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A tour through post-soviet community gardens.

  • Essay
  • Sep 20 2023
  • Lilian Pungas
    lives in Berlin and has just submitted her Ph.D. on the Eastern Estonian dachas and their potential for the degrowth movement at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena. In the thesis, she writes dachas may become an inspiration for future socio-ecological transformation. Currently, she is co-organizing a summer university, including exhibitions, concerts, and dacha excursions at the Sputnik dacha cooperative near Sillamäe, in an effort to build bridges between urban food activists and the local babushkas.

As an Estonian environmental sociologist interested in agroecology and degrowth, I have long been frustrated with the mainstream postcolonial narratives that tend to stigmatize various practices common in the postsocialist East as backward and outdated. In contrast, the ‘West’ always seems to offer real sustainable and green alternatives. In this light, I set out to demonstrate how the European ‘periphery’ can provide some valuable lessons. Additionally, I was motivated to explore the complex social polarization within Estonian society, particularly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While being painfully aware of the manifold political perspectives present in the Eastern Estonian Russian-speaking community, many of which do not comply with the ideas of a democratic, emancipatory society, I hope to explore the human side of their individual stories and biographies.

Not only did I find dachas — a Russian model for a plot of land with a seasonal allotment house, mostly used for food production — as examples for convivial, sufficiency-oriented, low-impact lifestyles, as well as a practice of (re-)rooting. In probably one of the biggest dacha garden cooperatives in Eastern Estonia, called Sputnik, I encountered a magical micro-universe of Russian babushkas (grandmothers), and not a few dedushkas (grandfathers). They all lit up when telling me about their dacha gardens, the taste of home-grown tomatoes that enclose their hearts, and the need to feel nature by pressing their fingers in the soil. It seemed to me a rather special place where interpersonal competition and a more-is-more-logic had been kept away as a distant dystopian realm. Instead of finding distrust, what I detected in most conversations with the gardeners was almost Buddhistic wisdom, humility, and hospitality.



Simone Weil contended in her book The Need for Roots in 1943 (here quoted according to the English translation, published in 2002/1952) that “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul” - yet it is the hardest to define. [1] The uprootedness, as a social, spiritual, and cultural malaise, that Weil diagnosed, and which she held responsible for the horrors of World War II, was a condition in which people lacked deep and living connections with their surrounding environments. Uprooting not only resulted from violent military conquests but was also due to deportations and the suppression of local practices and heritage — both practices were common in my studies of Eastern Estonia during the 20th century.

Right at the border between Europe and ‘the East’ tens of thousands of ethnic Estonians were deported overnight to faraway Siberia by the Soviet regime (the deportation period lasted from World War II until the beginning of the 1950s). The deportees were then, quite boldly, replaced by hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking minorities, or ethnic Russians. This led to a significant demographic shift within Estonia, a Russification of politics aimed at uprooting the cultural and ethnic identities to create a ‘new Soviet citizen’. The newcomers were encouraged to relocate into (erstwhile) Soviet Estonia by means of economic incentives and employment opportunities in the growing local industries. However, in some cases, as I found out in my interviews, some of these “settlers” were 13-year-old girls following their older sisters over thousands of kilometers. 

But how and where does one root herself if home and family are thousands of kilometers away? In my qualitative research, I have come to believe that dachas might have played a central role in such abstract rooting processes.



The history of dachas reaches back to 18th century Russia, when Peter the Great handed out plots of land (dacha is derived from the Russian verb ‘to give’: дать) as gifts to his courtiers. [2] However, this only became a “mass phenomenon” during the Soviet era’s shortage economy, when factory workers throughout the USSR received a 600 square meter dacha garden plot from their employer (e.g., state-owned farming enterprises) for long-term use of the land. The goal was not only to ensure a diverse food supply for millions of families. The Soviet regime propagated the concept of “active leisure” (productive use of leisure time in contrast to “bourgeois” recreational activities). At the same time, various restrictions were implemented to discourage excessive individualism; and dachas were hoped to absorb potential political frustration.

These pieces of land (in Russian земля) thus ended up being one’s only private retreat from the regime's sight, an individual and personal space, something Virginia Woolf might have called “a room of one’s own.” It was a place for connecting with one’s longings and could be shaped in exactly the way one desired. As such, in Eastern Estonia, dachas became the ultimate place for (re-)rooting and overcoming alienation for the relocated population.

The uprooting and alienation of workers results from their inability to experience the production process, own the product of their labor or enjoy the fruits of this work. According to Weil, this can be countered by recognizing the spiritual nature of work. Dachas offer a prime opportunity for that – the dachniki literally shape the “production process” when attending their gardens, only to later savor and cherish the harvest — the fruits of their dignified labor — together with family and friends. For many, dachas also played a crucial role as a source of sustenance and supported impoverished and unemployed families during the economic transition period in the 1990s across postsocialist Europe. It is thanks to the dachas and the potatoes grown on them that numerous families survived the socio-economic hardship and political turmoil that followed the neoliberalist and nationalist restructuring of the Estonian state in the 1990s. [3]



Uprootedness also results in destroyed ties with the past, and the dissolution of communities. Thus, communities as “food for mankind” [4] must be cultivated, especially ones based on generosity, common sense, of sharing “out of abundance,” and transcend of personal interest. In dacha gardens informal networks of solidarity and mutual aid are flourishing, despite the garden cooperatives not being called “community gardens” as is common in Western European urban centers. I had conversations with elderly people who had been relocated to Eastern Estonia while youngsters from Samarkand due to the civil war among Tajiks, others came from Krasnoyarsk Krai, or Orenburg. Despite divergent backgrounds often involving potential political tensions, the community sense at the dachas was praised: “[i]t feels like people here are better people.” 

What can dachas and babushkas then teach us? Simone Weil was convinced that the “rooted” ones do not engage in activities of “uprooting” others, [5] and, therefore, held the “(re-)rooting” of humankind for the most crucial task. Being grounded and rooted in (and thanks to) their dachas while engaging in practices of sustenance not only offers dignity, autonomy, and self-worth, it also allows the gardener to be a human being, not an uprooted robot worker, or an alienated mindless consumer. [6]




    [1] Weil, Simone (2002 [1952]). The Need For Roots, Routledge Classics, p. 40.

    [2] Lovell, S. (2003). Summerfolk: A History of the Da- cha, 1710–2000. Cornell University Press.

    [3] Ehlers, Kai (2010). Kartoffeln haben wir immer: Über- leben in Russland zwischen Supermarkt und Datscha. Horlemann.

    [4] Weil, Simone (2002 [1952]). The Need For Roots, Routledge Classics, p. 6f.

    [5] Ibid. p. 45.

    [6Smith, Jeff (2003). From házi to hypermarket: dis- courses on time, money and food in Hungary. Anthropo- logy of East Europe Review, 21(1), p. 180.



    Lilian Pungas, Eastern Estonia, Sputnik near Sillamäe, 2022, © and courtesy Lilian Pungas.



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