Book Launch -- Summerfolk: A History of the Dacha, 1700-2000
At a recent Kennan Institute event, author Stephen Lovell discussed his recent book: Summerfolk: A History of the Dacha, 1700-2000. Lovell began his talk with a definition of the term "dacha." Usually translated into English as "summer house" or "country house," the Russian word dacha originally implied a plot of land given as a gift, usually from the state. Lovell's definition of a dacha is: "a house on a plot of land, whose function is not primarily economic, and that is located within reasonably easy reach of a major city and is intended for intermittent, not permanent, residence." He explained that dachas have existed in Russia since the time of Peter the Great, and that they constitute an important aspect of the social and cultural history of Russia.
According to Lovell, most historians of Russia have focused on either urban or rural areas, and therefore the suburban realm of the dachas has been very little studied. He explained that studies of Russia's urbanization have exclusively considered the migration of peasants into the cities and ignored the expansion of the cities into the countryside. Lovell focuses on the latter trend and maintains that any understanding of Russian cities is incomplete without an understanding of the dachas.
Lovell explained that dachas provide insight into four areas of Russian history and society: urban geography, cultural history, social history, and anthropology. Regarding urban geography, he argued that the dacha is evidence of Russia's unique pattern of urbanization, which began in the Tsarist period and maintained many of its distinguishing characteristics during the Soviet era.
The dacha demonstrates many aspects of Russia's cultural history, according to Lovell. Dacha life symbolized a specific relationship between urban and rural life. Dachas also came to symbolize the distinction between Russia and the West. Lovell explained that dachas were usually built in the European Romantic style in the mid-19th century, but afterwards the trend shifted towards modesty and rusticity in dacha architecture. Dachas came to be seen as something quintessentially Russian.
Defining the Russian middle class has always been a difficult task for social historians, but Lovell argued that the ownership or use of a dacha can be used as a marker of middle class status in Russia. He found that Russian dacha-users shared some important social characteristics with members of the middle class in other societies. Specifically, they were concerned with the need to reconcile pleasure and virtue and were involved in some level of community activism.
From an anthropological perspective, the dacha demonstrates some aspects of the involvement of the Russian state in the everyday lives of its citizens. Both in the Soviet Union and in the Russian Empire, the use of a dacha was generally a privilege granted by the state. At the same time, according to Lovell, dachas were viewed as places of freedom from state constraints and were treated as private property that could be passed on to one's descendants. He explained that his research indicated that relations between individuals and the state were not always oppressive or mutually antagonistic. The dacha is an example of sanity and humanity in Russia's urban landscape that is often perceived as oppressive and inhuman.