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Doctor Zhivago: The Russian Countryside after the Revolution

by John Cobley

Thursday May 4th, 2023


Yury completed the last stage of his journey to Moscow by train, having done the first and far longer part on foot.

            The condition of the villages he passed through was no better than what he had seen in Siberia and the Urals during his escape from the Forest Brotherhood. Back then he had been traveling in winter; now at the end of summer, the dry, warm autumn weather made things much easier.

            Half the villages he passed through were deserted, as if there had been an enemy invasion. Fields were abandoned unharvested. Such were the consequence of war, a civil war, in fact.

            For two or three days at the end of September, his road followed a steep, high riverbank. On his right the river flowed towards him. On his left, uncultivated fields stretched out from the road to the cloud-packed skyline. These fields were broken up in some places by deciduous trees, mainly oak, elm and maple. The forests ran down deep ravines to the river, cutting across the road along precipitous slopes.

            The rye in the unharvested fields was spilling from its over-ripe husks. On those occasions when he was unable to cook, Yury filled his mouth with handfuls of the grain, chewing it with difficulty. It was hard for him to digest this raw, poorly chewed food.

            Never in his life had Yury seen rye of such an ominous dark colour, like old tarnished gold. When harvested on time it was usually much lighter.

            Although not on fire, these fields were burning with the colours of flames. They were crying silently for help. The horizon showed the cold calmness of a vast sky that already had the look of winter—long, stratified snow clouds with black centers and white edges were floating by non-stop like shadows across a face.  

            Everything was moving slowly and steadily. The river flowed on. The road stretched out to meet it. The doctor walked on. The clouds drifted in the same direction. Even the fields were not still. Something was swarming there irrepressibly, disgustingly.

            Mice had bred in the fields in unprecedented numbers. When darkness forced him to lie down for the night, they scurried over his face and hands and up through his sleeves and trouser-legs. On the road during the day, these infinitely multiplying and overfed swarms were crushed under his feet, turning into a slimy, squealing and slithering mush when he trod on them. 

            A pack of threatening, wild, shaggy country mongrels followed him at a respectful distance, exchanging glances as if they were conferring on the best time to pounce on the doctor and devour him.

            They lived on carrion, but did not disdain the mice swarming in the fields. They watched the doctor from a distance, confidently following him and all the time expecting something. Strangely, they would not enter forests. When he approached one, they would gradually fall back, turn tail and disappear.

            Thus the forests and the fields were complete opposites. Without humans the fields seemed orphaned, as if cursed by their absence. Well rid of man, the forests flaunted their freedom like prisoners released from captivity.

The forest slopes and ravines were all covered with a virginal, rough, golden foliage as if coloured with an autumn suntan. Protruding elegantly from this foliage as if tied three or four at a time with string or bows, the nuts were ripe and ready to fall out of their husks. Yury cracked and chewed them as he walked. His pockets were stuffed with them, and his knapsack was full of them too. Nuts were his main diet for a whole week.

            It seemed to Yury that the fields he saw were severely ill and in a feverish delirium, while the forests were in a lucid state of recovery, as if God dwelt in the forests and the devil’s mocking smile snaked across the fields.

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