The Dacha Is Russia's Summer Cure For Urban Life The dacha — a Russian summer home that can be anything from a shack to an oligarch's faux chateau — is both an escape from the city and a state of mind that permeates the country's life and culture.

The Dacha Is Russia's Summer Cure For Urban Life

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

NPR's International Desk is taking us to some captivating places we might long to visit in this time of restricted travel - today a Russian institution, the dacha. Now, the word means summer house, but Russians will tell you a dacha is much more than just an escape from the city. Life at the dacha is a state of mind. Reporting from - where else? - his in-laws' dacha 80 miles from Moscow, here's NPR's Lucian Kim.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SINGING)

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: It's just after 3:30 in the morning, and the eastern horizon is already all pink. The rest of the sky is a pale blue. In just a couple of more minutes, the northern sun will come rising over the tree line in the distance. Summer days are long in Russia, but the summer itself is short, and every living being takes advantage of the warm weather.

LEO: (Crying).

KIM: That includes my 15-month-old son Leo, who's trying to get his parents' attention from the next room.

SVETLANA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Good morning, sunshine.

LEO: (Vocalizing).

KIM: It's still early, so we take Leo into our bed. But he has a noisy toy that reminds us of the city life we've been trying to forget.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOY SPUTTERING)

KIM: Before long, everyone else is also up.

(SOUNDBITE OF COFFEE BEANS GRINDING)

KIM: And my father-in-law Alexander is going for the ritual of brewing coffee on the portable gas stove in the dacha's tiny kitchen.

(SOUNDBITE OF STOVE BURNING)

KIM: Breakfast consists of cereal, fresh berries and thick slabs of bread with cheese.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNIFE SAWING)

TATYANA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: My mother-in-law Tatyana built the dacha in 1992, the year after the Soviet Union collapsed. It's a little cottage with vinyl siding with two rooms on the bottom and one room on top.

TATYANA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: At first we lived without electricity, she says. At night, we sat around a kerosene lamp and played Monopoly. The half-acre property is one of half a dozen at the end of an overgrown path on land that once belonged to a state-owned farm.

TATYANA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: The dacha used to be surrounded by wheat and oat fields, she says. We spent our days in the woods, gathering berries and mushrooms. Now there's a garden and lawn to take care of, and the drive from Moscow can take up to four hours depending on traffic. Tatyana has often thought about selling the dacha, but she just can't let go of it.

TATYANA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Here all those city problems just disappear, she says, and the wilderness clears your mind. Most Russians live in cities, which empty out during the summer as people seek freedom from their stuffy apartments and the chance to reconnect with the Russian countryside. Nowadays, a dacha can refer to any country house from a two-room shack to an oligarch's imitation French chateau. But most dachas are very simple. Since there's no running water at our dacha, the call of nature is answered in the outhouse, and we carry all our water from the well.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING)

KIM: There's always something to do at the dacha, and it's that existential physical activity that stressed-out city dwellers crave.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOOD CLATTERING)

KIM: I meet Andrei Kuznetsov, who's piling up firewood in the nearby village. During the pandemic, he lost his job as a manager in Moscow. Now he has the time to spend his days fixing up his parents' quaint, old house with intricate woodwork around the windows.

ANDREI KUZNETSOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Country living, he says, is 80% hard work and 20% romantic lifestyle. Andrei and his family have a large vegetable garden, chickens and five goats.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOAT BLEATING)

KUZNETSOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: We also have fun, he says, like when we go swimming.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

KIM: Russian summers can be hot, and at a nearby lake, I meet a family cooling off.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Marina Sadova, a doctor in Moscow, is spending a month at her dacha with her two daughters.

MARINA SADOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: You can't compare it to anything, she says. You fall asleep in nature and wake up in nature and sleep a lot better than in the city.

SADOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Marina says she doesn't need to go all the way to a resort in Turkey or Egypt just to swim in a pool.

LEO: (Laughter).

KIM: Back at our dacha, baby Leo is playing with one of the dogs on the lawn.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRASS CRINKLING)

KIM: When the sun goes down a little, we head into the woods to look for blueberries.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SLOSHING)

KIM: The path takes us through a swamp, and the whole way, we're attacked by swarms of bloodthirsty flies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLIES HUMMING)

SVETLANA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: We decide there are more flies than berries and return to the dacha.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAWNMOWER BUZZING)

KIM: Next door, our neighbor Galina is mowing her lawn. She's an old family friend, and we go visit her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWING SET CLINKING)

KIM: My wife Svetlana sits with the baby on the same swing set where she once played as a girl. Galina, now a grandmother, remembers when her children were young.

GALINA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Our kids put on shows right here, she says. They'd hang up curtains on the swing set, make their own costumes and hand out tickets to the villagers. Now a new generation has returned to those swings.

LEO: (Speaking Russian).

SVETLANA: (Speaking Russian).

LEO: (Vocalizing).

KIM: Pretty soon, it's bedtime for Leo.

(Speaking Russian).

GALINA: (Speaking Russian).

SVETLANA: (Speaking Russian).

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

KIM: Back at the dacha, I mix some water in a plastic tub, and in goes the baby for his bath.

SVETLANA: (Speaking Russian).

LEO: (Vocalizing).

KIM: Outside, Alexander is preparing shashlik, Russian for barbecue.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATCH STRIKING)

KIM: Soon, it's time to put chicken, sausages and eggplants on the grill.

TATYANA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Finally, dinner is ready.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAN OPENING)

KIM: It's time for a toast.

(Speaking Russian).

TATYANA: (Speaking Russian).

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASSES CLINKING)

KIM: After dinner, I go outside one last time. It's past midnight, and the northern summer sky is now more or less dark. Nighttime at the dacha is amazing. You don't hear any of the sounds of the city - no cars, no motorcycles, just the whirring of hundreds and thousands and millions of insects in this field behind me.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSECTS DRONING)

KIM: It's time to hit the hay. In just a few hours, the sun and our baby will be up again. Lucien Kim, NPR News in Yaroslavl Region, Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIDOWSPEAK SONG, "NARROWS")

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