments seem to be like gold dust in London these days. Mind you, I had to wait over five years to get my plot in Norwich and the one that I did eventually get was completely overgorown and had been neglected for years.

  3. Simon Horton says:

    It’s encouraging to see allotments becoming a bit less utilitarian and more like communal, social spaces – where would these spaces be without the shed!
    Incidentally there are some great dacha sequences in ‘Death and the Penguin’ by Andrey Kurkov

  4. Pingback: Scratching the Earth | East of Elveden

  5. Alex says:

    I know Krasnoyarsk well, and some of the more remote dachas out in the Siberian wilds are magical. You know that if you nip into the forest for a pee after the evening barbecue & a few vodkas, you better not get lost….

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