Hugh Gatenby

Roving Russia Knowledge Cycling Correspondent Hugh Gatenby gets his fill of Russian dacha life – at my dacha, too! Being Hugh, he brought his sketchbook along. Read on. (Editor’s Note)

Summer is here, and the majority of Muscovites, or so it seems, released from the shackles of a pernicious lockdown, yet largely denied their sun-seeking foreign holidays, depart in their droves to the Black Sea coast, or to the more accessible (give or take the odd 5 hour traffic jam) to their summer dachas. Me, I’ve been skittering about on the bike, discovering the quieter roads of Moscow and Kaluga Region, and it’s there that I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the dacha of the venerable creator and editor of this esteemed organ – John Harrison.

John has a theory about the two types of Russian dacha ownership; one which I, from experience, wholly concur with. For the first type – their dacha is a labour of love, a place of rest, to be – as the hackneyed saying goes – “closer to nature” away from the noise, bustle and pollution of the nation’s capital. For the second, the dacha is no less of a bolthole. Just forget about any proximity to, or communion, with nature. It’s a place, probably thrown up in one of these dachniye poselki, or dacha settlements, where the denizens surround themselves with high, opaque, corrugated fences, migrate to at weekends, have barbecues (shashliki) and get resolutely p***ed. 

John, as you might expect, belongs firmly in the first category, and this is reflected firmly in this dacha; built on a pine bluff overlooking the brimming river Protva.  Of stout wooden construction, it exudes those twin dacha values of ooyute(cosiness) and tyeplota (warmth). It boasts a wonderful open fireplace, and in the tiny kitchen is a classic Russian stove, permanently belting out heat – of the kind that, in classic Russian literature,  peasant families would sleep on top of. On John’s stove, these would have to be a family of Lilliputs. 

Where would dacha life be without having engaging neighbours? John doesn’t lack for those. Two doors away is the dacha (actually that’s a misnomer – more like a full-blown villa) of  Pyotr Mamonov, enfant terrible of  Soviet and nineties rock and the preternaturally prehensile (Editor’s note: He means very bendy) former frontman of the underground rock-group Zvyki Moo. He has a fully-equipped recording studio-cum-bomb shelter in his basement – behind two sets of blast doors. Post-holocaust rock? During one of my visits, his daughter-in-law, in true neighbourly dacha style, came round with a box full of home-grown vegetables, and sat and chatted with us on the veranda – ooyute writ large.

There is an old dacha adage, taken from Marx’s Das Kapital (who, in turn, is said to have adapted a biblical quotation) Kto nye pabotayet, tot nye yest’ – “He who who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat”. I’m sure that I wouldn’t have starved, but while John laboured over his word-processor, I found myself singing for my supper. Quite right too. After all it’s been a long time since I’ve laid coaxial cable, drilled though log walls, used a scythe – or hauled up a pump, weighing 2 metric tonnes, from an artesian well. That beer at the end of the day (after a bike-ride to the shop 10 kilometres away) was well-earned and most welcome. 

Cheers, John. Thank you for your kindness and hospitality. Should you ever tire of imparting your wisdom to your university students, a cosy and  restful retirement awaits you in your dacha.

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