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Atlantic Abroad
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Previously in Atlantic Abroad:

  • Blazing Telefonini (Tom Mueller, Italy, September 11, 1997).

  • French Games (John Robinson, Madagascar, August 27, 1997).

  • Heaven in a Ballotin (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, August 13, 1997).

  • The Tentative Tourist (C. Michael Curtis, Spain, July 30, 1997).

  • The Sausages of Wrath (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, July 16, 1997).

  • Classic Tricks (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, June 25, 1997).

  • Alone on the Brink (William Langewiesche, Chile, June 11, 1997).

  • Globetrotting with the Doozer (Jeffrey Tayler, Greece, May 29, 1997).

  • The Car as Social Barometer (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, May 14, 1997).

  • Of Bird Songs and Buddhas (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, April 30, 1997).

  • The Discreet Charm of the (Chilean) Bourgeoisie (William Langewiesche, Chile, April 16, 1997).

  • Beware the Eighth of March (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 2, 1997).

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  • The Dacha Regime
    Moscow -- September 25, 1997

    One day this past June, my friend Tat'yana invited me out to her parents' dacha north of Moscow. We arrived to a scene straight out of Turgenev's Hunter's Sketches: ancient, mottled birches and silver-leafed poplars lolled in the vernal breeze above a bucket-and-chain well, and a line of regimented, hoe-brandishing relatives, visiting from the nearby city of Tambov, was emerging from the green and white cottage. Their commander, Tat'yana's mother, greeted us and shoved hoes into our hands.

    "You young people weed the cucumber patch; Aunt Irina will be pickling beets; Uncle Fedya is spearing shashlik. No bellyaching! March! March!"

    Tat'yana, who would under normal urban circumstances be seen in nothing less fashionable than a Versace blouse or Vicini pumps, fashioned a hat out of a yellowed issue of Pravda, donned a bikini and flip-flops, and set about hoeing her rows with a preternatural ease whose origin I simply could not fathom. I puttered around attempting to look busy, but minutes later I felt eagle eyes boring into my back.

    "The American doesn't know how to hoe!" Mama shouted, hustling out of the kitchen. "He's from such an advanced country, yet even simple hoeing technology is beyond him. Tanya, show him how."

    I hoed as fervently as I could, mincing all manner of weeds that seemed to be the only things growing in the little craters reserved for planting. When I showed Tat'yana what I had done her eyes widened.

    "You've just hacked up a whole row of cucumbers!"

    Looking over her shoulder lest Mama notice, she carefully replaced the leaves I had hoed to bits. "If anyone discovers what you've done, we can say it was our neighbors. They're always jealous of Papa. Hating people in power is one of our national traditions." (Tat'yana's father is a prominent local politician.)

    As if on cue, a feisty czarina in her fifties traipsed down the lane, flung open the gate, stomped over to the dacha's well, and drew a bucketful of water.

    Tat'yana whispered, "Papa had a well dug outside our fence, but the neighbors, to spite him, refuse to use it. They are accustomed to using ours." The neighbor gripped the bucket to her belly and marched past us, slamming the gate.

    Tat'yana hoed down the row. Aunt Irina emerged from the pickling room and sidled up to me. "Someone should write a novel about my travails," she said. "I'm not one to complain, but no one knows the suffering I've seen. Corruption, a collapsing economy, salaries unpaid for months; that's my lot. The lot of a simple Soviet woman. Good Soviet people are losing out to thugs. A person of virtue and morals --"

    "Get back to those beets!" Mama shouted from the kitchen window. Aunt Irina scurried away.

    Tat'yana shook her head. "Aunty, a school director, doesn't need her salary with all the bribes she takes from parents. In fact, she and Uncle Fedya have just bought a new car and refurbished their apartment."

    Noon arrived. Chickadees peeped in the firs. Above us rose cumulus clouds, battlemented like kremlins of yore. Mama called us to the table, which was set with shashlik, tomatoes, black bread, vodka, and shot glasses. Uncle Fedya sat next to me.

    "Dzheff," Mama said. "Tell me. Doesn't Fedya look like a typical American peasant? I mean, tanned, blue-eyed -- just like a peasant from western America, right?"

    Fedya blanched. "Why, I do not!"

    I told Mama that I thought any American would be proud to look as healthy as Fedya, and that working the earth in the United States was not, in any case, considered a lowly occupation. Fedya, however, was a proud urbanite and bristled at being called a peasant of any nationality. A long discussion followed about whether there were peasants and dachas and villages in the United States, and Mama, Irina, Fedya, and the others concluded that I was to be pitied for having grown up without the character-building, gulag-like rigor of the dacha regime -- not to mention the perfectly pickled dills and brined beets that were its object.

    Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow. He has recently written on Transylvania, Siberia, and Zaire for The Atlantic Monthly. He contributes regularly to Atlantic Abroad.

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