Karenina (free Gutenberg
text) is one of the books I reread fairly regularly.
case I was inspired to reread it sooner than I would have
otherwise, because of looking
at the chapter about using a scythe. I had remembered
reading that, but not how detailed the description of how you
swing it and how often you have to whet it was. So I thought
there were probably other detailed descriptions of how 19th
century farming worked that I didn’t remember and would enjoy reading.
It turns out all the descriptions of how people did their work
were more detailed than I remembered. So I’ll point you at a few
I really enjoyed.
Serfs on private land were freed in 1861 and on public land in
1866. Anna Karenina was published serially in 1874-7 and in book
form in 1878.
So how a landowner got the farm work done with a different
relationship to the peasants that neither he nor they were used to
was a hot topic of conversation.
Here’s a conversation Levin has with a peasant who has done
Over their tea Levin heard all about the old man’s farming. Ten
years before, the old man had rented three hundred acres from the
lady who owned them, and a year ago he had bought them and rented
another three hundred from a neighboring landowner. A small part
of the land–the worst part–he let out for rent, while a
hundred acres of arable land he cultivated himself with his
family and two hired laborers. The old man complained that
things were doing badly. But Levin saw that he simply did so
from a feeling of propriety, and that his farm was in a
flourishing condition. If it had been unsuccessful he would not
have bought land at thirty-five roubles the acre, he would not
have married his three sons and a nephew, he would not have
rebuilt twice after fires, and each time on a larger scale. In
spite of the old man’s complaints, it was evident that he was
proud, and justly proud, of his prosperity, proud of his sons,
his nephew, his sons’ wives, his horses and his cows, and
especially of the fact that he was keeping all this farming
going. From his conversation with the old man, Levin thought he
was not averse to new methods either. He had planted a great
many potatoes, and his potatoes, as Levin had seen driving past,
were already past flowering and beginning to die down, while
Levin’s were only just coming into flower. He earthed up his
potatoes with a modern plough borrowed from a neighboring
landowner. He sowed wheat. The trifling fact that, thinning out
his rye, the old man used the rye he thinned out for his horses,
specially struck Levin. How many times had Levin seen this
splendid fodder wasted, and tried to get it saved; but always it
had turned out to be impossible. The peasant got this done, and
he could not say enough in praise of it as food for the beasts.
“What have the wenches to do? They carry it out in bundles to
the roadside, and the cart brings it away.”
“Well, we landowners can’t manage well with our laborers,” said
Levin, handing him a glass of tea.
“Thank you,” said the old man, and he took the glass, but refused
sugar, pointing to a lump he had left. “They’re simple
destruction,” said he. “Look at Sviazhsky’s, for instance. We
know what the land’s like–first-rate, yet there’s not much of a
crop to boast of. It’s not looked after enough–that’s all it
“But you work your land with hired laborers?”
“We’re all peasants together. We go into everything ourselves.
If a man’s no use, he can go, and we can manage by ourselves.”
One of the distinctions that’s drawn subtly between Levin, who
works his farm and takes care of his animals and the urbanized
noblemen, who like horses but just pay someone else to take care of
them, is how carefully he notices whether they’ve been worked too
Here, he’s on his way to go hunting with Veslovsky, previously
described as a quite uncongenial and superfluous
Vassenka was extremely delighted with the left horse, a horse of
the Don Steppes. He kept praising him enthusiastically. “How
fine it must be galloping over the steppes on a steppe horse!
Eh? isn’t it?” he said. He had imagined riding on a steppe horse
as something wild and romantic, and it turned out nothing of the
sort. But his simplicity, particularly in conjunction with his
good looks, his amiable smile, and the grace of his movements,
was very attractive. Either because his nature was sympathetic
to Levin, or because Levin was trying to atone for his sins of
the previous evening by seeing nothing but what was good in him,
anyway he liked his society.
