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Putting the Dacha in Its Place
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“Dacha” remains one of the few Russian words that has been adopted into international vocabularies because, more than simply a place, it is a phenomenon that defies translation. Citizens of many countries enjoy vacation houses and summer retreats, but the dacha made itself integral to Russian life and culture. The gradual process by which this came about began with Peter the Great’s “giving” (“dacha” derives from the Russian verb “to give,” dat´) parcels of land to his courtiers along the road from his imperial capital to his exurban residence at Peterhof, commanding them to build summer palaces and therefore live “in the European manner.” What began as a token of elite status evolved together with broader changes in society and culture, and the dacha gained heft as a symbol that could be used to mark historical change. Literary luminaries have long referenced it accordingly, from Aleksandr Pushkin’s romanticism to Anton Chekhov’s pragmatism. In the past two decades, historians and other scholars of the humanities who took the “cultural turn” have turned their gaze to the dacha and prompted readers to see it anew, from its architecture to its function as a social space. In this original and stimulating new study, Ol´ga Malinova-Tziafeta argues successfully that in the evolution of dacha space around St. Petersburg, we can map a variety of social, political, and cultural practices that were mediated by the multivalent dacha phenomenon. Less about the dacha itself than about the city whose residents depended on it, this book uses as its central category of analysis people’s ambitions for what the space could achieve. This exploration is further distinguished by its theoretical sophistication and the author’s novel attention to underexplored sources.

Malinova-Tziafeta has wisely put temporal and spatial boundaries around her subject, though even the “1860” in her title is predated in her first chapter with an insightful discussion of the legalities of the land parcels, beginning early in the 18th century. This analysis is particularly useful because it historicizes the peculiarities of the permeable line between public and private in Russian landownership, an inconsistency that has implications for other relations between state and society. The essence of her study begins in 1870, a decade into the reform era launched by Tsar Alexander II, as Russians were actively adapting to the changes that the “great emancipator” had inaugurated. The author focuses on the rising “middle class,” a term that she accepts as variable: “representatives of various social groups, standing on a social ladder between the highest aristocracy and urban poverty” (17). These are the people who in the subsequent four chapters turn into the summerfolk who stake their claims to “dacha country” (dachnye mestnosti) (26). As the author points out, published dictionaries could not keep pace with changes in perceptions and uses of the dacha (46).

A chapter on the etymology of the dacha is followed by one on the role of the dacha in public debates about the decline of public health in St. Petersburg, prompted by the crush from urbanization that had resulted from industrialization; the function of the dacha became to relieve this pressure. Malinova-Tziafeta substantively rewrites a familiar narrative by introducing new characters. No longer are one-dimensional home-owning members of the city duma refusing to tax themselves to spend money on a decent sewage system; rather, they are organizing committees to travel and observe some of the failures of the London and Paris sewers to keep from repeating mistakes made in Western capitals. Medical health professionals, battling the infectious diseases that stalked the city’s residents, clamored for improved hygiene but often found themselves at odds with the professional engineers designing the systems. Although it is difficult to imagine Russia’s city fathers “paralyzed by perfectionism” (142) in their desire to improve plumbing, they were hardly tone deaf to public demands. Throughout, Malinova-Tziafeta emphasizes the importance of the public sphere, especially the “boulevard” press, to airing concerns. Newspaper readers could grasp the importance of microbes in producing the vile smells that could keep windows shuttered even in summer. In sum, the winner of these public debates was the dacha, which surfaced as the necessary...

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