In Russia, around three-quarters of city-dwellers divide their lives between the flat, the workplace, and the garden with its dacha. Between April and September, millions of townies live in the garden, some all the time, others at weekends.
Urban collective gardens are quite different from the private gardens reserved during the Soviet era for powerful people and artists. Collective gardens were set up to cope with famines during the Stalinist regime, and have continued to grow and flourish ever since. In Kazan, where we work, a recently-created Collective Gardens Association said that the town’s 220 collective gardens comprised a total of 120.000 plots. Allowing for five people per family, this means 600.000 people, or 60 per thousand of the town’s one million inhabitants.
There are question marks over the institution’s future. The authorities take no great interest in it. Businesses which used to maintain the gardens can no longer afford to do so. Privatisation means that the rules of equality that determined the size of the plot and the dacha are no longer applied. The price of land is increasing, and insecurity is growing. Many gardens are affected by various types of pollution. This leads to growing feelings of insecurity and greater vulnerability. If the gardens change, it will affect the balance of Russian life, and they are worth our serious interest.
A "democratic" institution
Since the Second World War, most businesses and institutions have tried to create a collective garden for their workers or employees. Land allocated by the authorities was divided into plots, each with running water and electricity laid on. The garden’s management and security was then passed to an Association set up for the purpose, and the Association also collected subscriptions to maintain the common services. Some have buildings for communal services at the entrance to the garden. A notice lists the regulations and displays information. General meetings elect a committee and a chairman, assisted by an accountant.
Its economic function
A garden smoothes out life’s peaks and troughs. In the middle of the 1990’s, 16.4 million peasant holdings and 14.6 million listed gardens accounted for almost half of food production. They grow all types of fruits and vegetables. Beetroots, carrots, cabbages, turnips and even potatoes are stored in cellars. Other vegetables are turned into jam or canned and stored in the flats. Various medicinal plants are also dried or preserved. The surplus is given to family and friends, or sold in markets or by the roadside.
Today, the improved economic position means that their economic function has declined slightly, while their importance in other areas has correspondingly increased.
Aesthetic, cultural and educational functions
Before the gardens start growing in spring, people germinate seeds on the windowsills of their flats and transplant them into the ground as soon as they can. Women understand about planting and cultivation. They can manage weeds and parasites, and know how to preserve and cook the food. Men more usually build and maintain the small houses called dachas, the tool-sheds and often the bath-house.
These activities contribute to the children’s education, by giving them a knowledge of agriculture, plants and the natural world, and by teaching them to handle tools. It is certainly one of the preferred ways to transmit the family’s culture to the grandchildren. It can also be a place for the expression of certain forms of art. Some play musical instruments, while others paint, and so on.
It’s also a place of rest and recreation for a section of the urban population that has no opportunity to go on holiday elsewhere. Children say they like the garden and afterwards remember with pleasure the time they spent in it. Interest seems to decline with adolescence and adulthood, then grow again with the onset of old age.
The garden is also a place for varied social interaction. All levels of society meet there: retired people, doctors, scientists, teachers, nurses, workers, mechanics, policemen, artists, shop-keepers, and so on. A "garden friendship" has a different quality to the relationship between neighbours in an apartment block or between work contacts.
A country like Russia is wounded in many ways. The garden is a place to regain physical, psychological and emotional balance. Many people associate gardens with memories of vanished loved ones who helped to cultivate the plot or build the house. Physical activity in a calm atmosphere helps them rediscover themselves, to deal with stress, and to meditate on life and its joys and sorrows. Those who are still close to their peasant roots make contact again with the earth and the natural world, and with their memories of their youth within the family.
Above all, it is a means of rediscovering calm, peace and beauty. To heal old wounds, moving on into the future is not enough. It is also important to put aside negative emotions and turn to positive feelings such as these.
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