THE GREAT DACHA MIGRATION
Every year most Russians take part in a great movement across vast distances that rivals other global herds moving en masse somewhere in the spring. I’m referring of course to the great Russian dacha migration.
Most Russians have a dacha. A dacha is a country home, cabin and summer retreat all in one. Dachas are often in villages, preferably dilapidated ones, or in specially zoned areas. Some dachas are tiny and would qualify as a shack. Some are massive. A dacha can be whatever you prefer, as long as it is outside the city and it’s used in the summer for useful, dacha purposes.
Preparation for the migration to the dacha begins sometime around the end of February. By then the days are getting longer and although spring is not in the air, it soon will be. Feet get itchy and people start thinking about their dachas again. In March, some gardeners start to plant cucumbers, potatoes and flowers at home. By April, many apartments are littered with trays of newly planted vegetables. These can usually be found in windowsills. The family starts planning the improvements for the dacha over the summer. We plan on painting something, perhaps the entire dacha. Painting is the only construction skill I have. Last year I painted the fence in front of our dacha bright red. My neighbors told me it couldn’t be done but I did it. We have the reddest fence in Tver oblast, if not Russia.
I’m not a gardener. I grew up in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon and at age 11 began my working career pulling weeds for our aged neighbors. It gave me an aversion to gardening and I have avoided it like the plague ever since.
There is a third important dacha skill, making shashlik, or shish-kebab, and grilling food in general. While my wife is planning what vegetables and plants will go where and supervising construction crews, I’m either marinating things or thinking about it. In front of a grill I can pull my weight. Whenever I get the impression that weeding is coming, I head off in the car to look for pork.
The first expedition to the dacha usually takes place during the May holidays. By then, the snow is finally gone for good. Everyone packs up the car for the trip. Vehicles can be seen driving to the dacha stuffed to the gills with lumber, bags full of stuff, boxes of belongings, plants, trays of newly planted vegetables for the garden, bushes, the cat and babushka (grandmother). The children, cat and babushka sit in the back seat. This is the law. They are going to the dacha for the duration, meaning the entire summer.
Our dacha is the real thing. Until last year we pulled our water out of a well and spot washed. This year we put in a hot water heater and a shower. Things are looking better in the washing up department. Our living room is heated by a massive brick oven that was designed by the previous owner to spew out smoke into our combined living room and bedroom when we light it up. Once it starts to finally draw smoke up into the chimney, the stove heats up mightily and throws out heat all night long and well into the next day, overheating us.
We have three tall trees next to our house, inhabited by ravens. Every year, the ravens make a nest in a small nook in our outhouse. When we are in it, we can hear the ravens scratching around, giving birth, feeding their young and complaining. Who can blame them? If I had a nest inside an outhouse, I’d complain too.
The dacha season begins by getting stuck in the mud. This happens because the ground is soft after the snow has melted and the snow tires have been removed. Another cause is an overconfidence in the capabilities of the off-road vehicles we drive. Finally, the roads are bad. Last year I got stuck twice on the first weekend of the dacha season at our village. Each time our neighbors came out to rescue us. It was a big event. Before helping us out, vodka was consumed. There was a lot of arguing about strategies to get us unstuck. After that, I had some vodka and on cue, one of our neighbors got stuck. After a couple more vodkas, I pulled him out.
As a general rule, it’s against the law to be well dressed at the dacha. Instead, everyone wears old clothes, preferably with holes in them. I have a special hat that I got many years ago. It says Caterpillar on the front. That hat is not getting any younger, like its wearer. Shaving is not required and looking like a bum is expected. It’s convenient for fisherman. No need to change your clothes when you head down to try and catch something from the rapidly depleting stocks of fish in Russia’s rivers and lakes.
When the dacha goers arrive at the dacha, they take a deep breath of fresh country air, gather up a big pile of leaves, branches and trash and light a big fire. Smoke fills the village and the air is no longer fresh. Last year I got involved in this process as well. We had a wooden fence that we tore down and when my neighbors lit fires, I lit a bigger one. Much of the wood from that fence is still there. This year I’m not sure I want to light a big fire though. I feel sorry for the atmosphere.
Planting starts in May and June and the expert gardeners in the neighborhood rule over their territory. We have two neighbors on both sides of our dacha who plant extensive vegetable gardens. They spend hours weeding, watering and taking care of these gardens. The only time they stop gardening is to poke their noses into our business and ask questions. At the end of the season, many dacha gardeners end up with enough salted vegetables to last all winter.
As the summer days get longer, the noise and activity level goes up. This is true of man and beast, also bugs. By the time the solstice rolls around, most birds on the planet seems to have congregated in our backyard along with squawking frogs and buzzing insects. The bats are busy too, silently. Many of our neighbors stay up late as the days get longer, having meals, playing music or talking. The construction activity increases as do the number of people driving around in different kinds of vehicles and riding on wobbly bicycles. Arguments increase as well. In any village, disagreements break out. They reach their peak in mid-June, leading up to the longest day of the year. It reaches a crescendo on the solstice by which time the sun dips briefly below the northern horizon for only an hour or so, at our latitude. If the weather is clear, the sky doesn’t go completely dark. The birds sing all night on the solstice and well into the next morning.
After the solstice, things gradually die down. Bit by bit, the birds sing less and eventually move on to someplace warm, such as Africa. The frogs calm down and the number of insects in the air lessens. The neighbors become gradually more and more quiet as the summer carries on. The disputes with the neighbors peter out and become forgotten. By August, it’s peaceful and just before early September, the undergrowth is already starting to dry up. Fall is in the air. The sudden crescendo of the solstice is followed by a long diminuendo and finally by September it’s time to go home.
This rapid change in the season brings about a sense of urgency to enjoy the long days as much as humanly possible while they last. They don’t last long. The dacha is designed to take action while the sun is shining. One cause of this sense of urgency is the memory of sitting in Moscow in winter with a few hours of sunlight every day and a meter of snow in the yard. Another is the amount of sunlight that changes by about 5 minutes each day, about a half hour a week. The extra sunlight in summer, and the warm weather that accompanies it, is short-lived and in short supply. It causes an explosive growth spurt of vegetation in a short period, causing gardeners to scramble. Then, as soon as it has reached its peak, it begins to decline at which point the reality sets in that for another six months, the days will become shorter and shorter right up until December.
Now it is too early to think about what happens next winter. The thing to do next is to think about the solstice, something I never miss at the dacha in summer. I always go to the dacha on solstice. Last year the weather was clear. After the sun went down, one side of the sky towards the north was black. The rest of the sky was full of stars. All the birds on the planet were around me. I’m going to do it again this year, come hell or high water and I recommend that anyone who has the chance to see the solstice outside of Moscow to do the same thing.