It's noon in dachaland, the birds twittering, the Bentleys purring. In the countryside where Muscovites have their second houses—their dachas—you can still commune with nature, though it's sometimes hard to see the woods for the billboards pushing real estate, German dental centers, Meissen china, Princess Cruises. The woman picking at her prosciutto in a restaurant named Dacha, her bichon frise in a green Bottega Veneta bag slung over her shoulder, wears very high–heel backless Jimmy Choos. I do not expect to see her picking mushrooms in the forest anytime soon.
Barvikha is one of the rural villages outside the capital filled with the summer homes of city folk—wooden houses among conifer forests and stands of iconic white birch. These urbanites swam in the river, grew their gardens, argued poetry and politics into the long summer nights. To get to Barvikha I've driven west from Moscow on the Rublevo-Uspenskoe Highway, which has always been considered the best road in the country. Official Zil limousines with sirens blaring have long raced top political brass to their country houses. Stalin had a dacha here. Yeltsin came to play tennis. At the end of the turnoff to Putin's place, two police cars keep watch.
The dacha concept was in-vented in the 18th century by Peter the Great. In his bid to turn Russia into a European nation, he gave his nobles parcels of land between St. Petersburg and Peterhof and ordered them to build country homes. ("Dacha" is derived from the Russian verb "to give" and means "something that is given.") But dachaland has always been a state of mind as much as a house in the woods. It meant relief from crowded urban apartments. It meant privacy. It was also, in the largest sense, an alternative country, a place for people to return to their Russian roots—or at least a certain literary vision of their roots, Tolstoy's vision, or Chekhov's. After the revolution the political and intellectual elite were allowed to keep their dachas in hamlets like Zhukovka and Peredelkino (the latter, the site of Boris Pasternak's grave, is visited by pilgrims to this day). Nowhere is this life more perfectly evoked than in Burnt by the Sun, Nikita Mikhalkov's wonderful movie. Set in 1936, it was filmed in the village of Nikolina Gora, about ten miles from Barvikha, where Mikhalkov owns a house, as do other artists, writers, and filmmakers.
I rented a dacha in Nikolina Gora just after communism collapsed, in the summer of 1991. The owner was Mrs. Gorbachev. Not that Gorbachev. My Mrs. G was a lady about to divorce her husband and hoping to make a buck off some Westerners. She intended to stay while I occupied one of her rooms. I fled.
The friends who'd found me the dacha (complete with lavender bidet, as advertised) swung into action. The phones of Nikolina Gora lit up. This is a tight-knit community, and in less than a day I had another modern wooden dacha with a little yard and a path into the white birch trees. That evening my friends invited me to a dinner held by a famous pianist. Ten or 12 of us sat at the table on the lawn by the river, eating roast pork with crackling skin and a pilaf full of almonds and raisins while discussing politics, philosophy, and life, as darkness descended and fireflies competed with the candles to light the night. It felt eternal.
Today the region seems less pastoral, with big houses—called kottedzhi, or cottages, an unintentionally ironic play on the English idea of an idyllic retreat—filling up the countryside. There are faux Italian palazzi, Baroque mansions, Art Deco piles with pools and skating rinks. This past March Zaha Hadid unveiled plans for a wildly cutting-edge dacha in the Barvikha area. The chicest of Russians, the ones who have traveled, are alert to modern architecture, and a dacha by Hadid would be much grander than another fake Georgian manse.
And here, too, about 30 miles from Moscow, is the Barvikha Luxury Village mall. I go to see it with an old friend, a wry Muscovite who is very much a cultural arbiter. "It's to keep the wives busy shopping and away from the city so men can be with their mistresses," she says. "Leonid Friedland and Leonid Strunin, who own this mall, started out selling matrioshki, those little nesting wooden dolls, at the Ismaylovsky flea market."
The space is exquisite, all sleek wood and glass, more Milan than Moscow. Every brand in this label-mad country is represented: Gucci, Bulgari, Graff, Bentley, Prada, Ermenegildo Zegna, Armani, Ralph Lauren. The whole place is empty, its central plaza devoid of life, a dystopian futurist land of luxury. Once upon a time dachaland was about land, the return to it, the possession of it. It was one of the few things that could be privately owned under communism. "Now it is just status," says Svetlana, my friend. "And your neighbor. It is very important who is living near you."
There is "face control" at Dacha, the restaurant opposite the mall. "Shoe control, too," adds Svetlana as the hostess checks us out before admitting us. An Italian restaurant, it resembles the Olive Garden, with a huge side of prosciutto and brandied fruits on display. A waitress carries a bowl of minestrone as if she were on a catwalk, or thinks she should be. Sitting beside us, some men—sons of the oligarchy, perhaps—suck on water pipes. On their table are brochures for local properties.
The servers are attired in pink shirts, blue sweaters, jeans, and very, very bored faces. A woman with a double chin picks her teeth with the ubiquitous toothpick, while her companion, a thin blonde, eats her lettuce with restraint.
I ask Svetlana what these kids, the gilded youth of Moscow, aspire to.
"Once, in the gangster era, the girls wanted to be hookers and the boys croupiers," she says. "It's true, there were studies. Now the boys all want to be oligarchs."
And the girls?
"To marry oligarchs, of course," she says.