A Day at the Dacha
Updated: Jul 30, 2022
To many Westerners, Soviet dachas maintain a near mythical aura following a Cold War’s worth of media and pop culture references. From Stalin-era meetings (and executions) to post-Soviet oligarch murders to classic Gorky Park scenes, these country homes live vividly in American imaginations.
In reality, most dachas are just places to escape city life on the weekends. While many view this “escape” more as an opportunity to work in gardens, others embrace the more leisurely side of a weekend retreat, focusing more on good rest, good food, and good booze.
Naturally, spending a Saturday at a dacha was high on Chipp’s list of things to do in Ukraine. And, when given the opportunity, he was not disappointed.
“Italian Aunts and Uncles,” Ukrainian-Style
Every culture likely has a different phrase for the phenomenon, but growing up in the States, extremely close - though not related - family friends often fall into the category of “Italian aunts and uncles.”
For adults falling between the definitely-too-formal Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So and the at-times-outright-disrespectful first name categorizations, parents often have their little kids default to using the “aunt” and “uncle” titles, regardless of blood connection.
It’s no different in Ukraine, and two of Jenna’s oldest family friends definitely qualify. Dyada (Uncle) Oleg and Tyota (Aunt) Elena - dear friends of Jenna’s parents - have been central parts of Jenna’s life since she was born, and they’ve extended that same love and affection to Chipp. They also happen to own a dacha outside Zap - and were more than willing to host everyone on a Saturday afternoon.
The Dacha Overview
While spy novels and paparazzi shots of Russian oligarchs give dachas the appearance of massive country estates, most are far simpler.
For many people fortunate enough to own one, the dacha is really more of a modest dwelling and a sprawling, garden of a yard, with the focus more on the latter than the former. In tough economic times - particularly the chaotic period after the fall of the Soviet Union - a lot of these gardens served as major sources of food for their owners, with folks tending to and harvesting fruits and vegetables during the warmer months, and canning them in the fall to help ease the burden through long winters.
Interesting cultural reality, yes, but we certainly weren’t viewing our Saturday escape as an opportunity to till the fields for a day… Fortunately, Dyada Oleg and Tyota Elena definitely embrace the dacha-for-leisure-not-work philosophy, too.
Location-wise, it’s important to understand that suburbs aren’t really a thing in Ukraine. Instead, when the city ends, countryside and agricultural fields begin. As a result, the dacha is technically located in Zap, but it’s really more like a rural escape, as it’s on the outskirts of the city.
Built in a big, farmhouse-style with towering ceilings, the central house of the dacha gave way to a big back patio, outdoor “summer kitchen,” and storage shed before opening up to a gently sloping, walled-in backyard. Clearly, the outdoor space serves as the focal point of dacha life, which was great for us, showing up on a beautiful, late fall day.
Cooking “Na Mangalye” - A Dacha Must
While we’ve written plenty about eating shashlik, we haven’t done justice to how it’s cooked. Enter the “mangal,” a bare-bones, open-pit grill ubiquitous in the backyards of dachas.
Rather than using charcoal, most mangal aficionados instead use firewood to start an actual fire in the grill, letting it burn down to the coals. While this approach takes a little more time, the resulting food is well worth the wait (and waiting for the roaring fire to die down always presents a good excuse for a “choot choot” of vodka!).
Dyada Oleg is an absolute wizard cooking “na mangalye” (on the mangal), and that’s an understatement. When we arrived, the first round of mangal flames had already settled down to coals, and a delicious-looking pilaf - goat and all! - was already simmering.
This rice-based dish from central Asia has moved all over the world, but wherever you see it, cooking it is a time-intensive labor of love. You can’t just dump everything into a pot and “set-it-and-forget-it.” It’s a “builder,” taking form slowly, ingredient-by-ingredient.
With a table Tyota Elena covered with salads, salted fish, and other snacks, we moved in for the first round of eating, piling our plates high with tons of delicious food - and massive heaps of pilaf.
Silly Chipp thought that was it for the eating - how naive.
Closing Out the [Swimming] Season
But, before food round two, we’d need to get some “exercise.” Beyond the dacha’s back fence, the fields descend down to a flooded quarry - a great place to swim during the warm summer months.
Despite the beautiful late-fall weather, it was still late fall - certainly not a warm day - and Jenna and her mom were both pretty adamant that Chipp would immediately fall ill if he was dumb enough to jump in.
Enter another Ukrainian tradition: “closing out the season.” If you’re lucky enough to live near a good place to swim outside, the last dip of the season takes on a certain ceremonial role. You don’t “stupidly swim in cold water.” No, it’s far more refined than that. You “close out the season” with a final swim before the winter weather.
With Dyada Oleg leading the way into the quarry’s waters, Chipp quickly stripped down to his boxers and jumped in. Oh man, “cold” doesn’t work here - the water was absolutely frigid. But talk about an afternoon pick-me-up - no lingering vodka- or food-induced lethargy after a swim like this.
Naturally, Jenna’s mom bundled Chipp up in every article of clothing she could find after he got out of the water. And, fortunately, we moved right from the quarry back to the mangal, where Dyada Oleg stoked a massive fire in anticipation of the next wave of food - shashlik!
It’s hard to accurately describe the feeling - core temperature still low post-dip, warmth of a roaring fire, deep breaths of crisp, fresh air, and some spicy pepper vodka warming you up from the inside out. Perfect.
And, as the fire gradually died down into smoldering coals, Dyada Oleg threw the shashlik skewers on, expertly spraying water onto any coal arrogant enough to try to burst into flames - the key is the extremely high heat without any flame touching the meat.
Guitar, Drinks, and “Afghan Songs”
Working our way through another delicious round of eating - this one centered on shashlik - we all gradually fell into near food comas.
Sitting around the table post-food, with drinks continuing and the sun setting, Dyada Oleg broke out his guitar. In addition to just having a great voice for any sort of song, he’s mastered a genre of music largely without equivalent in the States.
For background, Dyada Oleg - like Jenna’s dad - fought in Afghanistan with the Soviets, leaving a leg there in the process. Somewhat analogous to the US experience in Vietnam, the Soviet time in Afghanistan left many of the men sent to fight there feeling a deep sense of betrayal from their government.
From this betrayal - and the horrors of Afghanistan, in general - arose “Afghan songs,” a hauntingly sad-sounding genre of music blending poetry, acoustic guitar, and emotionally-raw reflections on war - and those lost in war.
Whether you understand the Russian-language lyrics or not, listening to Dyada Oleg sing these songs resonates deep inside. Everyone has their own ways of coping, and this music plays a central role for many veterans with deep-seated anger and frustration over the Soviet Union’s cavalier treatment of its young lives.
But let’s bring it back from the serious - don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking this was a sad day at the dacha. Listening to these songs was just one more element of an absolutely idyllic afternoon and evening.
As we all started dozing off, it became clear calling a cab to take us back home made sense - solid decision, and an opportunity to learn another outstanding drinking-related tradition!
As we were all leaving, sly grin on his face, Dyada Oleg asked if we wanted one more drink, “na konya?” Meaning “on the horse,” this saying arose in days of actual travel on horseback, with hosts offering their departing guests a final drink.
Nowadays, asking if you’d like one “na konya” just gives you a final excuse for a drink before hitting the road - no complaints!