The night before last my wife dropped a knife. Here in Russia, when cutlery is dropped, it means that a man or a woman will soon arrive…I can never remember which one. My wife had to again patiently explain that when a knife falls a man is on the way. I asked when the women are coming. She said I’d have to wait for a fork to drop.
It led me to think about other Russian expressions, of which there are many. When I talk to my friends in the business community these days here in Moscow we shake our heads and solemnly say, the knife is still falling. Too early to try and catch it, if you do, it might hurt. It’s another knife, not the kind that precedes men.
When times are not ideal, the thing to do is deal with it. Cope. Lately I’ve been coping with life in Russia by spending time at our dacha.
I’m an American from Seattle Washington who has been living in Russia for over 20 years. During most of that time I’ve been in the coffee business. I resisted getting a dacha thinking it’s a waste of money. I thought, if I need to go out into the woods I can rent something. In a moment of weakness I relented in 2012 and got one. Never looked back.
A dacha is many things. It’s a cabin, just like the American version and it should feel like one. It’s preferably in the countryside; the best location is out in the middle of nowhere in a dilapidated village. I like to think our village feels like authentic Russia, the one that existed throughout the centuries before Communism replaced it with heavy industry, grey high-rise apartment buildings and sprawling cities.
At the dacha, time stands still, vegetables grow, things get built. Everything is green unlike winter when it is not. The best dachas are made of wood, preferably logs. That said, dachas come in all shapes and sizes. A dacha can be whatever the owner wants it to be. A wood burning stove is best, preferably a big one made of brick that is difficult to light and stays warm all night after retaining the heat of the fire that burned during the day. The dacha needs a rickety table where big meals can be eaten under the open sky with friends until late in the night during the long summer months.
A proper dacha should have a big garden where someone is growing vegetables, green onions, dill and perhaps a few flowers. Our dacha has a big row of raspberry plants. We also have some strawberries. The best dachas are close to a swimming hole, usually a river. The road to the dacha is bad. When you go to your dacha, your four-wheel drive vehicle is finally used as it was designed.
A proper dacha has a neighbor who is cranky and doesn’t respect your privacy. To smooth things over it’s best to provide the neighbors with root vegetables. Inevitably you will get dill weed in return or if you are lucky, onions.
Everyone’s dacha is the best kind. Our main room is a log cabin and the walls inside it are rough and unpainted. We have a kitchen area that looks out over the raspberry bushes and a second floor that is home to no one. It takes several hours to heat up our massive brick stove and it has to be done correctly to create a draft by manipulating several flues at the front, side and top of it. If not done right, smoke billows out all over the place. Our furniture dates from 1992, a good year for kitchen tables and couches from Finland. We like it. In my view, our dacha is the finest one in the village. I’m sure my neighbors feel the same way about their dachas.
Every dacha has stuff lying around, often for years on end. We have a large pile of bricks in our yard that haven’t been moved for a couple of decades. It’s home to a big snake named Marcus. We have a lot of stuff in our outhouse that I do not throw away. You never know when something might go wrong, someone will invade, the Ruble will collapse. Our jumble of baling wire and old rusty tools might just come in handy someday. Any number of knives might fall.
Our dacha is well away from Moscow in a village called Svistunovo located sixty kilometers southwest of Tver. We drive about two and a half hours to the northwest of Moscow to get there. The drive is the best part. For the first 90 minutes or so the effects of Moscow can still be felt. The gas stations are the same as gas stations anywhere in the world. The early part of the drive is on a highway called the Nova Riga, or new Riga. It’s a highway, not unlike highways the world over. Over time we are on back roads, some of which are bumpy. Eventually the countryside changes and we are in a place that feels untouched by Moscow. There isn’t an ostentatious mansion in sight. Many of the cars are Ladas and Volgas, the kind made in the Soviet era. The land alternates between farms, run down small villages, dachas, small towns and as we get closer to our village, wilderness. Near the end of the drive we go through a game preserve. Some of the villages in the area look as if they are untouched by time for centuries.
Svistunovo is about a 15 minute drive from a small town called Staritsa. I’ll be writing more about Staritsa in future. Staritsa at its peak was an important trading town. It’s heyday has passed. Now it’s a small, Russian town with a population of about 10,000 souls about sixty kilometers south of Tver.
Our village has 40 small homes in it. About half of the homes are built in the traditional Russian style. It has some history. When the Nazis invaded Russia they spent some time in Svistunovo. One of the houses in our village was reportedly used by the Germans to live in; it’s run down these days and for sale. The other, recently built homes are dachas. The homes are built on one acre (500 m2 or 50 sotok per the Russian terminology for measuring land) plots of land. Each plot is shaped like a long rectangular. A road runs through the middle of the village, dividing the plots that run perpendicular to it on both sides. That’s how they lay out villages in Russia. The plots put the dachas close to one another so that the neighbors can get on each others nerves while they keep an eye on how the potatoes are coming along. We’re located about 100 meters from the Volga. Here the Volga is shallow at its headwaters and not the uber river it becomes further south. We can go down and jump in a swimming hole when it gets hot. It has fish, something the locals catch in abundance. Mostly, in my case, they get away.
These days Svistunovo is cold and covered with snow. Four or five of the homes in the village are occupied year round, otherwise the village is empty. It’s as quiet as the top of a mountain. Nevertheless, there are faint signs of spring on the horizon. The sun goes down at about 6 pm, a relief after the dead of winter when it gets dark at 3 in the afternoon. Certain kinds of birds are appearing and can be heard singing. Back in the cities, people are planting tomato plants indoors and putting them on their windowsills. They are making plans to do some construction, somehow, the crisis be damned. The country is getting geared up for another dacha season. I’m getting itchy feet. The time is coming to put in another season — at the dacha.
23 February 2016