National Geographic : 2012 Jul
• elbowed aside traditional dachas and sometimes become primary residences. "Oligarchs go to the Loire, see castles, and say: I need one of those," Konstantin Kovalyov-Sluchevskiy, a local histo- rian, says dryly. Interiors tend to early Las Ve- gas: marble columns that hold up nothing, gilt thick as a call girl's mascara. On the outside are high stone or brick walls, sometimes with slits, as if to allow archers to shoot burning arrows at any peasant foolish enough to attempt a breach. "Their owners have not developed a soul," Konstantin observes sadly. Valday doesn't have many over-the-top kot- tedzhy, but it does have a dacha used by Russia's President Vladimir Putin, who drops in from time to time by helicopter. Boris insists that when Putin visits, scuba divers patrol the lake in front of the compound, which has a Turkish bath, a Russian banya, a Chinese teahouse, and a Finnish sauna. It might be true; then again, it might not. It isn't easy to know when to take Boris---who believes in angels but has a tattoo of a devil play- ing guitar on his le shoulder---seriously. e pride of Valday (population 16,000) is its 390,000-acre national park. e terrain, a slow roll of birch-covered hills dotted by 200 lakes, overlies a watershed that sources two great rivers: the Dnieper and the Volga. Cool, green, quiet, it is an idyllic refuge from the heat of the city. In summer the population doubles, accord- ing to an informal census based on bread sales. ough it is only about 225 miles from Mos- cow to the south and 180 miles from St. Peters- burg to the north, the two cities might as well be on the moon as far as Valday is concerned. Big-city dachniks are regarded as an alien species best avoided, in the way that one tries not to brush against stinging nettles in the forest. ough I suspect he is mistaken, Boris insists that only city folk trash their surroundings; lo- cals would never be so remiss. It's a cultural divide, says Maxim Semyonov, editor of Valday's weekly. "Our village past is still present. Our rst multistory building went up only 40 years ago." City folk, Maxim explains, consider the dacha a place to relax. "In Valday a dacha is about hard work and serious garden- ing." Nadezhda Yakovleva, a so -spoken woman with delicate features who runs the local mu- seum, provides more evidence. She points to an 1839 photograph of Muscovites picnicking in Valday. "With French wine and sandwiches," she says in pitying tones. e habits and atti- tudes of modern-day Muscovites are no better, she implies. " ey don't eat healthy. ey lie in hammocks and don't worry about bad weather like us. In their kitchen garden, called a super- market, there will always be crops." In Boris's community of Nertsy about 30 per- cent of the thousand dachas are owned by peo- ple from St. Petersburg or Moscow. " ey have generators and pumps," says Raisa Stepanov, a retired bookkeeper, with a tinge of envy. She has neither. A dacha with no running water or electricity is the rule. Raisa's small wood dacha, painted three di erent shades of yellow, stands next to a birch tree. Rather it leans on the tree as if for support. ere's an outdoor privy in back. A word about the dacha dress code in Val- day: Women favor two-piece bathing suits with a faded '50s look or cotton housedresses. For men: Speedos, sometimes paired with rubber boots. (Why do Russian men wear Speedos? "I don't know, but it is truly Russian," says Melissa Caldwell, a social anthropologist at the Univer- sity of California, Santa Cruz. "I once almost had to burn my eyes a er walking through a park in St. Petersburg and encountering what seemed like thousands of middle-aged men sunbathing in their Speedos.") Nina Marmashevya, Raisa's best summer friend, joins us for green schi, a summer soup made with sorrel. Nina, a sturdy woman with hair the color of paprika, does not so much hug as crush me against her bosom. Small glasses Boris insists that when Putin visits, scuba divers patrol the lake in front of the compound, which has a Turkish bath, a Russian banya, a Chinese teahouse, and a Finnish sauna.