A Dacha Adventure
Dark had almost completely set in when I was finally able to step out of the car at our destination on our first night in Russia. We were hours late arriving at the Vladimir Dacha thanks to a traffic jam, and the biting cold rushed over my unprepared body and under clothed arms the moment I opened the car door. It was my first adventure of what would be many on my recent return trip to Russia and seems a fitting place to begin writing about. I'd heard a lot about the dachas before ever stepping foot into them, but I quickly realized it's hard to grasp what these dachas are all about until you see them up close. If I had only one word to sum up the dachas it would be: Independence. Helping to teach graduated orphans more independence is a vital concept stressed in most of the programs offered at the Ministry Centers, but one taken to a whole new level at the dachas.
I wrapped myself into another layer of clothes and set out on my tour of the Vladimir dacha with its leader, Andrey Selivanov. We had barely gotten into the tour when Andrey began stressing that goal of the dacha.
“This is not a hotel; kids come here expecting to work hard,” Andrey said as we walked around the dacha. He explained that the Vladimir Dacha offers the grads a chance to work together and experience the results of their own time and effort.
And the fruits of their labors were present all around us. All the buildings, from the outhouse to the banya to the main building and even the ping pong table, were built by graduates and volunteers dedicating their weekends to the dacha. In the morning we walked through the rows of vegetables, all being grown by the grads, and Andrey listed them all off until I lost track. Most of what the grads eat while visiting the dacha is food they grow themselves, and much of what they don't eat at the dacha either goes home with them when they leave or is given to neighbors in the community by the grads.
Much of my time was spent with two of the Vladimir dacha's regulars, Tolick and Sergey, both of whom say they look forward to the time spent at the dacha every week. I happened to visit the dachas in both Valdimir and Kostroma just in time to help harvest the potato fields and spent my first morning in Russia digging through the dirt with Sergey, a much more experienced potato collector, who was constantly digging out potatoes I had passed right by.
Sergey spends most of his weekends at the dacha. He loves the chance to escape life in town for a bit and says he finds both the work and fun activities to be a relaxing change. He says that Andrey and Masha Polikarpova (the Vladamir dacha's other staff member) have helped teach him the value of hard work and responsibility. Life at the dacha seems a dream for a nature lover like Sergey, whose favorite part of the dacha is the opportunity it gives him to spend time in the forests.
Life at the dacha certainly isn't all hard labor, however. Sergey spoke fondly of their adventures cross country skiing in winter and roaming the forest to pick mushrooms in the summer, while the two of us had an intense table tennis showdown (his other favorite dacha activity). He showed his enthusiasm for riding bikes first-hand as some of us rode the dacha's four bikes out into the village, and he left the rest far behind.
The dacha experience is an adventure not for the weak of heart, but once there it is easy to tell why some of these kids keep coming back. The experience blends hard work, fresh air and a peaceful atmosphere, and fun activities, each one helping to build a strong bond with their friend. It all makes for a perfect way to help teach those graduates willing to learn about the ever important quality of independence.