Letter from Orlino, August 2019

For the past several years, it has become a tradition for my wife and me to spend at least a month of summer at a house in the country south of St Petersburg. We settle down to a regimen of heavy gardening on a 1400 square meter property administratively designated for“subsistence farming” in the hamlet of Orlino, population 400, which falls within the Gatchina district of Leningradskaya Oblast.

Orlino is not just any destination. It is situated alongside a large lake of the same name measuring one half km by 6 km which has no big noisy beaches but many small coves for the enjoyment of local residents. Access to water is by way of 4 meter wide sand-bottomed corridors between reeds and water lilies or from boulders set on the shoreline.  With barely enough room on shore to lay out a beach towel, there are no barbecue parties coming here and consequently little or no litter to spoil the pristine nature.

Boating quays exist for those who come with inflatable rubber rowboats – no motor craft are allowed.  This attracts the usual complement of amateur fisherman who sometimes come away from a day “at sea” with a good sized pike, but more usually have to content themselves with minnows suitable to feed the cats. Their luck depends on the air and water temperature: the higher they rise, the more likely the large fish are to leave the shores for deepest parts of the lake which are fed by cold springs.

Swimming in the lake similarly depends heavily on days being sunny and warm, to heat up this large expanse of water that is permanently replenished with very cold subterranean waters.  With some luck, the surface water of the lake warms to well over 20 degrees Centigrade. This warm layer may first extend down to 20 cm, but after several consecutive days of true summer weather, may go as deep as a meter.  On the other hand, a day of strong winds can mix up the layers and attenuate the pleasure of a dip in the lake.

There being no bars, cafes or other places of socialization apart from the church and the library in Orlino, almost no teenagers set foot here.  Instead, youth is predominantly represented by toddlers and kindergarten age children, usually accompanied to the lake by grandparents or parents.  The librarian on her own initiative does what she can to amuse the older children of this cohort by organizing chess competitions, outdoor ‘concerts’ in the adjacent park and treating those who come to the library with cakes and candies.

Orlino enjoys an historic reputation as the site of an estate owned by the Counts Stroganoff, of which only the ruins of a tower remain.  The most imposing monument from the pre-Revolutionary past is the Orthodox Church, which is situated on a property, overlooking the water line, has magnificent golden cupolas which are visible from far out on the lake, and is both large in scale and quite active as a social center thanks to financial support from an unnamed oligarch living in the region.

The forests which still remain in this area once attracted Shishkin and other famous Russian painters of the late 19th century.  At a distance of 10 km from Orlino is the well-known 19th century resort town Siversk, which is memorialized on souvenir photos of that age by views of the fast moving Oredezh River that passes through its middle. Over the course of centuries, the Oredezh cut through red sandstone of the higher bank, exposing admirable geological formations to the many sportsmen who do white water canoeing down the river. In Soviet times, Siversk was a center for children’s Pioneer summer camps and so is well known to St Petersburgers of a certain age.

At a similar distance but in another direction is the family homestead of the Nabokovs at Rozhdestveno, where for about a year before the Revolution Vladimir Nabokov  was the owner of the large wooden manor house, today a museum, that had been built in the late 18th century by Catherine the Great to house her regional governor. The surrounding locale is described in his autobiographical volume Speak Memory.

 

At the conclusion of each annual sojourn in Orlino, I have established a corresponding tradition of writing up my experiences as they bear on the general wellbeing or otherwise of Russians living in the Northwest of the country. This year as I approached the task I wondered what I might talk about because the only outstanding news was meteorological.  The weather was disappointing though in no dramatic way.  We did not have record heat waves as in Western Europe about which to complain or philosophize over global warming.  Nor did we have weeks upon weeks of never-ending rain as happened here two and three years ago.  It was just overcast and cold for most of the six weeks of our stay.  A stable weather system over Western and Central Russia extending to beyond the Urals brought a cover of arctic air to the entire area.

Given the unseasonal and gloomy weather for much of this time, Orlino was very quiet.  No day visitors.  Only the local residents busy tending their potatoes and vegetables, taking their Saturday evening saunas and gossiping over fences.  The only noise to break the general silence was the high-pitched whining of gas-powered trimmers that every property-owner uses in lieu of lawn mowers, there being few if any proper “lawns” in the Russian countryside, the evening barking of bored or frustrated dogs, and the cacophony of swarms of crows surveying our fields from on high.

However, during the six sunny days when the temperature soared to 30 degrees C, Orlino instantly turned into a resort.  From morning to late evening, there were processions of visitors from nearby settlements coming for a refreshing swim.  Dozens of cars were parked along the sides of roads leading down to the lake. And the general store was doing a brisk business in cold beer and pre-packed single portions of ice cream.

Just as I was despairing of extracting something of political or socio-economic importance from our 2019 experience of rural life in the Russian Northwest, Le Monde Diplomatique plumped in my lap an article entitled “Dachas fall from favour as holiday homes. Russia’s vanishing summerfolk” by journalist Christophe Trontin to which I can now respond drawing upon latest first-hand impressions. See https://mondediplo.com/2019/08/10dacha

The teaser introduction to the article goes on to say: “The dacha, so familiar from Chekhov’s plays, has lost its appeal for most Russians, who now don’t have to grow their own produce and can often holiday abroad. Can the new downshifters save these unloved summer houses?”
I take my hat off to the author for doing his research thoroughly.  The half or more of the article that is devoted to the history of the dacha [country property] in Russia from the 18th century through Soviet times will be useful to those seeking an introduction to the subject. But the researched, that is to say secondary source nature of the given article is both its weakness as well as its strength. As for the present and future projections, it is based on economic and demographic statistics gathered by others, not on the author’s own experience of countryside life and conversations with people living there. Trontin relies too much on appraisals of the dacha market as determined by Moscow region real estate agents. The Moscow region may well be an important indicator of trends of this national market as it is of trends in other Russian markets, but Russia is vast and the country house phenomenon exists outside all its urban areas.

