“Dachas and ‘Real Russians’”
In any story about Russia, or Russians, the word ‘dacha’ will appear. The Russian Dacha is an important article in their life, not only a ‘summer cottage’ as we might call it, but sometimes their main source of vegetables and food to put away for the winter.
The use of dachas in Russian culture dates back over 400 years. The word dacha comes from the davat, which means ‘to give’. Initially, these were small plots of land given by a Russian Tsar throughout the 1600’s. This practice continued through Peter the Great’s rule, into the 1700’s and 1800’s when the dacha became almost a status symbol, a place where the middle or upper class could hold parties and provide elaborate entertainment. This changed during the first world war, the Bolshevik revolution and then the second world war, when many lost their dachas. During the Soviet rule, supply shortages forced many Russian to grow their own vegetables, and supply their own winter supplies, so the dacha took on a whole new importance. As long as they did not become their permanent residence, people were allowed to keep their plot of land for their own use. This resulted in many areas developing an entire community of dachas, or ‘dacha settlements’. Some estimates number over 60 million Russians now own dachas. Recent rules have changed to allow larger plots of land. The dachas we visited were located in the country, mainly grouped together in a small collection or community where all residents knew their neighbours and in many cases supported each other when needed. The style and complexity of the buildings vary widely, from small one room storage sheds to elaborate houses like Tanya and Tolik’s. Because of his profession and carpentry skills, Tolik had built a beautiful house from supplies and materials he had scrounged and salvaged throughout the years.
When they told us we were heading out to the dacha for the weekend, we packed an overnight bag and waited with excitement. During our visit to Russia, we were at the dacha a couple of times, and enjoyed visits to some of their neighbours as well.
As Tolik was not only an engineer, but a clever builder, their dacha was a work of art! They showed us the earlier versions of the buildings, some of which have been re-purposed into kitchen and dining areas, and even a ‘banya’, a Russian sauna room for their enjoyment. We never tried it when we were there, but I know the banya is an important part of Russian culture, almost as old as Russian itself.
During our visits, we usually had our social gatherings and meals in one of the buildings on the site. The rest of the land was taken by gardens, both for flowers and especially vegetables. Tanya had hundreds of beautiful flowers growing all over the site. This is where I enjoyed cucumbers and ‘real’ tomatoes, as well as many other fresh vegetables. These tomatoes were grown in real ‘dirt’, not hydroponic gardens of the greenhouses that produce the tasteless, ‘plastic’ tomatoes we buy in our local supermarkets. Needless to say, we enjoyed many meals of fresh vegetables right out of the garden.
An interesting anecdote about this: Tanya had many ‘scarlet runner’ beans growing all over, climbing fences, poles or buildings, all with bright red flowers. Many had the beans already formed and we asked if they ate the beans. “Oh no, you can’t eat them, we just save the seeds to plant next year, for the flowers”.
We were surprised at this answer and proceeded to pick a bunch for dinner. They were past their prime, a little tough, but we proved our point. I don’t know if they ever continued to eat the beans. I must ask them.
Another incident that came to mind when I mentioned the ‘permit to take photos’ request in the last story. One day when we were downtown St. Pete, we were crossing a busy thoroughfare through an underground tunnel that crossed from one side of the street to the other. I was in the process of taking a photo of this when a policeman confronted us boldly and demanded a few roubles, for a ‘photo permit’. I wasn’t going to argue and almost reached in to pull out some money, when Ira stepped up and addressed the policeman in a firm but polite voice. In Russian, she agreed that I would pay, as long as he could provide me with a receipt. The man stammered a bit and then quickly dismissed us. I thanked Ira, she was as tough as her mother when dealing with bureaucracy. We laughed about this incident many times later.
One day we visited Victoria, a wonderful woman who was a second generation woman doctor, and good friend of Tanya. She was the Gatchina’s main OB-GYN doctor. Victoria was also the mother of our friend Julia in Vancouver, the woman married to the young physicist whom we had met earlier.
Victoria had a small ground floor apartment, very modest and definitely not appropriate for a professional woman of her stature. After a short visit, Victoria took us all out for lunch at yet another beautiful and very different restaurant. It was called ‘Tracteer’ (ТРАКТИР), which was the name for a roadhouse on the old horse/coach roads to and from St. Petersburg. The outside of the restaurant was quite plain, but when we entered, the entire place was wood, carved logos and fancy work. A beautiful interior, and that was just the cafe part. As we went in further, it was decorated much like many of the palaces we had visited, very formal decor, paintings, and formal table settings. We felt quite special. We all had what was called ‘Village Meat’, a cutlet with egg, mushrooms in a bun. Delicious!
After our visit and meal at the restaurant, we headed out to Tanya and Tolik’s dacha again. They wanted to water all the plants. We couldn’t help much, so we had a nap! Later, we had tea and they cut up a large melon that they called a ‘torpedo’, from Uzbekistan.
As we were returning from the dacha, we stopped at one of their neighbour’s dacha for some jam and veggies. This was Valentina Petrovna and her husband Vladimir Petrovich. A wonderful couple, full of vigour and very loving. Vladimir was a very strong man, always jovial and always concerned with how we were finding Russia, and always wanting to share his homemade vodka which he made in a little ‘still’ he had in his flat in Pushkin.
