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Summerfolk: A History of the Dacha, 1710-2000.

Summerfolk: A History of the Dacha, 1710-2000. By Stephen Lovell (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. xv plus 260 pp. Maps. Illustrations $29.95).

In the late summer of 1989, I was invited for the weekend to a friend's family's dacha in Zhukovka, a pretty village less than an hour's drive west of Moscow. The dacha was a modest two-story wooden house, with a small overgrown garden in which we drank tea, ate home-made black currant preserves, and lounged about discussing the turbulent political events of that spring and summer. When my friend gave me a tour of the village, I was surprised to learn that the owners of the neighboring dachas included Brezhnev's daugher Galina as well as Andrei Sakharov and Mstislav Rostropovich. Stalin's daughter Svetlana Allilueva was a former resident of the elite dacha settlement. Sakharov had only recently ended his internal exile in Gorky, while Rostropovich had emigrated to the United States years before, but their dachas had remained in their families' hands even though both were prominent critics of the Soviet regime. Discussing this seeming paradox with my friend, I realized that the dacha was more than a summer cottage; it was a uniquely private space where Russians of starkly opposing political views could apparently live side by side in cozy domesticity, far from the codes that governed everyday life.

Stephen Lovell's Summerfolk is an elegant analysis of the cultural meanings and social practices that have shaped the dacha's history over almost three hundred years, from its aristocratic origins in the eighteenth century to its latest nouveau riche incarnation in post-Soviet Russia. One of the few Russian words to have entered the vocabulary of other languages, dacha originally meant a parcel of land given by the tsar to his aristocratic servitors. The history of the modern dacha began with Peter the Great, who gave suburban tracts of land to nobles along the road leading from St. Petersburg to his summer palace at Peterhof and ordered them to construct palatial country residences. By the mid-eighteenth century a row of imposing residences and gardens lined the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland, where noble families and courtiers organized lavish entertainments in an environment "associated with a rejection of the status distinctions that underpinned social contacts in the city and at court."

Toward the end of the eighteenth century a new and less aristorcratic entertainment culture had emerged, one focused on more casual social interaction centered on small groups of family and friends. Large public spectacles were no longer centered on the dachas, but took place in the more anonymous settings of public parks and pleasure gardens, and Dacha owners and even peasants began to rent out smaller houses and even rooms to civil servants, shopkeepers, and craftsmen. By the early nineteenth century, renting a summer house had become "a universal aspiration for well-to-do sections of Petersburg society."

The opening in 1837 of a suburban railway line from St. Petersburg to Pavlovsk marked the beginning of the transformation of the dacha into an amenity to which broader sections of middle-class society could aspire. By the mid-nineteenth century there was a thriving rental market for dachas, giving rise to a new cultural type, the "dachnik". Dachniki, or summerfolk, came to be associated with a distinctive lifestyle centered on leisure and domesticity. Identified not by their professional or social status, but by their leisure pursuits, they were often the objects of derision in the press, which made fun of their supposedly banal pastimes. Lovell, however, shows how by the late-nineteenth century the dacha became the setting for the creation of a "cultivated 'middle-class' lifestyle" that eroded the boundaries between the commercial and cultural elites, arguing that the dacha was "one of the defining attributes of the late imperial middle class."

The revolutions of 1917 transformed the dacha, which became in the Soviet period a dispensation offered by the state to political and cultural elites, although some private owners did succeed in holding on to their property. Indeed, the dacha was one of the only forms of immovable private property that Soviet citizens were allowed. Under Stalin, the state built exclusive dacha settlements such as Peredelkino and Zhuvkovka as a reward for loyal service, restoring the original meaning of dacha as something that was granted by the state and could be easily taken away. After Stalin's death, a new form of dacha appeared, the small wooden structure or even shed on a suburban allotment to which urban dwellers repaired during the summer months to grow vegetables to supplement the scarce provisions available in the shops. Although the authorities were ambivalent about encouraging this form of private property, and issued regulations limiting the size of dachas and the rental owners could charge, they nonetheless encouraged the production of foodstuffs on allotment plots and the building of dachas to alleviate the perennial housing shortage. In the 1970s, it was estimated that one-quarter of the population of Moscow and Leningrad owned or rented a dacha, which had become an important symbol of status and self-sufficiency.

Since 1991 the dacha has been increasingly associated with the development of a suburban zone around Moscow and St. Petersburg, where new brick "cottages" built by Russia's new middle class now rub shoulders with traditional wooden summer houses and allotment shacks. Despite the publicity accorded to the luxurious and sometimes garish dachas constructed by "New Russians," most of the new dachas are relatively modest affairs, often constructed by their owners themselves. Contemporary dacha settlements, according to Lovell, can be seen variously as "a symptom of the provincialization of city life," "evidence of the peasantization of Russia's 'middle class'," or "a form of shanty exurbanization."

A strength of Lovett's book is his skilful use of a wide range of sources to demonstrate the extent to which the dacha has been defined by the ways in which its inhabitants have used it. His interpretation of literary texts and memoirs, especially those from the nineteenth century, is masterful. Lovett convincingly shows how the dacha has been a vital component of the Russian middle-class sensibility, overlaid with social and cultural myths of an essential Russianness associated with nature and hospitality, but I would have liked more detail about the lives and mentalites of the dachniki and the peasants who profited by renting to them during the late imperial dacha boom. While I agree with Lovett that "if the tag 'middle-class' refers to anyone in Russia, it is to the dachnik," he could engage more explicitly with contemporary debates about the defining characteristics of the Russian middle class. This book certainly contributes to an understanding of a middle-class identity that, however fragile, has been expressed by social and cultural rather than political behavior. A stronger comparative framework that relates the discussion to the concept of the dachnik in central and western Europe might make what is distinctively Russian about the dacha phenomenon clearer. Claude Miller's recent film La petite Lili, for example, transfers the country house setting of Chekhov's The Seagull to France without difficulty. Nonetheless, Summerfolk is a fascinating book and a pleasure to read. Lovett has succeeded in giving us both a history of the dacha and a sensitive, nuanced exploration of its meanings in Russian and Soviet society. It is essential reading for anyone interested in Russian culture.

Anthony Swift

University of Essex
COPYRIGHT 2004 Journal of Social History
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Author:Swift, Anthony
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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