“Home gardening” sounds like an insult to describe the emphasis Russians and Ukrainians place on growing their own food.
An American home with a yard filled to the brim with cabbages, raspberry bushes, tomato plants, and numerous fruit trees is highly unusual. But in most of Russia and Ukraine, it’s commonplace for anyone with a house and a yard to grow no small amount of fruits and vegetables.
But what if you don’t have a house and a yard? What if you live in an apartment in a big city, as many people do?
For that, you have dachas.
Dacha is the Russian concept of a summer house.
“Summer house” as we know it is very bourgeoisie. For me it conjures up images of not-too-modest abodes on the lake, complete with rope swing, Ralph Lauren-wearing types and adolescent explorations before heading back to boarding school or off to Yale.
Not so with Ukrainian dachas.
History of the Dacha
The cultural origin of the dacha is an interesting one.
While dachas began much as a summer house did here, as a private vacation spot for the rich, during the USSR. After WWII, and in the heyday of the USSR, a land allotment was given to many urban families, not so much to encourage a little R&R in the summer, but to give the people an opportunity to grow more food to store during the long, hard winters.
True to the communist ideology, every family in the USSR was given an opportunity to buy inexpensive land, and encouraged to build their own summer house. While this seems unthinkable to many Americans (or other nationalities) keep in mind that not only was the former USSR very much invested in practicing communism, it was also huge and largely uninhabited as it still is today. Plenty of land to just give away- plenty.
Dachas were also part of the elite Russian society. Political and military leaders all had a handful of dachas in prime locations, and dachas are to this day given as a trophy of achievement in the arts or work.
A lot of the literature you’ll find online exposes the Russian experience of the dacha- with a focus on lamenting the traffic jams caused by a mass exodus of Muscovites out of the city during the summer months. While I’m sure this is true, the dacha is not just a cultural aspect of Russia, but of the former USSR. For our Ukrainian family, dachas were an important part of summer life.
Ukrainian Dachas Today
Today’s dachas maintain the focus of idyllic life, be it relaxing away from the city, or tending your vegetable garden. In addition to an emphasis on growing your own food, everything is home made and DIY. Most dachas are built by their occupiers (with some help from friends) so there is an extremely, yet endearingly rustic quality to them. Walking into Nikita’s family dacha, you understand immediately that most things, from the kitchen cabinets to the staircase, are hard-earned results of handiwork.
There is no electricity, no indoor plumbing, absolutely no central heat or air. Because of this, and because of the harvesting season, dachas are an exclusively summer pursuit. It’s a summer getaway, but one that lets Ukrainians and Russians get back to nature, the land, spend time with the family, work with their hands, and ponder the meaning of life, as they are wont to do.
The extended family’s dacha, just outside of Odessa, was more inhabited and well-kept. Nikita’s great aunt and uncle were well-off and retired, and enjoyed spending most of the summer at their dacha- as any retired couple probably would. Though much more sparsely furnished than their posh condo in the city (more of a cultural requirement than a financial one) their dacha was enclosed by well-tended garden on almost every side. The mandatory Muscadine grape, tomatoes, cucumbers, but also cherry trees, peach trees, and more.
For Nikita’s family, the dacha was less a source of food, than for other families. Their existing suburban home already had one fruitful garden, but their dacha, while quaint, was hard to get to.
Located on the Dnieper River, and backing right up against a nature preserve, getting there required driving to a small ferrying dock on the outskirts of town, and taking a motor-powered dingy up to the last dock on the last string of dachas along the water.
Being at the dacha is a true “escaping the city” experience. There is no electricity and no indoor plumbing. And even though Nikita’s family didn’t go too often (city life was busy) there was no shortage of domestic and exotic fruits and vegetables, growing happily on their own among the overgrowth.
Ukraine is an extremely fertile region, and the dacha, sitting on the waterfront of the Dnieper river, was bursting with fresh fruits and vegetables. We brought eggs, bread and pork chops to eat, but feasted on bowlfuls of just-picked cherry tomatoes, and of course all of the wild plums and fruit we could find.
In addition to standard Russian and Ukrainian fare, like grapevines and these humongous cabbages,
plenty of wild flowers,
there were quite a few bushes and trees full of fruit that I’ve never seen before. Nikita’s uncle said they were an Eastern (to Ukraine, so think far east) variety of a citrus fruit, and as far as I could tell we didn’t even have a word for in English.
What We Did at the Dacha
Thought about going for a swim in the Dnieper… and decided against it. The weather was unusually cloudy that day, and the was water freezing cold. (Didn’t stop Nikita’s uncle from diving in with a spear gun and trying to find some fish.)
Laid out in the sun on this mattress. Mostly the children and us American-types did, I’m ashamed to say.
Took a scenic walk along the waterfront.
Enjoyed each others’ company.
What We Ate at the Dacha
(The important part!)
A rustic specialty: fire grilled pork chops and onion. And not just over any fire, fire from the wood of fruit trees collected from around the plot- it makes for fragrant smoke!
A snack of almonds, picked from the tree and cracked open right then and there.
Fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, fried bologna, fried bread stuffed with apples, and some eggs (this was breakfast).
This is just one more reason we recommend traveling to Ukraine, Russia or the post-Soviet countries during the summer. Let us know what you think!