After they had driven over two miles from home, Veslovsky all at
once felt for a cigar and his pocketbook, and did not know
whether he had lost them or left them on the table. In the
pocketbook there were thirty-seven pounds, and so the matter
could not be left in uncertainty.
“Do you know what, Levin, I’ll gallop home on that left
trace-horse. That will be splendid. Eh?” he said, preparing to
“No, why should you?” answered Levin, calculating that Vassenka
could hardly weigh less than seventeen stone. “I’ll send the
Later on, one indication that the affair with Anna is
destroying Vronsky’s ability to concentrate on the matters that
used to be important to him is the way he loses the horse race
that he’s been spending time and money on for weeks or months:
remained only the last ditch, filled with water and five feet
wide. Vronsky did not even look at it, but anxious to get in a
long way first began sawing away at the reins, lifting the mare’s
head and letting it go in time with her paces. He felt that the
mare was at her very last reserve of strength; not her neck and
shoulders merely were wet, but the sweat was standing in drops on
her mane, her head, her sharp ears, and her breath came in short,
sharp gasps. But he knew that she had strength left more than
enough for the remaining five hundred yards. It was only from
feeling himself nearer the ground and from the peculiar
smoothness of his motion that Vronsky knew how greatly the mare
had quickened her pace. She flew over the ditch as though not
noticing it. She flew over it like a bird; but at the same
instant Vronsky, to his horror, felt that he had failed to keep
up with the mare’s pace, that he had, he did not know how, made a
fearful, unpardonable mistake, in recovering his seat in the
saddle. All at once his position had shifted and he knew that
something awful had happened. He could not yet make out what had
happened, when the white legs of a chestnut horse flashed by
close to him, and Mahotin passed at a swift gallop. Vronsky was
touching the ground with one foot, and his mare was sinking on
that foot. He just had time to free his leg when she fell on one
side, gasping painfully, and, making vain efforts to rise with
her delicate, soaking neck, she fluttered on the ground at his
feet like a shot bird. The clumsy movement made by Vronsky had
broken her back. But that he only knew much later.
I’d never noticed before that Anna tells Dolly that she’s using
birth control after the difficult birth of her daughter:
“Well, and the most legitimate desire–he wishes that your
children should have a name.”
“What children?” Anna said, not looking at Dolly, and half
closing her eyes.
“Annie and those to come…”
“He need not trouble on that score; I shall have no more
“How can you tell that you won’t?”
“I shall not, because I don’t wish it.” And, in spite of all her
emotion, Anna smiled, as she caught the naÃ¯ve expression of
curiosity, wonder, and horror on Dolly’s face.
“The doctor told me after my illness…”
“Impossible!” said Dolly, opening her eyes wide.
For her this was one of those discoveries the consequences and
deductions from which are so immense that all that one feels for
the first instant is that it is impossible to take it all in, and
that one will have to reflect a great, great deal upon it.
This discovery, suddenly throwing light on all those families of
one or two children, which had hitherto been so incomprehensible
to her, aroused so many ideas, reflections, and contradictory
emotions, that she had nothing to say, and simply gazed with
wide-open eyes of wonder at Anna. This was the very thing she
had been dreaming of, but now learning that it was possible, she
was horrified. She felt that it was too simple a solution of too
complicated a problem.
“N’est-ce pas immoral?” was all she said, after a brief pause.
“Why so? Think, I have a choice between two alternatives: either
to be with child, that is an invalid, or to be the friend and
companion of my husband–practically my husband,” Anna said in a
tone intentionally superficial and frivolous.
“Yes, yes,” said Darya Alexandrovna, hearing the very arguments
she had used to herself, and not finding the same force in them
“For you, for other people,” said Anna, as though divining her
thoughts, “there may be reason to hesitate; but for me…. You
must consider, I am not his wife; he loves me as long as he
loves me. And how am I to keep his love? Not like this!”
