Whether it’s a dacha or a palace the tradition of owning a second home in the country is deeply rooted in Russian culture. For most Russians the dacha is a modest cottage, often no more than a shack, a place to escape the confines of a tiny city apartment and reestablish a connection with the earth.
The garden, no matter how large or small, is an integral part of every dacha. Whether it’s only a few potted flowers or a plot of vegetables destined to be sold at the local market, the dacha garden is a source of pride and place of refuge for its urban owners.
And perhaps more than any other aspect of Russian society the dachas of the people and the summer palaces of the czars epitomize the gulf in wealth between the ruling elite and their subjects.
The city of St. Petersburg was barely a decade old in 1712 when Peter the Great made it Russia’s capital. But the grumbling nobles and senior administrators who were forced to leave the comforts of Moscow and move to the wilderness of the northern frontier wasted no time in rebuilding their privileged lives. While thousands of peasants, drafted as forced labour, struggled to drain the swamps of the Neva lowlands and build the foundations of the new city the country estates of the privileged began to spring up around its perimeter. We visited two of these while we were in St. Petersburg last June — Peterhof, started by Peter himself in 1710, and Tsarskoye Selo, developed by Empress Elizabeth in 1741.
Our trips into the countryside begin in downtown St. Petersburg with its stately heritage buildings, domed cathedrals, and myriad canals. From there our bus winds past drab Soviet Era walk-up apartment blocks of the inner suburbs, continues through industrial areas that share the outskirts of the city with clusters of modern high-rise apartment blocks, and finally emerges from the city onto the flat parkland of the Neva lowlands. The rural countryside is dotted with tiny villages where simple wooden houses, many of them the dachas of St. Petersburg’s apartment dwellers, are tucked in among small gardens and a few shade trees. And then we arrive at one of St. Petersburg’s suburban estates, where the ruling elite once spent their leisure time surrounded by unimaginable luxury and wealth.
From the Peterhof parking lot we make our way past a cluster of souvenir kiosks and into the estate. No longer the exclusive retreat of the privileged classes Peterhof, like most of St. Peterburg’s suburban estates, has opened its doors to the world and become one of the busiest tourist destinations in all of Russia. But the place is so enormous that neither the grounds nor the buildings seem crowded. The estate, once the summer residence of Peter and his wife Catherine, sprawls across an area of 1,500 acres. Its vast formal gardens are dotted with fountains, monuments and marble statues and, in addition to the cavernous Peterhof Palace, the buildings include a multitude of lesser palaces, chapels and pavilions. But Peterhof is perhaps best known for its fountains and of these the Grand Cascade in front of Peterhof Palace is in a class of its own.