The author claims that “Russians are falling out of love with their dachas because there are so many other leisure options..” In particular he points to options for spending vacation time abroad  – “the middle classes opt for package holidays in Turkey, Thailand and the Red Sea, or cultural tours of Europe.”  And quite importantly the dacha no longer is needed to provide food on the table:  “…now that fruit and vegetables are available all year round in Russian supermarkets, a major attraction of the dacha has gone.”

 

I will begin my counter-arguments to the author’s overarching thesis with the last named, always basing myself on what I see around me in Orlino and not on abstract considerations.   The author is ignorant of an irrefutable trend among the Russian middle and upper classes: namely concern to live in ecologically pure environments and to eat organically grown food in which no pesticides or artificial fertilizers have been applied, which are not only GMO free but are coming from traditional seed pools as opposed to seeds merchandised globally by several (Western) multinational corporations.  The bio food trend largely explains the latest fad observable everywhere in the Russian countryside:  high technology greenhouses.

I noted the appearance of these greenhouses around me on Orlino properties last year.  This year the trend has continued so that many homeowners, including those who otherwise do not have the land or inclination to maintain potato fields, now own two or more such greenhouses in a compact area next to their houses. In these greenhouses they grow a profusion of fruits and vegetables which by their short shelf life or rarity are not sold by supermarket chains. Russian supermarkets, like supermarkets everywhere, depend on large scale and regular supplies of given produce that does not bruise easily, so that variety is always relatively limited.

The dachniki share what they grow with family; they tin the surplus, as applicable.  As one neighbor deeply involved in this process replied when I asked what he buys when he goes to the supermarket:  “bread.”  The rest he provides for himself. In this respect, growing produce is one more dimension of self-reliance, alongside having one’s own artesian well, own septic system, own log-fed heating system and “own” bottled gas for the stove. The only regular bills to arrive from the outside world are for electricity: the Russian countryside has yet to discover the merits of solar panels for house roofs, though one day it may well do so, more for reasons of pride than for economy.

As regards the less affluent, particularly the older generation of pensioners, I have often wondered why year after year they put in 600 square meters of potatoes, beets and onions when these commodity products are so cheap at supermarkets and when their own produce in these categories is undistinguishable in taste characteristics from what is commercially available.  After consulting with neighbors and friends, I conclude the reasons are love of tradition in what is undeniably a conservative society and creating a pastime that gives life purpose. As my regular taxi driver says about his mother living in the countryside, if she did not look after her extensive garden and process the harvest to gift to relatives and consume herself during the winters, she would spend the day watching soap operas on television and would likely lose her mental acuity.

Now turning to the question of travel abroad as a competing attraction to minding the dacha, I believe that Le Monde diplomatique journalist Christophe Trontin is out of step with the times.  To be sure, foreign travel is a significant factor when Russians choose how to spend their vacation time.  After all, more than 10 million, or about 7% of the general population go abroad every year now, 6 million of them having chosen Turkey in the last year.  However, judging  by the behavior of our St Petersburg friends from the intelligentsia and economic middle classes, I believe that trend has peaked.  Over the past decade, they have “seen it all,” traveled to all their dream destinations and returned home in the knowledge that there is no Eden abroad. Moreover, the Russophobia of Western Europe has turned our friends against return travel there. Instead, they are traveling around Russia,  pursuing their interests in cultural or religious travel in ever more remote places.

None of this travel, whether abroad or within Russia, impinges on time that can or should be spent at the dacha.  Looking after the land  on patches ranging between 600 and 1400 square meters is a weekend occupation, not a full-time task and it can be done intermittently.  In our own case, our property is essentially an orchard of apple, plum and Northern cherry trees, which can be left for months on their own and produce a remarkable harvest of commercially unavailable fruit varieties.

Since the author focuses attention on the bottom of the dacha market, meaning derelict or shabby structures without conveniences, it bears mention that there is an ongoing and significant wave of construction of country houses that resemble and have all the comforts of American suburban homes although their occupancy will be only a few days a year as suits the owner and his or her relatives.

On the outskirts of Orlino there is a growing settlement of such owners who decidedly do not keep potato fields.  The logic for these investments is specifically Russian:  the Russian city dweller, even in outlying districts of the city, lives in an apartment, not a townhouse or villa. The market price per square meter of Russian apartments is higher than in most European cities, and, accordingly, the living space is not overly generous.  By building a country villa, this Russian city dweller buys quality space at construction prices three or four times cheaper than in the city. In the country home, there is room for guests, whether extended family or friends.

While Russian capital markets offer few secure investment opportunities, investment in bricks, especially at knock-down countryside prices, is financially prudent.

For all of the above reasons which I have seen in life around me in Orlino, I believe the Russian country home has a secure future even if a noticeable transition away from its amenity-poor past is underway.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019