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Russia: Dacha Season Begins -- Some Plant Potatoes, Others Fly South

Despite Russia's continuing economic crisis, Muscovites appear determined to flee the city to take advantage of an unusually long May Day holiday break this year. On Friday (April 30), in advance of the holiday, our Moscow correspondent explored the particular importance of the holiday for residents of the capital this year

Moscow, 3 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Nadezhda Sergeeva is busy packing. This evening, loaded with bags and rucksacks full of seeds, plants and detergents, she will board a crammed suburban train at the busy Yaroslavsky station. She will head north of Moscow, to her dacha in Semkhoz, some 90 kilometers away.

Sergeeva notes that May Day is now officially called the Day of Peace and Labor, but says: "That changes nothing for me." She says like previous years, she will use the long break to plant potatoes, carrots and flowers and clean her summer house after the winter.

The May break has traditionally marked the start of the dacha season in Russia and this year is no exception.

Sergeeva says: "You cannot realize how important it is for my family to be able to count on the fruits and vegetables we produce in our little plot." Her official salary as a construction engineer in a building company does not reach one thousand rubles per month (some $40 at the current exchange rate of 24 rubles to the dollar).

This year, May 1 falls on a Saturday but the holiday will run through Tuesday, May 4. For most, however, the break will last even longer, as Labor day traditionally bridges with May 9, Victory Day in Russia. And, as the celebration this year follows on a Sunday, the government generously announced that Monday, May 10, will be a public holiday, too.

Most schools and offices will be closed and the political scene seemingly will be empty. Many State Duma deputies have already left Moscow and will reconvene only on May 12, when they will start debating the impeachment of President Boris Yeltsin.

Even Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov will spend the coming May break at his country residence outside Moscow. But Primakov, who is already in the countryside, is unlikely to tend his garden. His spokeswoman, Tatyana Aristarkhova, said he will continue medical treatment for a back problem until May 4, when he returns to Moscow for a working meeting.

This holiday largesse in a country experiencing a dire economic crisis may seem strange, but it makes a lot of sense for most Russians.

Work at the summer house is not the only option. For Oleg Volkov, a 35-year-old computer specialist, "this is a generational thing." His parents, he says, will be at the dacha, but he prefers to spend nearly all his monthly $700 salary to get on a plane and fly to Italy on a $500 tour.

Tour operators at Griphon travel, a Moscow travel agency, say that all the planes for popular destinations such as Italy or Cyprus are fully booked on May 1 and May 10.

A spokeswoman at Griphon told our correspondent: "It is mainly Aeroflot flights, which are cheaper, but also Alitalia flights are fully booked. Yes, the country is in a terrible economic crisis, but a holiday is a holiday and now plane tickets are cheaper than ever."

A return ticket to Milan on Aeroflot is currently $280, while the cheapest Aeroflot return ticket to New York these days runs at $430.

This is, indeed, a bargain, but for Tamara and Anna Aleksandrov, two Moscow pensioner sisters over 70 years of age, it seems like a distant dream. Tamara Aleksandrov says she lives with her sister so that they can help each other with their combined pensions.

The two sisters have a little more than one thousand rubles ($40) per month to share and they spend most of their money in medicines. Anna says she and her sister will spend the May holidays at home watching television.

Meanwhile, the traditional May Day demonstrations are still planned, with trade unions tomorrow expected to urge the government to increase wages by 50 percent.

Three major demonstrations are scheduled to take place in the capital, organized separately by trade unions, the Communist party and by the radical leftist Working Unions.

Trade Union leader Mikhail Shmakov says demonstrations have been organized across Russia. He said thousands of people are expected to join.

"The events linked to the financial crisis of August 17 of last year led to the fact that salaries nominally remained at the same level, but the consumer purchasing-power -- which means real salaries -- fell twice, because inflation rose ... and salaries were not increased."

Sergeeva seems skeptical about the May demonstrations. She says: "the state is broke and we all know it." She concluded that "planting potatoes is far wiser than marching at demonstrations."