Dacha Sweet Dacha
Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov and his wife Svetlana continue the Russian tradition of summer escapes and family bonding on Maryland's Eastern Shore
BY DEBORAH KDIETSCH
Russians cherish the dacha, a word meaning summer house or cottage. During summers and weekends, millions of them leave the stress of congested city life for the solace of a cabin or house in the countryside. "It's a Russian tradition," explains Yuri Ushakov, ambassador of the Russian Federation. "You will find Moscow empty on Saturdays and Sundays, even in winter. A dacha is a good place to spend time outdoors with family and friends."
Since arriving in Washington eight years ago, the Ushakov and his wife Svetlana Ushakova have kept up this tradition on Maryland's Eastern Shore. They spend nearly every weekend and longer stretches during the summer at the embassy's three-story brick dacha fronting the Chester River. While the 1920s Georgian-style house doesn't exactly look Russian, it offers the couple the same pleasures as their dacha outside of Moscow, especially the chance to spend time with their 10-year-old grandson Misha, grilling shashlik (Russian shish kebob), with friends, or relaxing in the bania, Russian for steam room.
Ambassador of the Russian Federation Yuri Ushakov, his wife Svetlana and grandson Misha, followed by dog Simon, stroll the lushly planted grounds of the Eastern Shore dacha.
Dacha - A Russian tradition
The dacha has been integral to Russian life for centuries, surviving revolution, and coups. It dates back to medieval times when tsars gave parcels of land to their noblemen. (In archaic Russian, dacha means "something given.") Peter the Great started the modern concept of the dacha by not only handing out tracts in St. Petersburg, but instructing the recipients to build grand houses and gardens. These country retreats were used by the aristocracy for social and cultural gatherings, including masquerade balls and fireworks displays.
In the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution led to modest dachas for the middle class, as growing urban populations sought to escape polluted cities, at least temporarily. Writer Anton Chekhov popularized the country retreat by setting many of his plays in one. His own whitestucco dacha in Yalta, as well as dachas owned by Russian writers Leo Tolstoy, Boris Pasternak and others, are now museums.
After the 1917 revolution, dachas were distributed among Communist party leaders and their followers. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who spent summers in a green mansion on the Black Sea, built dacha settlements as a reward for loyal service. A dacha, however, didn't always provide an escape from politics. Nikita Khrushchev was booted from power in 1964 while relaxing at his seaside hideaway and Mikhail Gorbachev was arrested in 1991 at his Crimean vacation home during an aborted coup by hardliners.
Since the collapse of communism, the dacha has become a status symbol freely bought and sold on the real estate market. And it is now indispensable for good PR. President Vladimir Putin often hosts visiting dignitaries at the official dacha, Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow. He joins millions of dachnikis or summerfolk who consider their retreat to the woods or the waterfront as an essential place to relax, recharge and get in touch with Russian roots. To learn more about this tradition, the book Summerfolk: A History of the Dacha, 1710-2000 by Stephen Lovell (Cornell University Press, 2003) is an excellent resource. Washingtonians seeking to experience the real thing can visit the Hillwood Estate where a one-room dacha, built in 1969, will re-open with a new art exhibition this fall. -Deborah K. Dietsch
"Because we have such a hectic life in Washington, we need a place to hide for awhile," says Ushakova on a recent tour of the dacha, accompanied by Simon, her west highland terrier. "This is the best spot for really being alone with your family. Of course, we entertain friends, colleagues and officials here but not as much as we do in the city. We prefer to host small gatherings where you can really talk, exchange opinions and enjoy each other's company."
Strolling the grounds of this park-like setting, lushly planted with magnolias, cypress and boxwood, it's easy to understand why these diplomats treasure their getaway. It is located right on the waterfront with all the amenities of a resort. Within a short walk from the main house are a swimming pool and cabana, tennis court and waterfront dock. While the 57-yearold ambassador's wife likes the seclusion of the pool near the river, her husband, a fit 60-yearold, prefers swatting balls on the tennis court, boating on the river or cycling around the grounds with his grandson in tow. The couple can also be found browsing the antique shops in nearby Centreville, Chestertown and Easton, looking for the porcelains that Ushakova collects or the old books treasured by Ushakov, who also collects red wine.
