National Geographic : 2012 Jul
Six-year-old Polina Merkulova hides in the bushes outside her family's dacha near Sergiyev Posad, about 50 miles northeast of Moscow. An hour's drive brings the family from city to country. culture ever since Peter the Great handed out land on the outskirts of St. Petersburg to cour- tiers. ("Dacha" is derived from the Russian verb "to give.") e dacha is the stage upon which the drama (or comedy) of Russian summer unfolds. Summer in Russia is precious and brief; winter, interminable. e growing season in the taiga around St. Petersburg is a short four months. In western Europe it stretches eight months or more. A h of Russia is above the Arctic Circle. More than half is underlain by permafrost. e advent of spring, then summer, is a fairy tale of sorts. e soil thaws, as does the soul. A dacha community is Russia abridged, with its stories of love, loss, and su ering; frictions; con icting narratives in which everyone seems to have the True Story but no one really does; free- owing vodka; and opportunities for corruption. (Municipalities grab property illegally and sell it to developers for dacha subdivisions.) It's a place to brood, ponder life, party, cherish the compa- ny of family and friends, and more recently it's become a badge of conspicuous, over-the-top consumption for Russia's new money. e dacha is a litmus test for changing Russian values and a celebration of those that stay the same. Boris's dacha, like most in Valday, is a gar- den plot with a cabin. Such plots, originally six sotkas (.15 acre), date back to Soviet-era land distribution programs that allowed Russians to endure postwar food shortages made worse by the disaster of centrally planned agriculture. With privatization in 1990, owners could buy land and expand beyond six sotkas, but the landscape remains a mishmash of shoulder-to- shoulder dwellings. Decor tends to out-of-date calendars, mismatched crockery, paintings of bears in the forest, and lace curtains hanging in doorways to defend against mosquitoes. On the other end of the spectrum are kot- tedzhy (cottages), the name for the wannabe castles built by New Russians, postcommunism's superspenders. Many communities of steroidal cottages---there are 500 around Moscow---have Editor at Large Cathy Newman last wrote about Crimea. Jonas Bendiksen is the author of Satellites, a photo chronicle of the former Soviet Union.