Since the 18th century the dachas had been a symbol of privilege and power. Originating in Tsarist Russia under the reign of Peter the Great, dachas, from the Russian words for “to give” and “gift,” were plots of land, often outside major cities, bequeathed to the empire’s loyal subjects. On these estates, the owners would build (relatively) modest second homes where they would often spend leisurely summers or hold social and cultural gatherings. Over the years, as a small middle-class formed in late imperial Russia, the dacha became a more pervasive cultural phenomenon. This new middle class of wealthy urban elites could also afford to own or rent their own small dachas to escape the tight spaces of burgeoning cities. Unsurprisingly, the dacha became a symbol of the extravagances of the “bourgeois” way of life and, when revolution came in 1917, many were destroyed or looted. Those that survived were effectively nationalized by the new Soviet government in the 1920s. Persistent private ownership of dachas by nepmen and other moneyed individuals was stamped out in “the war against social undesirables” of the late 1920s and replaced by an ideology of collective leisure time (Lovell, 263). Many dachas were converted into leisure camps or rest homes for large groups of people.
The 1930s saw a shift in attitude towards leisure and the usage of dachas. In many ways this shift was a part of the decade’s Great Retreat from the Utopian, pure collectivist ideals of the Bolsheviks in the early days of the Soviet Union. Dachas were more frequently used for day-trips by Stakhanovites or utilized by the government to promote new Stalinist cultural values by establishing communal dachas for pregnant women or children, for example. These new cultural ideals, more accommodating of some measure of consumerism and privilege made dachas acceptable again. Some were built through trusts and cooperatives in which trade unions, factories, and other organizations could rent out dachas to high-ranking administrators or, rarely, particularly exceptional workers. However, these organizations struggled to build many new dachas, meaning most dachniki were still white-collar urbanites, just as it was before 1917. To further contradict the ideals of the revolution, new dachas were also constructed for government and party elites. Some of these personal dachas (such as Stalin’s) were more akin to the large country retreats of the 18th century aristocrats than the more modest dwellings of the typical Soviet dachas. Dachas were also built for favored intelligentsia and scientists. Despite the changing culture around it, the dacha lifestyle remained a pleasure largely reserved for the privileged and powerful classes.
It was not until after World War II and Stalin’s death that the dacha lifestyle became more widely available to the masses. Food shortages in post-war Soviet Union led many people to occupy unused land in the outskirts of cities and set up gardens and modest living quarters. New leader, Nikita Khrushchev, who was already taking steps to address the food crisis with his Virgin Land Campaign, capitalized on the movement by institutionalizing it in 1955, creating new “gardeners’ partnerships.” This was extended further to dacha construction cooperatives not unlike the ones seen in the 1930s. Despite this moderate growth, obtaining a dacha was still difficult. Distribution was still based on merit and, oftentimes who you knew or who you could bribe. Life in these new dachas was not carefree and leisurely as in those of Tsarist aristocrats. Tenants usually built their small living spaces on the tiny 600 square meter plots by themselves, often working as a family over the course of an entire summer or more. And even when the space was finally livable, much of the time was spent gardening. Nonetheless, Soviet citizens cherished their weekend escape from the hot, crowded, unsanitary cities. They cherished the sense of privacy and connection to the land that many of them left behind for the cities not long ago.
As evidenced by its varied conceptions over the years, from country mansion to quaint hut the dacha is more than just a summer home or a weekend retreat. It has long been seen as more of a way of life; a cultural tradition. The reforms under Khrushchev opened up this aspiration to many Soviet workers, who long dreamt of the warm, leisurely summer nights at their very own dacha.
Dacha. (2018, April 01). Retrieved April 01, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dacha