Dachas came to be long before communist revolution in 1917. In those times only wealthy families could afford to have a spare countryside house for summer stay outside of the city. This would be a piece of land with a big house. Families would move from their city apartment to dacha for the whole summer. Dachas were meant purely for leisure living in summer. In early communist times dacha tradition was continued. Having dacha was a privilege of communist party rulers and soviet elite of all kinds. Ordinary people were not allowed to have dacha and in most cases could not afford having one.
Dachas as we know them today started to evolve in the early 1950s. Back then soviet government realized that soviet agricultural system was not efficient enough to provide food for the whole population of the country. They started to give pieces of land for free, so people from cities could grow their own produce and feed their families in this way.
Each soviet organization or factory was given a piece of land for dachas. That piece of land would be split into smaller chunks and each worker would get their own piece. This is how dacha “villages” were formed. Dacha is never a standalone place, it’s always a part of dacha “village”. The only allowed use of dacha was to grow vegetables and fruits. There was no electricity, no water and toilet was (and still is in most cases) outside.
Now there is thousands of dacha villages around larger cities. All of them accessible by car, some can be accessed by public transportation. Very few people had cars back in soviet times, so to get to their dachas people had to take train, bus and do a lot of walking.
Typical standard size of dacha land is 600 square meters. In Russian this is called “6 sotok” (shest’ sotok). There are pieces of land larger in size, but not much larger, unless one family owns two or even three pieces of land next to each other.
Initially dacha land was just a piece of raw undeveloped field or wood. To make it usable, trees and bushes had to be removed and soil had to be cultivated for agricultural use. The house or some basic shelter had to be built on dacha. Developing dachas required lots of physical hard-work and sweat. In soviet times when everything was in shortage, people had no cars, no equipment and construction materials, developing dacha was tough. Almost everything had to be done with bare hands.
People worked hard on their dachas and developed it, planting fruit trees, growing vegetables and everything else that can be grown on land. In soviet times some dacha owners harvested a real good crop on their dachas, too much of produce for a single family to consume. That extra crop was sold on farmers markers in cities. Those were real farmers markets, with real organic produce. Nowadays “farmers markets” are just fancy looking imitations with no real farmers.
In decades of soviet and post-soviet history dachas have been continuously developing. Although no new dachas are given after ussr collapse, existing ones have been used, maintained and developed. Many people say, food grown on dacha, helped them survive tough 1980s and 1990s. For many dacha is still a substantial source of food, as not every family can afford buying produce from retailers.
Most dachas now have electricity. Dacha houses vary in size and amenities. Some dachas still have simple shelters or small summer cabin type houses with no running water (or seasonal water supply). Some evolved into full, sometimes very large houses, insulated for a winter stay, with heating, running water and sewage, gas and many other amenities. Those dachas, well equipped, are suitable for a full time living and very often used as primary homes. With new legislature dacha owners can get registration on their dachas, so it becomes fully official place of residence.
For majority of dacha owners dacha still (although large and well equipped) serves as summer house visited only on weekends. On Friday evenings, late April through late October habitants of larger cities flee to their dachas to spend weekends there.
What people do on dacha? Many people are just relaxing and doing whatever they would do at home. Some people do landscaping on their dachas. Majority of dacha owners still grow fresh produce on their land. That includes seasonal vegetables, berries and fruits. Some have green houses to grow produce off-season. Dacha probably is the only way to get truly organic produce. Growing produce requires good deal of physical labor and time. Some people do just simple gardening, some feed their families off their dachas. If crop is plenty, people might do canning and making jam on dachas. Some dachas have lakes and rivers nearby, so swimming can be a fun dacha activity. Some dacha owners install swimming pools. The list of activities can go on forever as there is no limits to what you can do on your own piece of land in your own house.
Family and friend gatherings are quite popular on dachas. This involves cooking food, grilling shashlik, drinking, having good time. If dacha has banya on its premise, which is not uncommon, banya activity becomes a part of dacha time.
Largely, dacha is an escape from concrete apartment block buildings people live in big cities. Being in the nature, gardening, cooking food, relaxing — are all good ways to unwind stress and restore psyche.
Many people do not have their own dachas and simply rent them for the summer. The market is large, good number of offers is always there. Buying dacha is also an option and dacha can be relatively inexpensive depending on proximity to the city, type of dacha housing and other amenities.
See that mailing list subscription fields on top of this page? If you subscribe to Russia Simplified mailing list, I will e-mail you extra materials on article topics in this blog. You will receive deeper cultural background information, practical advises and personal recommendations. Promise, I will not e-mail too often.