A dacha isn’t a particular style of architecture but is more a way of living
By the mid-19th century, every Russian aristocrat wanted to have such a dacha. There weren’t enough houses and plots for everyone, and so a rental boom began. People would lease small buildings on their ancestral estates and parks.
These dachas could be rented equipped with everything necessary for country life or completely empty. In the latter case, the family would have moved into the dacha with their own furniture, tableware and bed linen.
Moreover, people would lease not only individual houses on their estates, but also an unused wing of their big country palaces. In this case, the hosts continued to live in their houses and would show up fully dressed in gowns with a corset for breakfast, sticking to protocol. But those who rented could afford more liberty regarding etiquette. To this day, the Russian dacha is not a type of structure but a way of country living.
There are two seasons in Russia: Winter and Dacha
The aristocracy of that time enjoyed long walks in the park at their summer village, as well as picnics, boating, gymnastics and bike rides – all things they couldn’t do in the city in the 19th century. This reflects a European trend of that time: Experiencing nature. For example, in France, the Impressionists went out into nature to paint, and in Britain, nature-inspired landscape gardens emerged and the picnic became popular with Queen Victoria.
Here is how the famous Russian writer, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, described life at the dacha in his 1898 story Novaya Dacha, a work that’s known to every student in Russia: “Not to plough or to sow, but simply to live for pleasure, live only to breathe the fresh air.”
The dacha is designed for sunny summer days
The glazed front porch, or verandah, was usually built on the south side of the house to give it time to warm up during the northern-hemisphere days. In the daily routine of the country life, it would replace the living room, the dining room, the study, and sometimes the bedroom.
In 1930 through the 1950s, the models of the genre (and the objects of desire) were dachas of state officials, writers, academics and other privileged categories of the population who were granted a dacha. They could be state- or privately owned.
Writers’ unions and architects’ associations would build their own summer villages where all the neighbours had the same occupation. The same principle was used later when Soviet companies would give plots of land to their employees and the workers from the same plant or factory would be neighbours.
One of the most famous summer villages near Moscow is called Peredelkino. Here, the dacha of Nobel laureate poet Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) has been preserved almost intact. The first dachas in this village were built using German designs and resemble European cottages.
The charter of the suburban association not only regulated the number and location of trees on each plot but also defined the ‘allowed’ size of the house. For example, a family of three was supposed to stay in one bedroom and was not allowed to plant more than six apple trees.
The size rules changed often, but neither the plots of land nor the houses were ever big. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, only houses up to 25 square metres were allowed to be built on the 0.06-hectare plot. In the 1980s, the house could be no more than 50 square meters on 0.06-0.1 hectare of land.
Ballerina Maya Plisetskaya (1925-2015) remembers her family’s cooperative dacha in the village of Zagoryanka as a two-room clapboard house that the owners considered a regal splendour. In almost every house, the bathroom – a toilet and a washbasin – would be located in a small clapboard building outside the main house. However, dacha residents were not daunted by everyday discomfort.
Together with addressing the food issue, the dacha became synonymous with riding in a goods-stuffed car on weekends, caring for your garden and spending evenings making harvested fruit into jam. Soviet people all became ‘weekend farmers’. Also, since agriculture couldn’t always wait until the weekend, people would go to their dachas after work on weekdays, if the distance allowed.
While today DIY is more of a fun thing, back then it was simply a necessity.
In winter, many dachas were used to store temporarily unused or unfashionable items. People would store lace textiles, old Viennese chairs, decorated tea urns (samovars), chests of drawers and cabinets – the symbols of Grandma’s style. Today, people are thankful they didn’t throw everything away since they don’t have to shop at antique stores for pieces with character.
A favourite dacha pastime is open-air evening teas with family and friends.
That’s why modern gardeners continue to love their small wooden houses and villages, remodel and renovate old dachas, and sometimes create their own variations of historical prototypes.
We can see this in the following four examples of modern dachas.
Four Modern Dachas
1. Caring for Heritage
Location: Komarovo, near St. Petersburg
Size: 161 square metres, including verandah
That’s interesting: Aleksandr Volodin wrote his play Autumn Marathon (later made into a movie) here
Before 1913, Komarovo was called Kellomäki and was an area popular among the residents of St. Petersburg. In 1954, professor and military doctor Vladimir Yakovenko was allocated a dacha, pictured here in 1958.
“The dacha was built in the late 1950s,” says current owner Vladislav Yakovenko. “Over the past 15 years, all engineering systems have been completely replaced, but we haven’t reconstructed the house itself yet. Since the owner of the house was the chief doctor of the Russian Navy, it had a warm bathroom,” Vladislav says.
Indeed, the builders used a trick to get more space. As the official state rules about sizes and rooms sometimes didn’t take areas such as corridors or entrance halls into account, some dared to splurge there.
2. New life for an old classic
Size: 180 square metres
Architect: Yulia Nesterova
Before the revolution, this wooden house near Moscow, where many intellectuals gathered in the spring, belonged to the family of an imperial photographer. The current owner had long dreamed of an old dacha dating back to Chekhov’s time where one could drink tea on the front porch for hours and stroll through the gardens.
Seeing this house with its mezzanine, porches and mouldings, the owner fell in love at first sight. During the renovation, she asked architect Nesterova to keep the nostalgic atmosphere and appearance of the house and update the interior. They restored the facades and retained the old glazing on the porches and balconies. Nesterova decided to remove the previous internal partitions, increasing the size of the rooms.
3. A modern DIY dacha
Location: Izhevsk region
Size: 36 square metres, without terrace
Vitaly Zhuykov’s home studio is located not far from the city of Izhevsk, on the banks of the Kama River. He comes here from Moscow for the summer and travels through empty local villages – abandoned due to migration to the cities – searching for old boards, furniture, doors and frames, from which he creates items for his furniture business, Made in August.
His dacha changes every season, he says. “I come here and invent something and renovate all the time. I find old boards or a frame, and the house gets a new detail. The wood rack in this photo, for example, is made from a carved frame found in one of the abandoned houses. There are a lot of empty villages around here, and a lot of homes are going to be demolished. Sometimes you barely have time to get interesting things out from under the tractor,” he says.
4. Going back to its roots
Size: 180 square metres, without terraces
Architects: Evgeny Asse, Grigor Aykazyan, Anastasia Koneva of ASSE Architects
This house is located in the old summer village of Kratovo, near Moscow, in a beautiful pine tree forest. The two-storey dacha with an attic was built using glued wooden beams. The project includes outdoor terraces on two floors reminiscent of the old Moscow and St. Petersburg dachas and their white openwork terraces.