The Microeconomics of the Dacha

Alexander Polivanov
31 July 2009

Almost every week since the beginning of spring I have been going to our dacha.

I take the metro, the suburban train, the bus and then walk for 10 minutes. It takes me just as long to get back.

In the spring Dmitri Gaev, the head of the Moscow metro, said that 400,000 fewer people are now using the metro every day because of the crisis. 400,000! But I've asked around and no one thinks the metro is less crowded.  I don't think so either.  At 6 p.m. last Friday at Komsomolskaya metro station, I was surrounded by a crowd of sweaty, wild, hurrying, tipsy, half-naked, noisy people with rucksacks on their backs. These were not people who had been put off taking the metro by the crisis.

I'm always interested to know how the dry statistics in economic reports relate to real life. In Estonia, for example, GDP fell by more than 15% in the first quarter of this year. And what happened? Did cafes and bars close down? Did prices rise? Were there fewer tourists? I was in Tartu at the end of April and didn't notice anything of the kind.

As I was setting off for the dacha, I wondered what effect the economic crisis has had on life in the suburbs. Russian Railways assert that passenger flows in the first months of 2009 dropped by 20-30%, but this is not obvious in the overcrowded suburban train.  What I have noticed is that for the first time I can remember ticket inspectors have appeared in trains from Moscow to Golutvin.   When I was a child my friends and I would go to Zolotovo to swim in the gorges and I do remember that there would occasionally be some obscure, unshaven guys who wandered up and down the aisles of the train, but no one ever fined us. Later on, even these disappeared: when turnstiles were installed at central stations the Russian Railways turnover evidently increased to such an extent that checking passengers' tickets between small stations became completely unnecessary.

But now - in both directions - we have people in special jackets with badges of the  "Central Suburban Rail Company". Almost no one objects to them, not even people without tickets, who get a special receipt, which gets them through the turnstile, if necessary.

The Central Suburban Rail Company is a new player in the railway transport market. It was created over a year ago as a subsidiary of the state monopoly, Russian Railways, and operates using their staff and rolling stock.  Ticket inspectors may have appeared over the last year, but the company's website is still not finished.  It bears the information that "the company serves passengers on routes extending over XX kilometres, and carries over XX passengers every day."  No, this doesn't mean 20 kilometres or 20 passengers. It means that the company itself doesn't know how many passengers it carries.

Or here's another difference in the "anti-crisis" journey out of Moscow: all the fences used to have graffiti in black paint saying things like "Azeris, get out of Russia", or "Believe and you will be saved". Now the graffiti are more romantic: "Crisis, war, revolution". All in the same black paint.

When I get to the dacha, I notice another change. Our dacha cooperative "Torfyanik", which means peat moor,  used to be looked after by a family of Armenians. Now we have Tajiks. What does this mean? An escalation in the battle between ethnic clans for construction jobs in the Moscow region? A drop in the demand for building fences, showers, toilets and garden paths? No, it turned out to be much more prosaic: the Armenians have gone to  "Orbita", the cooperative next door, where the pay is better...

My father arranged with some of the Tajik guards to fix his roof.  First the bargaining, then they reached an agreement and walked around the house, discussing the details in broken Russian. My father asked them: "If you've all come to Russia, who's left to build houses in Tajikistan?" "Who do you think?" the Tajik replied. "The Chinese. They're cheap labour".

According to official data, immigrants from Tajikistan send $1.5-2 billion home every year (the unofficial figure is much higher).  Along with the export of cotton and aluminum, income from Tajiks working abroad forms the basis of the country's budget. The revenue from these migrants could drop by at least a third in 2009, according to forecasts by the Tajikistan government. But it obviously won't be because of one individual dacha cooperative...

15 years ago there used to be flower and vegetable beds at the dachas, but they were dug up about five or six years ago and grass was planted. Now it needs to be mown. By 2009 everyone in the area had bought lawn mowers, and mowing the grass became a popular occupation. "We came here yesterday, and the grass has grown up so much," my father complained, as he turned the lawnmower on again. The neighbour to the left was also doing some mowing; he and my father were competing. The neighbour opposite was envious, as he only has a manual trimmer. Next year he's thinking of buying a lawnmower... Out of interest, I looked on the internet to see how much they cost. A trimmer costs from 3-23,000 rubles (US$ 100-800). A lawnmower from 3-46,000 (US$ 100-1500).

But even such expensive equipment is not the dacha owner's biggest outlay.  The neighbour with the trimmer was still building his house. The other neighbour was finishing off his garage. My father was fixing his roof.

Do I need to tell you that the market selling building materials next to our dachas has not closed down because of the crisis? Judging by the way sales are going, it's not exactly poor either.

Or was that just my impression? Again official statistics tell a different story. According to the Moscow Region Statistics Board, concrete production fell by 28.3% in the first quarter of 2009  by comparison with the same period last year.  The production of pre-cast concrete structures and units dropped by 41.5%, and of bricks by 47.2%. This means that building materials markets should have only their old supplies to sell. But there is plenty of selling going on - I can see it for myself.

I also see crowded dacha plots. 10 years ago I used to spend all my free time at the dacha. Village life was dying out there, along with the old people.  Muscovites increasingly came to Torfyanik only at weekends, to make merry with their friends in a natural setting.

Now everything has changed. Boys and girls run up and down the streets again, and kids ride their bikes. You can even hear babies crying in the houses at bath time. The smell of cabbage soup or shchi wafts between the houses, mixing with the smell of smoke from barrels of burning rubbish.

Can the reawakening of dacha life be explained by statistics? Yes it can: travel agents' figures show that tourism to foreign beach resort destinations has fallen by 25% in 2009.   So where did all these people go? To dachas, of course. To their forgotten mothers-in-law, grandfathers, friends from childhood, or even to rented houses...

Is this logical? Of course. But prices for renting dachas are not only not increasing, they are actually falling, in line with the overall trend in the property market. Some experts quote a 30% drop, while others say it's  20-25% compared with last year. Supply on the market continues to exceed demand... so many dachas must be standing empty.  The only thing is I haven't seen any.

And last of all. Upstairs at my dacha I have a small library of "second wave" books. These are books I would never read in Moscow, but which I feel are important. Soviet classics, generals' war memoirs and old copies of the literary journals Novy Mir and Roman-gazeta....

I remembered about these books as I was leaving the dacha.  I looked at the shelves, and decided to take Engels' "Anti-Duehring" to Moscow. After all, the statistics tell us there's a crisis going on. And soon it'll be the second wave.

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