Russia's dacha gardens feed body and soul
Summer retreats provide not only solace but lots of produce – and even more of it now, amid economic hard times.
Lydia Kolbetskaya's tiny farm is a tangle of green shoots, creepers, and bushes. She walks among the plants, proudly naming each one.Skip to next paragraph
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"Here are strawberries, there tomatoes, cabbages, cucumbers, garlic...."
The foliage sprawls across her marshy one-acre homestead in this dacha village about 100 miles east of Moscow. Tendrils and leaves crowd against the walls of the little cottage.
The former Moscow defense-plant worker built the dacha from scraps of wood and castoff construction materials after acquiring the place about 15 years ago. Last year, she began work on a greenhouse, where she plans to grow eggplants, grapes, and peppers.
Ms. Kolbetskaya, a pensioner, spends every summer here. Though she says she loves gardening, it's more than just a hobby: She lives on what she coaxes from the reluctant, soggy soil. The produce also helps feed her daughter's family.
"I have to do everything myself, with my own hands," she says. "Sometimes it's hard, but there's no point in complaining. No one will listen anyhow."
Russians have been feeding themselves in this way for a thousand years and, despite the mass urbanization and industrialization of the past century, it's astounding how many still migrate out to their country retreats each summer, lugging shovels, hoes, and other gardening tools (along with kids and babushkas) in their overloaded cars. According to a 2008 survey by the independent Public Opinion Fund in Moscow, a stunning 56 percent of urban Russians possess a dacha or rural "kitchen garden," and one-quarter of all Russian families still rely on home-grown fruits and vegetables for part of what they eat.
Those figures may be more pronounced this year, as a fresh economic crisis sweeps over the country. At least 3 million Russians have lost their jobs since last September, bringing the unemployment rate to above 10 percent. Consumer spending has also plunged.
History suggests that, in times of hardship, Russians take their gardening much more seriously. Amid the crushing post-Soviet collapse almost two decades ago, private garden plots may have saved many families from hunger. Though statistics are hard to come by, an early 1990s study cited by social geographer Sergei Artobolevsky found that 60 percent of the food consumed by residents of two typical small cities, Oryol and Gagarin, originated from dacha and kitchen gardens.
Mr. Artobolevsky says that the relative prosperity of the past decade – known as the "Putin era" – enabled many city dwellers to begin taking vacations abroad and use their dachas more for weekend relaxation. Around bustling centers like Moscow, the once-ubiquitous potato patches virtually disappeared. And in dacha gardens, vegetables gave way to flowers and other decorative plants.
"People began to believe in the wage and consumer economy," he says. "But now, this process has slowed, and no one can say when the crisis will finish."