Some of the finds from those trips, along with a phone from a Soviet submarine, adorn the one-room "hunting lodge" where the
couple hosts special visitors. "No one really hunts but that's what we call it," Ushakova says with a laugh. This shingled shed with its outdoor fireplace, one of many outbuildings on the property, is tucked off the tree-lined lane leading to the house. Inside, a long wooden table under timber ceiling beams and glass beer steins hanging from a rack create the feeling of a rustic pub. A colorful mural of Russian and American sailors clinking their beer glasses decorates the back wall; the Russian wears a naval hat inscribed with "Ushakov."
The lodge is one of several recent renovations to the sprawling estate once known as Pioneer Point Farm. The current 45 acres originally belonged to a 700-acre land grant from Britain in the 1600s. In 1702, the farm was purchased by Richard Tilghman and remained in his family until 1925 when it was sold to John J. Raskob, an executive with Dupont and General Motors. Tombstones dating from the early 1800s still remain on the property, but the first wood-framed dwelling on the estate is long gone. Raskob built the current brick mansion where the front door knocker, inscribed with "Hartefield House," bears the only witness to that original home. For his 13 children and their friends, he also constructed an equally grand, neighboring brick house, which is now being restored by the Russian government.
After Raskob died, the estate was sold to a succession of owners in the decades following World War II. The Soviet government purchased the two houses and surrounding land in 1972 and later obtained more acreage after a land swap with the State Department, which in return received property in Moscow. The deal, however, wasn't initially well received by the locals who were worried about suspicious foreigners. "It was during the Cold War and people around here were afraid that the Russians would bring their battleships," Ushakova says. "But then they realized that it wasn't so bad because Russians started coming to the local shops to buy food and everything. They realized that there was no danger and saw that we took care of the house and property. Moreover, they realized that the Russians were friendly and hospitable."
For more than two decades, the Eastern Shore property served as a dacha for Anatoly Dobrynin who was the Soviet ambassador during the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations until he returned to Moscow in 1986. Dobrynin preserved the Flemish-bond red brick and ornate painted ironwork of the Raskob mansion and kept many of the furnishings that came with the house. Fourteen rental cottages, some built in Finland and shipped to the site, were added for embassy staff.
Much of the original flavor of the house remains intact. The formal living and dining rooms flanking the wide center hall retain their teak floors, oriental carpets and impressive crystal chandeliers. An archway on one side of the living room leads to the walnut-paneled library where built-in shelves hold many of the ambassador's favorite books. Off the other side, a glass-enclosed porch overlooks a brick-walled courtyard where a fountain gurgles quietly. A two-story screened porch, set behind the rear colonnade of the house, provides a river view between nearly century-old boxwoods.
Upstairs, reached by a grand, sky-lit stairway, the second floor is reserved for family. The master suite with its own porch and sitting room adjoins a bedroom reserved for grandson Misha, who is currently attending Russian and British schools in Washington, and his mom, the couple's 33 year-old daughter, Tatiana. On the third floor, four guest suites are fitted with small kitchens and some of the home's 13 fireplaces. They share a lounge where Gothic-style wooden doors and wall paneling, and a niche for an altar, now adorned with a Russian icon, testify to the room's original use as the Raskob family chapel.
Though the big house remains largely unchanged since the Dobrynin days, its current occupants have added comfortable furniture reflective of their more laid-back style. Many of the spaces feature still life and landscape paintings by Russian artists and decorative Russian touches, including a samovar and porcelain figurines. True dacha living is best represented in the basement where recent upgrades have turned storage spaces into recreation rooms for playing table tennis, shooting pool and watching movies; the now stationary elevator may be turned into a bar. Down the hall is a lounge, where the ambassador and his buddies can share a glass of his favorite red wine after taking a sauna next door. "The steam of bania is the gift of God," a sign over the doorway to the steam room proclaims in Russian.
As an offshoot of the embassy, the dacha is frequently used for official functions. Every May, the entire staff is invited to celebrate Victory Day, a Russian holiday commemorating World War II, and on Labor Day, the Sailing Club of the Chesapeake arrives to enjoy an annual fete. "The main mission for us has been to keep the house and grounds alive," Ushakov says.
On weekends, the couple prefers hosting smaller gatherings and house parties of no more than 10 people. Menus include fish freshly caught from the Chesapeake and salads tossed with lettuces, cucumbers and tomatoes picked from the vegetable gardens on the property. "People can relax and open up in way that they never do in the city," Ushakova says. "A dacha is not just about entertaining. It's about uniting people in a very spiritual way because here you are in harmony with nature. That's why the dacha is so powerful for Russians."