Dr. Zhivago on Corruption and Agorism after the October Revolution


They had already been traveling for three days, but had not gone far from Moscow. The landscape along the way was wintry: the tracks, the fields, the forests, the roofs of the villages-everything lay under snow.

The Zhivago family had found themselves by luck on the left corner of the upper front bunk, by a dim, elongated window just under the ceiling, where they settled in a family circle, not breaking up their company.

Antonina Alexandrovna was traveling in a freight car for the first time. When they were getting on the train in Moscow, Yuri Andreevich had lifted the women up to the level of the car floor, along the edge of which rolled a heavy sliding door. Further on, the women got the knack of it and climbed into the car by themselves.

At first the cars had seemed to Antonina Alexandrovna like cattle sheds on wheels. These pens, in her opinion, were bound to fall apart at the first jolt or shake. But it was already the third day that they were being thrown forward or back or sideways on turns or as the momentum changed, and the third day that the axles went on knocking rapidly under the floor, like the sticks of a wind-up toy drum, and the trip went very well, and Antonina Alexandrovna’s apprehensions proved unjustified.

The long train, consisting of twenty-three cars (the Zhivagos were in the fourteenth), stretched only some one part of itself-the head, the tail, the middle-along the short platforms of the stations.

The front cars were for the military, in the middle rode the free public, at the end those mobilized by labor conscription.

There were about five hundred passengers of this category, people of all ages and the most diverse ranks and occupations.

The eight cars that this public occupied presented a motley spectacle. Alongside well-dressed rich people, Petersburg stockbrokers and lawyers, one could see-also recognized as belonging to the class of exploiters-cabdrivers, floor polishers, bathhouse attendants, Tartar junkmen, runaway madmen from disbanded asylums, small shopkeepers, and monks.

The first sat around the red-hot stoves without their jackets, on short, round blocks stood upright, telling each other something and laughing loudly. They were people with connections. They were not dejected. At home influential relations were interceding for them. In any case, they could buy themselves off further along the way.

The second, wearing boots and unbuttoned kaftans, or long, loose shirts over their pants and going barefoot, bearded or beardless, stood by the slid-open doors of the stuffy cars, holding on to the doorposts and the bars across the opening, looked sullenly at the area by the wayside and its inhabitants, and talked to no one. They did not have the necessary acquaintances. They had nothing to hope for.

Not all these people were placed in the cars authorized for them. A portion had been tucked into the middle of the train, mixed with the free public. There were people of that sort in the fourteenth car.


Usually, when the train approached some station, Antonina Alexandrovna, who was lying on the upper level, raised herself to the uncomfortable position she was forced into by the low ceiling, which prevented her from straightening up, hung her head over the side, and, through the chink of the slightly opened door, determined whether the place presented any interest from the point of view of barter and whether it was worthwhile getting down from the bunk and going outside.

And so it was now. The slowing pace of the train brought her out of her drowsiness. The multitude of switches over which the freight car jolted with increasingly loud bumps spoke for the importance of the station and the length of the forthcoming stop.

Antonina Alexandrovna sat bent over, rubbed her eyes, smoothed her hair, and, thrusting her hand into the knapsack, rummaged around and pulled out a towel embroidered with roosters, little figures, yokes, and wheels.

Just then the doctor woke up, jumped down from the berth first, and helped his wife climb down to the floor.

Meanwhile, past the open door of the car, following the switchmen’s boxes and lampposts, there already floated the trees of the station, weighed down by whole layers of snow, which looked like a welcome offering for the train, and the first to jump down from the still quickly moving train onto the pristine snow of the platform were the sailors, who, to get ahead of everyone, went running around the station building, where, in the shelter of the side wall, women selling forbidden food usually hid.

The sailors’ black uniforms, the flying ribbons of their peakless caps, and their bell-bottomed trousers lent a dash and impetuosity to their steps and made everyone give way before them, as before downhill skiers or skaters racing at top speed.

Around the corner of the station, hiding behind one another and as nervous as if they were telling fortunes, peasant women from the nearby villages lined up with cucumbers, cottage cheese, boiled beef, and rye cheesecakes, which, under the quilted covers they were brought in, kept their aroma and warmth even in the cold. The women and girls, in kerchiefs tucked under their winter jackets, blushed like poppies at some of the sailors’ jokes, and at the same time feared them worse than fire, because it was mostly of sailors that all sorts of detachments were formed for combating speculation and forbidden free trade.

The peasant women’s confusion did not last long. The train was coming to a stop. Other passengers were arriving. The public intermingled. Trade became brisk.

Antonina Alexandrovna was making the rounds of the women, the towel thrown over her shoulder, looking as if she were going behind the station to wash with snow. She had already been called to from the lines several times:

“Hey, you, city girl, what are you asking for the towel?”

But Antonina Alexandrovna, without stopping, walked on further with her husband.

At the end of the line stood a woman in a black kerchief with free crimson designs. She noticed the embroidered towel. Her bold eyes lit up. She glanced sideways, made sure that danger did not threaten from anywhere, quickly went up close to Antonina Alexandrovna, and, throwing back the cover of her goods, whispered in a heated patter:

“Looky here. Ever seen the like? Aren’t you tempted? Well, don’t think too long-it’ll be snapped up. Give me the towel for the halfy.”

Antonina Alexandrovna did not catch the last word. She thought the woman had said something about a calf.

“What’s that, my dear?”

By a halfy the peasant woman meant half a hare, split in two and roasted from head to tail, which she was holding in her hands. She repeated:

“I said give me the towel for a halfy. Why are you looking at me? It’s not dog meat. My husband’s a hunter. It’s a hare, a hare.”

The exchange was made. Each side thought she had made a great gain and the opposite side was as great a loser. Antonina Alexandrovna was ashamed to have fleeced the poor woman so dishonestly. But the woman, pleased with the deal, hastened to put sin behind her and, calling the woman next to her, who was all traded out, strode home with her down a narrow path trampled in the snow, which led to somewhere far away.

Just then there was a commotion in the crowd. Somewhere an old woman shouted:

“Where are you off to, young sir? And the money? When did you give it to me, you shameless liar? Ah, you greedy gut, I shout at him, and he walks off and doesn’t look back. Stop, I said, stop, mister comrade! Help! Thief! Robbery! There he is, there, hold him!”

“Which one?”

“Him walking there, with the shaved mug, laughing.”

“The one with a hole on his elbow?”

“Yes, yes. Hold him, the heathen!”

“The one with the patched sleeve?”

“Yes, yes. Ah, dear God, I’ve been robbed!”

“What’s the story here?”

“He was buying pies and milk from this old woman, stuffed himself full, and pffft! She’s here, howling her head off.”

“It can’t be left like that. He’s got to be caught.”

“Go on, catch him. He’s all belts and cartridges. He’ll do the catching.”

– Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, 182-184.

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