She moved her white hands in a curve before her waist with
extraordinary rapidity, as happens during moments of excitement;
ideas and memories rushed into Darya Alexandrovna’s head. “I,”
she thought, “did not keep my attraction for Stiva; he left me
for others, and the first woman for whom he betrayed me did not
keep him by being always pretty and lively. He deserted her and
took another. And can Anna attract and keep Count Vronsky in
that way? If that is what he looks for, he will find dresses and
manners still more attractive and charming. And however white
and beautiful her bare arms are, however beautiful her full
figure and her eager face under her black curls, he will find
something better still, just as my disgusting, pitiful, and
charming husband does.”
Dolly made no answer, she merely sighed. Anna noticed this sigh,
indicating dissent, and she went on. In her armory she had other
arguments so strong that no answer could be made to them.
“Do you say that it’s not right? But you must consider,” she
went on; “you forget my position. How can I desire children?
I’m not speaking of the suffering, I’m not afraid of that. Think
only, what are my children to be? Ill-fated children, who will
have to bear a stranger’s name. For the very fact of their birth
they will be forced to be ashamed of their mother, their father,
“But that is just why a divorce is necessary.” But Anna did not
hear her. She longed to give utterance to all the arguments with
which she had so many times convinced herself.
“What is reason given me for, if I am not to use it to avoid
bringing unhappy beings into the world!” She looked at Dolly,
but without waiting for a reply she went on:
“I should always feel I had wronged these unhappy children,” she
said. “If they are not, at any rate they are not unhappy; while
if they are unhappy, I alone should be to blame for it.”
These were the very arguments Darya Alexandrovna had used in her
own reflections; but she heard them without understanding them.
“How can one wrong creatures that don’t exist?” she thought. And
all at once the idea struck her: could it possibly, under any
circumstances, have been better for her favorite Grisha if he had
never existed? And this seemed to her so wild, so strange, that
she shook her head to drive away this tangle of whirling, mad
“No, I don’t know; it’s not right,” was all she said, with an
expression of disgust on her face.
“Yes, but you mustn’t forget that you and I…. And besides
that,” added Anna, in spite of the wealth of her arguments and
the poverty of Dolly’s objections, seeming still to admit that it
was not right, “don’t forget the chief point, that I am not now
in the same position as you. For you the question is: do you
desire not to have any more children; while for me it is: do I
desire to have them? And that’s a great difference. You must
see that I can’t desire it in my position.”
Darya Alexandrovna made no reply. She suddenly felt that she had
got far away from Anna; that there lay between them a barrier of
questions on which they could never agree, and about which it was
better not to speak.
I browsed Wikipedia on the history of birth control, and the
only suggestion relevant to what method Anna might have been using
is in the
barrier contraception article, which says:
The diaphragm and reusable condoms became common after the invention of rubber vulcanization in the early nineteenth century.
Since Vronsky clearly doesn’t know she’s using birth control,
it couldn’t have been a condom.
As an election official, I was interested that the mechanics of
the secret ballot in 19th century Russia gave even less assurance
that the voter had voted the way he wanted to than our paperless
The district marshals walked carrying plates, on which were
balls, from their tables to the high table, and the election
“Put it in the right side,” whispered Stepan Arkadyevitch, as
with his brother Levin followed the marshal of his district to
the table. But Levin had forgotten by now the calculations that
had been explained to him, and was afraid Stepan Arkadyevitch
might be mistaken in saying “the right side.” Surely Snetkov was
the enemy. As he went up, he held the ball in his right hand,
but thinking he was wrong, just at the box he changed to the left
hand, and undoubtedly put the ball to the left. An adept in the
business, standing at the box and seeing by the mere action of
the elbow where each put his ball, scowled with annoyance. It
was no good for him to use his insight.
Conclusion (for now)
There were lots more interesting passages that I can use the
next time I feel like letting Leo Tolstoy write my blog entry for
The passsages quoted above are all ones I don’t remember
noticing much before, so even if you don’t enjoy them, it doesn’t
mean you won’t enjoy lots of other things about the book.