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Chronicle of Higher Education
June 13, 2003
book review
'Summerfolk: A History of the Dacha, 1710-2000'

For Boris Pasternak, a dacha was a place to dig potatoes and write. For Joseph Stalin, a home for his final years as dictator. But while the famous and the infamous had their country retreats, so did ordinary Russians. Dachas, notes Stephen Lovell, have ranged from sumptuous villas to cottages to shacks, reflecting changing views of property and its uses throughout Russian history.

The historian, who teaches at King's College London, begins Summerfolk: A History of the Dacha, 1710-2000 (Cornell University Press) with the elite of a new Russian capital. After the founding of St. Petersburg, 300 years ago, courtiers began to build villas along the wooded road that led from the city to the Peterhof Palace. The word "dacha," derived from the Russian verb "to give," referred originally to a parcel of land, not a dwelling. But while nobles were granted rural property by the czar, the commoner who was a dachnik, or dacha dweller, had to be more resourceful.

By the mid-19th century, a wide cross section of Petersburgers and Muscovites were escaping the city for summer and weekend homes. They fled the crowds and the noxious blend of hot weather and inadequate sanitation, not to mention periodic summer epidemics like the outbreak of cholera that killed more than 12,000 in St. Petersburg in 1848, Mr. Lovell writes. Dachas came to be associated with "healthful recreation" and "purposeful leisure," a link to a rural way of life and hard work that was the "embodiment of a virtuous domesticity."

Too virtuous, perhaps, for some critics. The dachniki were ridiculed, Mr. Lovell says, as "fanatical believers in the health-giving properties of water, air, and dew." There was some amusement too at the effects of all that dewy atmosphere on romance, licit and illicit. Adultery, some supposed, would thrive in a setting where middle-class husbands, unable to take an entire summer off, were commuting back and forth to their retreats. For those not yet married, Anton Chekhov had a warning in his "Dacha Rules." He placed lunatics, low-ranking soldiers, and carriers of infectious diseases among those forbidden to live at the dacha, "as nowhere is there a greater danger of contracting matrimony than in the open air."

Chekhov and other writers, Mr. Lovell says, ridiculed the dachniki even as they nurtured their own dacha culture of creativity and conversation among the birch trees. Enduringly, the idealized dacha of the intelligentsia flourished in the Soviet era in such settings as Peredelkino, the writers'-union community where Pasternak composed much of Dr. Zhivago and tended his tubers.

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