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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Decisive Dacha Factor

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The Russian press of late is filled with articles devoted to the 10th anniversary of the August 1991 putsch. I join my voice to the choir of memoirists and analysts.

In August 1991 I was the deputy editor of the Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn (International Affairs) magazine, the Soviet equivalent of America's Foreign Affairs.

I had landed the job several years before with the blessing of Eduard Shevardnadze, Soviet foreign minister and Georgian nationalist, Politburo member and favorite of the "democrats."

This fact alone made me "one of us" both in the halls of power and the maze of "democratic" politics.

In my study of both camps I made frequent use of a time-tested sociologist's tool, the heart-to-heart talk over a bottle of vodka.

Often these talks occurred at the dacha, or country house.

I developed a peculiar view of the historical process.

As the summer of 1991 opened, I realized that the putsch the "democrats" had been warning the public about for the past two years would actually take place.

At that moment the Supreme Soviet's commission for the war on privileges, driven by the prominent "democrat" Ella Pamfilova, released a report revealing the privatization of state-owned dachas by the Soviet nomenklatura.

All this was true.

The central bureaucracy had come to terms with its inevitable loss of power, and now formerly top officials were providing for a comfortable life in retirement.

The commission's report disrupted the peaceful course of the Soviet Union's democratic revolution.

The party, military and industrial bureaucracy might stand aside while the Soviet state fell apart, but it would never give up its dachas without a fight.

In August my gloomy forecast came true.

Since that time the "dacha question" has been the decisive factor in Russian politics.

You may recall that accusations of building luxurious dachas with money stolen from public coffers were the centerpiece in the war of ideas between Boris Yeltsin's "reformers" and Ruslan Khasbulatov's "red-brown coalition."

The conflict ended in shots, bloodshed and a new constitutional system in October 1993.

Interest in other people's leisure homes peaked again during the media wars of 1997 and 1998, which ended in the stinging financial crisis of August 1998.

We all remember the presidential campaign of 1999.

The pro-Kremlin ORT network showed aerial shots of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's extensive holdings in the countryside.

The pro-Luzhkov NTV network responded by broadcasting aerial footage of a luxurious castle in the south of France that ostensibly belonged to Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko.

And was NTV itself not doomed from the moment in September 1999 when Sergei Dorenko, Boris Berezovsky's "hit man" on ORT, aired an expose on Media-MOST featuring the company's executive dacha complex in Spain?

History shows, however, that state dachas also possess the potential to stabilize.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, for instance, had every right not to obey the hasty decisions contained in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha accord.

But the first Soviet president's will to resist was broken by the offer of a state dacha for life.

For the first time in the 20th century power passed from one leader to another in more or less orderly fashion.

And do you think that Yeltsin would have stepped down so easily if he hadn't been able to take the presidential residence in Barvikha along with him?

The chief lesson of the last decade comes down to this: State dachas, passed from the totalitarian Soviet Union to democratic Russia, are a strategic resource as important as oil and gas.

Wise stewardship of these reserves will ensure political stability during this century and into the next.

Alexei Pankin is editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (www.internews.ru/sreda).