The Fairytale Charm of Soviet Country Dachas

The dacha is considered a particularly Russian-Soviet phenomenon, though in the most basic sense it can be understood in translation as a “country home.” In Dacha: The Soviet Country Cottage (Fuel, 2023), photographer Fyodor Savintsev creates a visual compendium of these usually small wooden dwellings, surveying the pre-Revolutionary and Soviet dachas of his great-grandparents’ village of Kratovo as well as humbler versions built on small plots surrounding Arkhangelsk in the north of Russia. The book seeks to capture the aesthetics and lifestyle surrounding this vernacular phenomenon, cementing the assertion made by garden designer and Russian author Anna Benn in her introduction that “the idea of the dacha is as much cultural as architectural.”

Benn presents the remarkable statistic that, because of the dacha, modern-day Russia continues to have the highest proportion of second-home owners in the world, and a study done in the 1990s suggests that as many as one in four city-dwelling Russian families owned a dacha — a surprising revelation for a country well-known for its Communist attitudes toward personal property. This practice is a holdover from the Tsarist times, with the word “dacha” stemming from the Russian verb davat (to give), referring to the allotment of land for a house that was given by the Tsar to favor servants of the court, and its deep-rooted history is one factor that accounts for its longevity in Russian-Soviet society.

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Fyodor Savintev, Dacha in Severodvinsk, Arkhangelsk
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Fyodor Savintev, a countryside full of dacha in Arkhangelsk

The integral nature of the dacha to a Russian way of life is evidenced by the fact that these structures have survived revolution, war, and the collapse of Communism. Offering a respite from city life, the dacha has demonstrated its lasting relevance as people flocked to their rural dwellings during the COVID-19 pandemic to escape confinement in dense population centers.

Another reason for the dacha’s continuing stronghold in Russian culture is the role it has played in food production and financial stability for generations of citizens. Another astonishing statistic presented by Benn is that even as recently as 2011, some 40% of Russia’s food production was grown on dacha plots — to say nothing of their historic contribution to the food stability of the population. Benn’s introduction paints a picture of trains packed with dacha-bound citizens over the weekend, returning with potatoes, mushrooms, flowers, and even live animals like puppies and kittens for sale back in the city.

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Fyodor Savintev, Dacha in Kratovo, Moscow Region
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Fyodor Savintev, Dacha interior in Kratovo, Moscow Region

Often presided over by babushkas (grandmothers) — especially in the summer months when parents had to work — the dacha was a site of food foraging, production, and preservation for the forthcoming hard seasons, making it place to impart domestic skills and cultural heritage while also stockpiling necessities that many citizens relied upon.

Though dachas still play a role in Russian life, their existence is threatened. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, rules and regulations governing dacha construction and ownership were removed, and many of these quirky wooden structures — some little more than ramshackle sheds, others quite elaborate and ornate country estate-style domiciles — are being replaced and updated with more modern materials, or being phased out altogether.

“However, the shift to a slower, more traditional pace of life, and the understanding of its benefits, has grown recently,” Benn told Hyperallergic. “This change has developed beyond a simple nostalgia, compounded by the COVID pandemic. Today there is a new, younger movement, aimed at retaining the traditional architecture and values of the dacha.”

Dacha: The Soviet Country Cottage captures what might well be a dying tradition of architecture and culture, but it also calls to the deep nostalgia that many Russians maintain around the country home way of life. Whether the architecture of the dacha can withstand the process of modernization, it seems that dacha-as-idea will always maintain a cultural stronghold.

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Fyodor Savintev, Dacha in Vyazniki
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Fyodor Savintev, Dacha interior in Kratovo, Moscow Region
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Fyodor Savintev, Dacha in Zelenogorsk, St. Petersburg Region
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Fyodor Savintev, Dacha in Kratovo, Moscow Region

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