As a kid, I spent most summers at my grandparents' dacha, a country house on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. To this day, I still think of that place on a daily basis. It is especially present with me as an adult questioning what it means to be Russian, living in a reality where my home country attacks its neighbor.
The dacha (A dacha (Russian: дача, is a seasonal or year-round second home, often located in the exurbs of post-Soviet countries, including Russia.) is the place I return to (these days only in my mind) to reconnect with who I really am deep down. I know it might sound grand, but dacha is more than just a place for many people. It’s a universal experience for Russians, a massive part of our identity. As anthropologist Melissa Caldwell describes in her book Dacha Idylls: Living Organically in Russian Countryside
Dachas were built as seasonal homes, usually lacking insulation and running water and relying on a wood-burning stove for heating. A dacha generally isn’t especially "well-decorated," either. As Cathy Newman for National Geographic described, "Decor tends to out-of-date calendars, mismatched crockery, paintings of bears in the forest, and lace curtains hanging in doorways to defend against mosquitoes." I’m surprised how accurately that quote — with its specificity and nuance — describes my (subjective) dacha experience. I can cross each descriptor off my imaginary dacha bingo card.
Over the past several centuries, dachas and the natural settings in which they are located have inspired many Russian artists both in the themes they have chosen and in their productivity. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, the evolution of dacha lifestyles encouraged an entire genre of dacha literature that has continued to the present, with pieces ranging from Aleksandr Pushkin’s ‘Egyptian Nights' and Nikolai Gogol’s ‘Old World Landowners' from the early nineteenth century to Viktor Slavkin’s play Cerceau more than 150 years later.
To me, these vernacular design solutions are intuitive and very successful. The limited amenities of the house were outweighed by the abundance of opportunity that the land around the house would serve. The interior of the dacha expanded beyond the physical box that is the house, in contrast with John Pile’s claim that "interiors are an integral part of the structures that contain them — usually buildings." The house was just your place to sleep — a rather large bed. Once out of this "bed," you would only return when it was dark outside. Outside is where we lived in full: played games, grilled shashlik (barbecue), gathered mushrooms and berries, and did dishes and laundry. With no bathroom in the house, we washed ourselves in an adjacent sauna called banya. We, and so many other Russian families, participated in "interior designing," expanding the boundaries of our interiority. Those boundaries were fluid and defined by each family. Still, one thing was consistently present: the deep craving for connection with the natural world, integrating ourselves with it to the best of our ability.
All of my greatest dacha expeditions happened barefoot, experiencing the materiality of the "outside." The materials my grandpa used to organize and improve the garden were often salvaged from construction sites where he worked. Once, he got his hands on a roll of linoleum, so naturally, all the paths between flower and vegetable beds stood no chance of being anything but linoleum. That blurred the lines between interior and exterior even further. The "outside" had no longer felt like the outside or performed the function of the outside.
My grandpa would design for us, but he also designed for the natural world we deeply admired. One of his interior solutions was a claw-foot bathtub that he strategically placed under the apple tree. I would watch apples fall there and move slowly on the surface of the collected rainwater. Did apples enjoy swimming as much as I did?
I know precisely how linoleum feels on your feet in the afternoon heat or during a summer thunderstorm. But also wonder if linoleum, as an "object," ever got to experience thunderstorms before my grandfather put it there. The objects that otherwise would never interact because of their binary interior existence would come together in the most unexpected ways. Linoleum would then experience its first listopad (falling leaves) and snowstorm without any of us there to witness it.
If your interiority expands like that, there’s no hard and fast line between your comfortable world and the world at large. The summers I would spend at my grandparents' dacha would give me a sense of freedom and connection to the natural world so deep I could never quite grasp it anywhere else. As I long for it, I wonder how important it is to erase the line between the box that is the house and the "outside." And if we do so, how can we be more gentle with our interventions (not to undermine my grandpa's love of linoleum)?
Illustratons: Polina Shevchuk
- Greene R. H. Nikolai Gogol: Between Ukrainian and Russian Nationalism // Canadian Journal of History. 2008, vol. 43, no. 1 — p.164.
- Caldwell M.L. Dacha Idylls: Living Organically in Russia’s Countryside. California: University of California Press, 2011. — p. 39.
- Newman C. Russian Summer. National Geographic. July 2017. URL: https://web.archive.org/
- Pile J. The History of Interior Design. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2009. — p.11.
- Attiwill S. Speeds, Slowness, Temporary Consistencies, and Interior Designing. Flow: Interior, Landscape and Architecture in the Era of Liquid Modernity, 2018. — p. 264.
- Weir S. Architecture and object-oriented ontology: Simon Weir in conversation with Graham Harman. Journal of Architecture Philosophy, 2021. — p. 56.