How Much Land Does a Man Need? | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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How Much Land Does a Man Need? | Context


Skaz: Russian Oral Storytelling

"How Much Land Does a Man Need?" uses the Russian form of skaz, a written narrative imitating the form and dialect of oral storytelling. The story employs simple language and a conversational tone as if a person is spontaneously relating events to a listener.

Skaz has its roots in Russian oral folklore. The word itself comes from the Russian skazat, meaning "to tell." A skaz narrator speaks informally, mimicking the speech of a storyteller from a rural, unsophisticated background. "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" also borrows patterns from folklore: the Devil interferes, and the main character learns a moral lesson. Most of the characters are rural Russian peasants.

Using this form represented an experiment for Tolstoy. In the 1880s he wrote a series of stories with an audience of peasants in mind. He felt his earlier works, like the famous novels War and Peace (1865–69) and Anna Karenina (1875–77), pandered to wealthier readers in the societies they described. He hoped his new stories would do more good by improving the lives of the common people. With his publisher V. G. Chertkov (1854–1936), he founded The Intermediary (Posrednik), a publishing house dedicated to educational and moral writing.

Tolstoy's Beliefs

The story reflects the Judeo-Christian values of Tolstoy's later life. It warns against greed, emphasizes divine control over human affairs, and suggests that material possessions are meaningless in the face of death. Tolstoy lived out these beliefs most strongly after his conversion to Christianity in the 1870s.

His brand of Christianity was individual and revolutionary, affecting all aspects of his life. He didn't join a church, he gave up material pleasures like drinking and smoking, and he dedicated himself to simple, communal living. His efforts inspired "Tolstoyan" utopian communities around the world. Rejecting his aristocratic background, Tolstoy took on manual labor and worked with the peasants on his estate. He dressed like the peasants and enjoyed their company.

Soon Tolstoy's writing reflected this transformation. "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" is one of several moral folktales Tolstoy wrote and collected from the 1870s onward. In addition to promoting Christian spirituality, the tales demonstrate Tolstoy's thoughts about money and social class. Tolstoy believed rural peasants, who owned few material goods, were in better spiritual shape than wealthy aristocrats. When Pahom, the main character in the story, attempts to increase and profit from his personal landholdings, he runs into trouble.

Peasant Communes in 19th-Century Russia

For most of the story, Pahom is a member of a peasant commune. Known as mirs, these communes were self-governing villages of farmers in Russia. Male heads of families assembled to make decisions for the group, and each assembly elected a representative elder.

This self-governance was relatively new to Russian communes in the 1880s, when Tolstoy was writing. Until 1861 Russian peasants labored as serfs or tenant farmers for wealthy landowners. The 1861 Emancipation Act of Emperor Alexander II (1818–81) abolished serfdom and gave each peasant a small amount of land.

The transition to private ownership was gradual. Although the peasants' homes were hereditary property they could pass down to their children, their land still belonged to the commune as a whole. Some communes periodically redistributed land among households to make sure everyone paid roughly equal taxes. Others let peasants have individual rights to land plots.

Despite their newfound freedom, the peasants still had to pay off debts to the state, making what were known as redemption payments. The pressure of the payments limited their ability to save money. As more peasants wanted land, the available land areas declined.

Some peasants became more prosperous than others. These kulaks, as they were called, could afford larger farms, more animals, and hired labor. They often owned their land outright. Poorer peasants were envious. What's more, the kulaks' landholdings threatened their own ability to expand their farms. Resentment grew between kulaks and other peasants.

Pahom experiences similar tension with his neighbors as his wealth increases during Parts 1 through 5 of the story. Tolstoy bases the plot on a recognizable reality, demonstrating how competition for limited resources can lead to conflict and corruption.

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