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21 November 2018

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Dacha Idylls

by Melissa L. Caldwell (University of California Press)

Anthropologist Melissa Caldwell admits to having had a hard time convincing professional colleagues that it was "field work" to follow Russians to their dachas, relax with them in the banya, drink tea on the porch and hunt for mushrooms and berries. But, the reality, she says, is that there is no rest at the dacha. It is all work, but an exhilarating, rejuvenating work, and one that is central to Russians' sense of self, community, leisure and nature.

"Dacha life, and the natural settings and qualities with which it is linked, are both microcosms of and conduits for fundamental issues in today's Russia: the politics of national identity and nationalism, the transition to capitalism, projects of social transformation, and the legacies of socialism, among others."

Most of Caldwell's fieldwork focuses on a dacha community outside Tver. And she explores the full range of issues related to dachniki and dacha life, from historical perspectives to defining true dachniki, to the wave of dacha gentrification, to the masochism of banyas, to the peculiary Russian approach to regulations and freedom, to the hilarious irrationality of food beliefs:

"Russians describe local soil as being packed with unique nutrients that give Russian food a taste that is not only distinctive but also preferred by Russians. A university student argued that Russian taste buds preferred foods grown in Russian soil."

This is a very personal, up-close portrait of dacha life that should not be missed by any lover of Russian culture. And it is hard not to take away from it, in agreement with Caldwell, how central dacha life (and nostalgia for it) is to Russian culture. Indeed, Caldwell shows that dacha life is the most outward manifestation of that "deep, abiding, even spiritual appreciation of nature" which is "a fundamental quality of Russianess itself."

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Mar/Apr 2011