The novel is set in the aftermath of serf emancipation in Russia, which, apparently, merely transformed the serfs into peons, because they had to pay onerous redemption levies and received very little of the best land to which they had once belonged. Worse, paternalism remained alive and well, as many of the newly emancipated peasants languished in some kind of dependent relationship with their erstwhile masters. Early in the book (pp. 36-39), when the ex-serfs of the “liberal” Shchetinin perform shoddy construction work for him, he thinks only of “punishing” rather than firing them. When a peasant woman complains of being beaten by her husband, Shchetinin can only recommend “take her away from him.” (p. 47) Peasants must doff their caps whenever their betters pass by; if they fail to do so, they are locked up in the barn to be taught a lesson. (pp. 117, 128-129)
The radical in the story, Riazanov, somewhat understandably, sees through the façade of paternalism to a society in constant conflict. He considers it “war” when peasants steel wood or even if they indulge in drink. (pp. 104-105) When a “mediator” of gentry-peasant relations criticizes the landlords, Riazanov, to prove his unsentimental point, applies the criticism to the peasants, too:
“What haven’t they done to those unfortunate peasants? You can’t imagine what sort of people they are. Where they can possibly squeeze the peasants, they do so, never missing a chance.”
“Well, and do the peasants miss any chances?”
“Of course, to tell the truth, the peasants stand up for themselves: one way or another, they wear down the landowner.”
“In other words, it’s mutual exhaustion.” (p. 131)
Riazanov is really echoing the zero-sum economics of Marxism, upon which he expands in due time:
“If only one portion of bread is issued to two people, and of these two, one is stronger than the other, then from the point of view of the stronger, the most natural outcome would be to take the bread away from the weaker person….
“I see a diligent peasant; I see that he digs the earth and earns his bread by the sweat of his brow; then I observe that at a certain distance from him stand some people I’ve recently met and they’re patiently waiting while the diligent landowner enjoys the work and produces a yield; then they’ll approach this peasant and, in the most polite manner, take from him all that they can according to the rules for the good of enlightenment, and they’ll leave him with only as much as he needs for his own use to maintain ‘the form of a slave’ and not perish from starvation.” (pp. 173-174)
By the end of the novel, Riazanov is motivated to shed his nihilism and apply himself to the task of “organizing the artels,” referring to peasant and worker cooperatives (p. 178), thus coming full circle to embrace a new, revolutionary form of paternalism: Since the days of lord and serf are ended, he will become cadre to the proletariat.
A note about the style: Much of the novel consists of dialogue, and almost all of the dialogue is choppy and excruciating to read. This defect may be the fault of the translator, the writer, the language, or the alcohol consumed by the characters.