One of the great Moscow vistas is the approach to the city on broad Kutuzovsky Prospekt, an impossibly wide artery that comes roaring into the city, flanked on either side by stately old apartment buildings. There are few sights more breathtaking than the one past Poklonnaya Gora, the "Bowing Hills," a great strolling park, with the looming tower of Moscow State University in the background.
But on a Friday afternoon in summer, when the air pollution hangs like a cloud over the avenue, when all of Moscow seems to be gasping for breath, Kutuzovsky Prospekt becomes the scene of a mammoth exodus. No matter how wide, it seems incapable of containing the thousands and thousands of cars - laden down with chairs, picnic baskets, televisions, blankets, children and pets - that rush to escape the metropolis.It is a weekend ritual: heading for the dacha. The word dacha describes a house in the country, and there is no more typical way for a Muscovite to spend the weekend than to flee the sweaty apartment blocks and the headaches of work for the pleasant breezes and camaraderie of the dacha.
You don't have to be rich. A dacha is Everyman's escape. It can be a small, one-room, wooden shack, sandwiched with a dozen others into a clearing in the woods. Or maybe several rooms nestled near your own apple orchard. And if you do have a few million dollars to spare, there are always the unsightly, brick "cottegi," the elaborate walled three- and four-story country houses that New Russians are building with abandon.
No matter whether shack or mansion, the dacha routine is the same. Here's how some of my Russian friends describe it:
First, on Friday, there is shopping. Many dachas have primitive gas stoves, so you want to keep cooking to a minimum. The dacha enthusiast - "dachnik" - looks for picnic food: sausage, vegetables, potatoes. A big favorite is shashlik - grilled marinated meat cooked over a charcoal fire - and many people begin the marinade on Friday morning.
Then you have to pack the car. You really can't leave anything valuable in the dacha during the week, so you have to bring it all: a television, food, books, perhaps folding chairs, the dog, the kids (and don't forget the seed packets). The most common Russian car is the boxy, balky Zhiguli, which was modeled on a Fiat of 30 years ago. There's not much space.
Then you hit the road. What a zoo! The avenues and highways out of Moscow are bumper-to-bumper for hours on Friday evening.
It will probably be dusk when you finally arrive at the dacha, and everyone is starving. The charcoal fires are lit up quickly and the smell of shashlik wafts through the birches. There is a tasty late dinner of seared shashlik, and maybe champagne or vodka. The weekend has begun.
In the thick of summer, the dacha is like a huge gulp of oxygen. With trees and lush grasses, the climate is crystalline pure, compared with the poisonous gases of the city. In visiting friends' dachas, I often feel like it is time for a nap, so intoxicating is the fresh air.
But first there is work. Everyone has a garden plot to care for, and they do so with gusto. The growing season is short and needs enormous attention - the land has to be tilled by hand, sown and weeded. Working the land is deep in the Russian soul, even among the newly rich. One of my friends says, "Even if you look over the fence at the fancy new cottegi,' you see they have three stories, bay windows, Victorian roofs, and - just like us - they are out tilling the soil. Potatoes and cabbages."
The garden is a good Saturday morning's work, at least for the adults, while children dip in the Moscow River or race through the woods. Then, as the sun gets hot, it's time for that nap, a long one, and more work in the garden in the late afternoon. And evenings on Saturday are for strolling, as the entire community roams around, visiting friends and sharing old times. The adults have been digging in the soil until their backs ache. And soon it will be Sunday, time to load up the car and head back into the city on Kutuzovsky Prospekt.