The Russian dacha as a state of mind: what the Soviet country house means for the young, in photos

22 January 2021
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The Russian dacha is not a place: it’s a state of mind. The word dacha usually applies to a seasonal or a year-round second home; usually a small, wooden cottage with a small plot of land. Yet this cultural phenomenon stands for so much more than just “a house in the country”. It is a steadfast remnant of the Soviet system, when local officials gave citizens a plot of land to grow their own vegetables. The small shacks and houses which sprouted on these plots would later become an escape from urban reality. Today, the dacha has become part of the Russian psyche, rooted at the heart of leisurely summer memories: apple trees, grandparents, swimming in the river, and biking around the fields. Perhaps it is no wonder why photographer Kristina Rozhkova decided to explore dachas as part of collective memory – even if she didn’t have any of these memories of her own.

“I’d never had a dacha before, or been exposed to any of the stereotypical things you’d finds in a Russian country house: woodburning stoves, antique trunks filled with old clothes in them, a family garden, or freshly-picked strawberries with cream,” Rozhkova says. “In this series, I tried to explore the paradox of sifting through an old album of these cultural memories, while simultaneously coming to terms with the fact that I have no such memories myself.”

Rozhkova began shooting the series spontaneously during a visit to a friend’s dacha outside of her native city of Perm. As she began documenting their time together, Rozhkova soon realised that the space of dacha could allow her to look into many of the topics she wanted to explore : “closeness, friendship, loneliness, the perception of my own fleeting youth.” She spent the summer of 2020 at dachas around Perm, Voronezh, and St Petersburg.

“My summer of 2020 was [full of] nostalgia for something which never happened. There wasn’t much consistency in my actual childhood: we moved around a lot; friendships didn’t last. Nobody was waiting for me in the countryside in the summer, [because] my grandmother lived in the city, and suffered from alcoholism,” Rozhkova remembers. “I loved that exploring dachas as an adult was just like being a kid again. [It was about] hanging out with my friends, going for walks, and taking pictures, being naked or changing clothes, making face masks from freshly picked berries, and eating pies baked by my friend’s grandmother. I love the feeling of intimacy which dacha provides.”

Rozhkova’s ultimate depiction of the dacha is a semi-fictional surreal space saturated with archetypes and symbols. Yet it’s a playful space too: the photographer herself and her subjects often end up performing for the camera, or more precisely, drawing the viewer in their game. Whether the subject is dressing up, or going for a long journey into a neighbouring field, there is a sense of magic, discovery, laughter, and intensity about these images.

While Rozhkova’s series began by seeking closeness and comfort, it also exposes a search for adventure, self-expression, and escape from lingering anxiety — all things that young generations are striving for. “This cycle of works is an attempt to get intimately close to the metaphorical other, to explore the limits of platonic friendship, and the connections between the corporeal and the natural,” the photographer adds. “And ultimately, they are an attempt to capture the essence of my generation.”

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