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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Once a sign of party privilege, the dacha, the little house in the countryside coveted by every Soviet citizen, became a possibility for broad sectors of the Soviet population under Khrushchev. Allotted through trade unions, institutes, factories and other professional organizations, the dacha became a prize plum in the Soviet system of spoils. City dwellers dreamt of having a small plot of land outside the city to flee to on summer weekends, away from the heat and dirt of the city. Cities themselves were growing at astonishing rates. Moscow incorporated outlying rural lands into its city limits, building them up quickly with new apartment buildings. Thus the chance to sneak outside the city to breath fresh air became all the more valued.

Privileged dacha communities such as Peredelkino, the writers community where Boris Pasternak, Kornei Chukovskii and others lived in homes allotted them by the Writers Union, or compounds for party leaders, cosmonauts, and star athletes, were nestled relatively close to the city. Dacha settlements for the less privileged, where the homes were closer to huts, and the amenities were sparse, were built further and further from the city. The work week over, vacationers crowded onto the electrichka, the green electric trains that were routed into dacha country, only to return on Monday morning. Pathologies that arose due to the unchecked growth of cities, foremost pollution, made dacha rest a necessary component of most Russians’ therapeutic regime. Yet it did not explain the deep sentimental attachment to dacha country shared by most Russians as modern life distanced them from their rural roots.

The rhythms of dacha life were as unhurried as the melody of its anthem, Moscow Nights (more properly, Nights outside Moscow), the hit song of 1958. Long walks through the forest, slow steams in the bathhouse for those lucky enough to have one, and the national passion for mushroom picking, were glories of the dacha weekend. Often indifferent to maintenance and back-breaking labor at the work place, Russians invested considerable sweat equity in their dachas, despite the fact that they were not the legal owners. The six-hundred square meter plots usually alloted to lucky workers under Khrushchev were still owned by the state. Yet so deeply rooted was the love of the dacha that the state dared not exert its legal rights, so much so that when the government campaign against Pasternak was at its height, the union still did not dare evict him from Peredelkino. De facto ownership of a dacha became a matter of survival in post-Soviet years, when the garden plot became the main source of food for many families.

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