Dacha is a Russian word for seasonal or year-round second homes located in the exurbs of Soviet and Russian cities. In some cases it is occupied part of the year by its owner or rented out to urban residents as a summer retreat. Dachas are very common in Russia, and are also widespread in some other former republics of the Soviet Union.
As the size and type of dacha buildings was severely restricted during the Soviet time, some permitted features, such as attics and glazed verandahs, became extremely widespread and often oversized. In 1963–1985 the limitations were especially severe; construction of single-family dwellings in cities and exurbs were banned in the Soviet Union altogether, and only single-story summer houses without permanent heating with floor area less than 25 m² were allowed as dachas (though older dachas which didn't meet these requirements continued to exist). Since 1990 all such limitations have been eliminated. It is estimated that about a quarter of families living in large cities have dachas.
Anyone who occupies a dacha for the time being is called dachnik (дачник).
During the Age of Enlightenment, Russian aristocracy used their dachas for social and cultural gatherings, which were usually accompanied by masquerade balls and fireworks displays. The Industrial Revolution saw a rapid growth of the urban population and increasing desire of the urban residents to escape, at least temporarily, heavily polluted cities. By the end of the 19th century, the dacha became a favorite summer retreat for the upper and middle classes of the Russian society.
After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, most dachas were nationalized. Some were converted into vacation homes for the working class, while others, usually of better quality, were distributed among the prominent functionaries of the Communist Party and the newly emerged cultural and scientific elite. All but a few dachas remained the property of the state and the right to use them was usually revoked when a dacha occupant was dismissed or fell out of favor with the rulers of the state. Joseph Stalin's favourite Dacha was in Gagra, Abkhazia. The construction of new dachas was restricted until late 1940s and required a special approval of the Communist Party leadership.
The period after World War II saw a moderate growth in dacha development. Since there was no actual law banning the construction of dachas, squatters began occupying unused plots of land near cities and towns, some building sheds, huts and more prominent dwellings that served as dachas. This practice of squatting was spurred by the desire of urban dwellers, all living in multi-story apartment buildings, to spend some time close to nature, and also to grow their own fruits and vegetables. The latter reason was caused by the failure of the centrally planned Soviet agricultural program to supply enough fresh produce. As time passed, the number of squatters has grown geometrically and the government had no choice but to officially recognize their right to do amateur farming. The 1955 legislation introduced a new type of legal entity into the Soviet juridical system, a so-called gardeners' partnership (садоводческое товарищество; not to be confused with community garden). The gardeners' partnerships received a right to permanent use of land exclusively for agricultural purposes and a permission to connect to public electrical and water supply networks. In 1958 yet another form of organization was introduced, a cooperative for dacha construction (DSK) (дачно-строительный кооператив), which recognized the right of an individual to build a small house on the land leased from the government.
The 1980s saw the peak of the dacha boom with virtually every affluent family in the country having a dacha of their own or spending weekends and holidays at friends' dachas. Often being ill-equipped and having no indoor plumbing, dachas were nevertheless the ultimate solution for the millions of working class families to having an inexpensive summer retreat. Having a piece of land also offered an opportunity for the city dwellers to indulge themselves in growing their own fruits and vegetables. To this day, May Day holidays remain a feature of Russian life allowing urban residents a long weekend to plant seeds and tender fruit trees as the ground defrosts from a long Russian winter. Since there are no other national holidays that are long enough for planting, many employers give their staff an extra day off specifically for that purpose.
The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union saw the return to private landownership. Most dachas have since been privatized and Russia is now the nation with the largest number of owners of second homes. The growth of living standards in recent years allowed many dacha owners to spend their discretionary income on improvements. Thus, many recently built dachas are fully equipped houses suitable for use as permanent residences. The market-oriented economy transformed dacha into an asset, which generally reflects the prosperity of its owner and can be freely traded in the real estate market.
Due to the rapid increase in urbanization in Russia, many village houses are currently being sold to be used as dachas. Many Russian villages now have temporary residents, dachnikis. Some villages have been fully transformed into dacha settlements, while some older dacha settlements often look like more permanent lodging. The advantages of purchasing a dacha in a village usually are: lower costs, greater land area, and larger distance between houses. The disadvantages may include: lower-quality utilities, less security, and typically a farther distance to travel.
Many small dacha plots, especially the ones that were recently purchased, are not used for large-scale fruit and vegetable farming. Instead, they are frequently used for gardening and planting exotic plants.
Due to the high costs of good equipment, even relatively large plots of ground are often cultivated manually using instruments such as a spade or a spading fork. In autumn the grown potatoes and other crops are gathered and transported to the city where they are stored in cellars, dugouts (usually located on unused plots of ground), or in personal automobile garages.
Many Russians prefer to grow vegetables themselves because of the excessive use of agrochemicals in the store-bought vegetables, and the higher costs of the vegetables in the stores and bazaars. Also, growing one's own food supplies is a long-lived Russian tradition. Even some affluent Russians practice that tradition.
The most common dacha fruits in cool temperate regions of Russia are apple, blackcurrant, redcurrant, gooseberry, raspberry and strawberry (sometimes also sour cherry, downy cherry, plum, pear, sea-buckthorn, Actinidia kolomikta, black chokeberry, serviceberry, sweetberry honeysuckle, blackberry and grape, but many of them are either rare or not hardy enough and require winter protection). Popular vegetables and herbs are potato, cucumber, zucchini, pumpkin, tomato, carrot, beetroot, cabbage, cauliflower, radish, turnip, onion, garlic, dill, parsley, rhubarb and sorrel.
The means of transportation for people to get to their dachas, besides cars, are "water trams", buses and electric trains, colloquially called "elektrichka" (Russian, sing.: электри́чка). Due to the high number of people traveling to dachas during the weekends (especially during the summer), traffic typically builds up around cities, and elektrichkas and buses become filled up. However, this is only the case near large cities. Around smaller cities, these problems are nearly non-existent.
With construction costs often reaching into the millions of US dollars, the dachas of the country's elite bear no resemblance to Soviet-era small garden houses. Most dachas of the elite are constructed with brick and concrete, unlike the middle-class dachas that are mostly constructed with wood. Comparable in size and décor to mansions and palaces, they become an elaborate display of social status, wealth and power. These new symbols of prosperity are designed by professional architects, usually in eclectic style that reflect the nouveau-riche tastes of their owners, and feature numerous luxury items such as marble statues, fountains and exotic plants. Some have state-of-the-art sporting facilities such as an indoor swimming pool, multiple tennis courts and stables for race horses. A few privately owned estates even have small forests and ponds.
Many of Russia's oligarchs and successful entrepreneurs, athletes, pop musicians and mafia bosses now choose dacha as their primary residence. As such, their estates are often surrounded by solid fences equipped with barbed wire, surveillance cameras, and/or motion detectors and are sometimes even protected by heavily armed guards.