|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 K DIETSCH
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARY LANDSMAN
|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
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."
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.
"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.
"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."
|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.
Off the living room, the walnut paneled
library incorporates built-in window seats and shelving holding books in
Russian and English. The oriental rug and tapestry-upholstered bergere
are typical of the furnishings throughout the house.
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
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
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
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
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
A dainty figurine (top left) represents
the home's impressive collection of German and Hungarian porcelains.
A round skylight illuminates the
grand staircase (top right) leading to upper-floor bedroom suites.
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.
Wrought ironwork accents the brick
facade fronting the side courtyard off the enclosed living room porch.
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."
A painted mural of toasting Russian
and American sailors decorates the rear wall of the rustic hunting lodge,
a former outbuilding converted by
the ambassador and his wife for entertaining.
Brian and Linda Bigham pose with
Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov
at the end of a farm table custom
made to his exact specifications.