It might be a good time to explain a little about the ‘patronymic’ system of names they use in Russia and in many other countries, in one form or another. Vladimir Petrovich – Tanya and Tolik always just called him Petrovich, which means ’’son of Peter”. Valentina Petrovna means daughter of Peter. Similarly, Tanya’s full name was Tatiana Bondarenko Petrovna. As I write this, I am thinking this Peter must have had a lot of sons and daughters. Peter, of course is a common name in Russia, after Peter the Great I suspect. In other countries you find ‘vich’ used to denote this link, or ‘son’ or ‘sen’, like in Johnson, or Petersen.
It was close to our last day in Russia when we visited St. Petersburg to the biggest department store I have ever seen, ГОСТИНЫЙ ДВОР, or Gostiny Dvor. Originally, this meant ‘Guest’s Court’, and consisted of over 178 different shops, but had slowly changed and grown into a large shopping mall of almost 165,000 square feet of trading space, built between 1757 and 1785. It was severely damaged during the 900 day siege of Leningrad, but is slowly being renovated to it’s original glory.
The place was huge, and of course we did not spend a lot of time there because of our limited mobility.
Just a quick note: St. Petersburg has gone through many name changes. From Petrograd to Leningrad during the revolution (Lenin), then St. Petersburg recently. The province or district is still called ‘Leningradskaya Oblast’, or Leningrad District.
Prior to coming to Russia, Tanya would ask us “what would you like to see, is there anything special?” The only thing we wanted to see was some folk music and dance performance. We love folk music from all countries, music and dance that expresses the life and nature of a culture.
So, Tanya, true to her dynamic organizing abilities, had booked us for a performance of “Feel yourself Russian” a fantastic presentation of singing, dancing and incredible acrobatic displays. The venue was gorgeous, the Nikolayevsky Palace, (О Николаевском дворце) one of the many palaces of Grand Duke Nikolay Romanov. What an evening! Beginning with some Russian singers with beautiful voices, then joined by dance groups, acrobatic performances, and other folk displays. During the intermission, we wandered around in the grand foyer, while they served champagne, caviar and vodka to the guests. What an evening! Something very special we will remember for a long time!
Another event I must tell about. One day, while Tanya and I were shopping in Gatchina for a new coffee maker at a local appliance store, a young boy, about 8 –10 years old, started talking with Tanya, wondering who we were. The boy was from a village some distance away, and was visiting his grandmother in Gatchina. Tanya explained to the boy we were from Canada. The boy was surprised that Tanya could speak both English and Russian, and had actually visited Canada. He said he was going to start to learn English at school that September. Tanya told him to learn English and he could travel anywhere in the world! I removed my Canada/Russia friendship lapel pin and gave it to him. Tanya pinned it on his shirt. Now he had a ‘medal’ to prove he had talked to someone from Canada! Any time I recall this incident, I think we changed that little boy’s life, probably sent him in a direction that could change the rest of his life. I only wish we had got his name and where he lived, so we could check on him from time to time.
We finally came to our last day in Russia, which involved lots of tears and sad good-byes. We had all grown much closer during our visits, both in Canada and now in Russia. I have missed so much in telling this story, because there was so much more to tell.
I must repeat part of a ‘speech’ I made at the dacha one time, when we were asked how we liked Russia. At that time, we had met Valentina Petrovna and Vladimir Petrovich, two lovely people, good friends of Tanya and Tolik. They were truly concerned with how we found Russia, how we liked or disliked it. I tried to tell them all (some through Tanya’s translation) just how lucky we felt, to be able to meet and associate with ‘Real Russians’, and see the ‘Real Russia’. I tried to explain that most tourists might arrive either with a tour bus group, or maybe by cruise ship dropped off at the dock near the Hermitage. They might see a few pieces of art, paintings or statues in the Hermitage, or get driven around for a quick meal in a restaurant. All this might take place within a few hours, during which time they never really meet or talk with any Russians, just tour guides or translators. In contrast, we were very privileged and felt honoured to be able to live with Russians, visit their dacha, meet their friends, and eat and drink with them. We were very happy and pleased with our experience so far.
They drove us out to the airport and we sadly said our goodbyes as we headed back into the Russian bureaucracy to try to leave the country. We were glad we still had our correct papers to exit the country, as it still took a long time to work our way through the airport to find our Lufthansa gate to fly us to Frankfurt, the first step on our journey home.
We continue to correspond with the Bondarenkos, as Irina keeps the letters and emails flowing, now with many photos of her two sons, Leonid and Mark. Sasha has a new wife and two lovely daughters, Esenia and Emilia. Ira and Sergei have a new dacha, out in the country near a river. It is a beautiful location, and they have built a sturdy log house. Unfortunately, it is about 300 kilometres from Gatchina, so access to it is not easy. Tolik is retired, but I am sure he is kept busy by his family, especially all those grandkids! I hate to end this series on a sad note, but unfortunately we lost Tanya a few years ago, a long battle with the dreaded cancer. We will always remember Tanya as this wonderful, happy person with the ability to cheer everyone up. Thank you so much to the entire Bondarenko family for such a wonderful friendship, exciting adventures, and lasting memories.
TATIANA BONDARENKO PETROVNA
Sadly, we lost Tanya a few years ago. She will always remain in our memory as a vivacious lovely person, so easy to love!
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