Russian Dacha and Banya: Traditional Culture of rural Russia
What is a dacha?
A Russian "dacha" is a traditional country house which is usually wooden, has small garden plots and is mostly used only at summer. You've already know that Russia is the largest country in the world with vast but sparsely populated countryside. It is especially impressive compared to Asian over-populated countries or with Europe and its small towns, villages and rural areas between them. Wide open spaces in the middle of nowhere are the reason that Russians prefer to live in cities and towns with all the infrastructure and go to the "dacha" just for weekends.
Now almost every family in Russia has a dacha! They first appeared in the 19th century when the tsar gifted small country estates to the nobility. At the end of the century, many wealthy people rented peasant houses or "izbas" to live there, usually with several other families. In Soviet times, dachas were given to Communist Party members; living conditions were bad, several families could live in the single house. Mass production of dachas started after WWII because of the food shortage. A lot of dacha clusters were built near large cities at that time. People had no money and no food so they spent all weekends at dachas growing garden crops and even raising livestock for survival. Dacha could have only small land plots for gardening; there were strict limits on the houses.
Dacha culture nowdays
Despite all limitations, dachas were extremely popular in the Soviet Union, because people had no opportunity to buy land and build a house where they wanted, and also because they lacked other opportunities to spend their time and money. A new dacha boom began after communism collapsed and private land ownership was returned. During the rapid urbanization, many village houses were sold to be used as dachas. People prefer their greater land area and larger distances between houses despite longer distance to travel.
Now the dacha culture is so popular that traffic around large cities becomes very hard during the weekends. Many seniors still like gardening just out а habit. They grow potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, aubergines, onions, carrots, strawberries, currants, and get them canned for the long winter. Five years ago 40% of Russia's food was grown by dacha communities! It means that Russian people still feed themselves. Is it something in our DNA that creates the desire to grow our own food? Or maybe it’s just a habit that has fed people for centuries? Whatever it is, it also strongly connects people with the nature.
In contrast, younger generations prefer to take a rest at their dachas. They invite friends, grill meat, eat berries, have a banya, do sports and other activities. The dacha is the best place for moral relaxation after a working week with everyone drinking tea on the terrace, endless talking, singing, walking and, certainly, some alcohol. The dacha culture is a kind of compensation to a city dweller for the living conditions in large cities with small apartments, crowds of people and air pollution... Whatever the dacha is like – it has a very important place in the life of common Russians.
What is a banya?
Banya is a Russian type of sauna, a kind of steam bath and is one of the oldest Russian traditions. Despite the fact that this tradition is several centuries old, the banya is popular even today. You can find banyas in large cities and small towns. Usually those Russians who have dachas often build their own banya there. Spending time in banya is very good for your health and the best activity after physical labor at the dacha!
In the first day of our Russian dacha tour we will travel almost 200 km to visit a small village in the Kaluga region where we have our own dacha in an old peasant house. The place is very beautiful and unspoiled; it's surrounded by light pristine pine forests where you can find a lot of berries and mushrooms. The village has several agriculture fields covered by wheat and oats, a beloved place of white storks. Local people keep their own households which is not easy for city dwellers! The comfort of an average village house is rather relative... The toilets are outside, the roads have deep potholes, and the banya is the single place for bathing. You also need to enjoy bringing buckets of water from the spring many times a day! Several local families have been living there their whole lives. They even remember stories from their parents about German occupation during WWII. There are still a lot of traces in the village and its surroundings. We have a shell crater near our house and all forests have fortifications which are still evident - small shelters, trenches and observation posts. Later we will visit a local peasant's farm to see how they keep livestock and we’ll taste fresh milk and eggs. A Russian banya will finish our day!
In the second day we will visit "Archstoyanie", the biggest land-art and architecture open-air museum in Europe. It is located at the edge of the "Yugra" national park. Land-art objects are integrated into the natural beauty of the landscapes. The place is wonderful to spend a whole day gathering around and wondering about the imagination of its creators!