5. Disappearing Dachniki

From: Dacha Idylls

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101 One intriguing trend within Russia’s natural foods movement is that of “peasant food.” At relatively reasonable prices, brands such as “Little House in the Village” and “Beloved Garden” promise consumers who desire a taste of “the wild” not just healthy foods but also access to “tradition ” in the form of association with an authentic peasant lifestyle. Prepackaged foods, however, offer little more than a vicarious and imagined engagement with this rural lifestyle. For consumers who long for a more intimate and authentic experience, the peasant restaurant offers a more viscerally satisfying option. Although the fare offered by peasant restaurants generally resembles that available in other restaurants offering “Russian” food (e.g., vegetable-based soups, thick breads, meat-andpotato dishes, blinis, and pelmeni [meat-filled dumplings]), it is the overall experience that sets these peasant restaurants apart from their counterparts . Dining rooms decorated to resemble peasant farmhouses, complete with vintage farm implements, taxidermied farm animals, and bales of straw, as well as serving staff outfitted in pre-Soviet peasant uniforms offering dishes described as “peasant” or named for historically significant villages or figures from folklore, contribute to the illusion of an authentic chapter 5 Disappearing Dachniki Landscape myths and memories share two common characteristics : their surprising endurance through the centuries and their power to shape institutions that we still live with. —Simon Schama (1995:15) We [i.e., Russians] have a mindset [mentalitet], and it is extremely difficult to change it. —Konstantin, Nadezhda resident, reflecting on Russian nostalgia for dacha life 102 | Disappearing Dachniki rural dining experience. The fusion of sensory experiences and cultural values suggestively transports diners to another place and time, where the benefits of natural foods and the agrarian lifestyle are intimately accessible through the body.1 Even as peasant restaurants are among the latest fads in culinary entertainment in Russia, they are also entangled in far more pressing national concerns about the death of the Russian countryside. The disappearance of Russia’s villages and the waning of rural life more generally have concerned both Russians and their observers over the past century (see Ioffe and Nefedova 1998; Paxson 2005:39), but they have generated particular worry over the past decade as the effects of post-Soviet land and agricultural reforms have become increasingly visible in Russia’s countryside. Such fears are captured by ominous headlines and stories in Russian media: “Who will the forest protect?” (Mart’yanova 2005), “Who is saving the peasant?” (Kiseleva 2005), “The shadow of catastrophe looms over Tver’s forests” (Nesterova 2001), and, more starkly, “Death of the Russian Village” (Loginov 2005). Accounts in the popular press take on the quality of colonial expedition narratives about “lost tribes,” as reporters describe venturing into remote, seemingly deserted villages where they find the last remaining two or three elderly residents who continue to eke out an existence. A drive down any road outside a major city center reveals old wooden houses sinking into their own ruins. In light of images such as these, it is not surprising that Russians have reached the discomforting conclusion that Russia’s organic life is under attack and in danger of disappearing altogether. Such fears represent the latest chapter in a longer history of attacks on Russia’s villages and peasantry that was already underway in the second half of the nineteenth century with the push toward urbanization and industrialization.2 By the beginning of the twentieth century, such processes had relocated many rural residents to urban centers, prompting an early wave of village decay. As cities expanded outward over the course of the twentieth century, they encroached on, and eventually encompassed, rural spaces. In some cases, rural spaces were fully subsumed as small houses and farms were torn down and replaced with factories and apartment buildings. In other cases, the edges of cities such as Moscow contain hybrid zones in which massive apartment buildings bump up next to farms, forests, and grasslands. In still other cases, villages were contained, but not subsumed, by their urban oppressors, so that public access ways through small cities such as Tver meander between apartment buildings and tiny wooden cottages where residents keep chickens, goats, and other animals. Disappearing Dachniki | 103 Curiously, the urbanizing forces at work during the twentieth century were accompanied by a reprieve of sorts for the rural sector, although this reprieve itself reflected the state’s conflicted, oftentimes ambivalent, and always paradoxical relationship to rural spaces. On the one hand, the countryside...


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