‘‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’’ begins with one woman who lives in a city visiting her younger sister in the country. The elder sister is married to a successful tradesman, while the younger sister is married to a peasant in the village. The elder sister boasts about the advantages of living in the city: her family enjoys a very comfortable lifestyle. This annoys her sister, who insists that she would not want to live in a city with more money than she needs. She says that people in that situation often lose everything they have. In contrast, she says, although she and her husband will never get rich, they will always have enough to eat. The women continue to argue, and the younger sister says that in the town there are many temptations. The Devil may tempt her husband with gambling, drink, and women.
The younger sister’s husband, Pahom, listens to the argument. He thinks to himself that yes, the peasants work so hard they have no time for temptations. But there is one problem: the peasants do not have enough land. He thinks that if he had enough land, he would not even fear the Devil.
The Devil, who had been sitting behind the stove and listening, knows what Pahom was thinking. He thinks to himself that he will have a contest with Pahom. He will give the peasant land but will through that means get Pahom in his power.
Close to the village lives a lady who owns an estate of three hundred acres. She employs a steward who keeps fining the peasants when a horse or a cow strays onto the lady’s property. This upsets Pahom. One winter the lady wants to sell her land. The peasants get together and try to buy the land collectively, so that they all hold it in common. But they cannot agree on this plan and eventually decide to buy portions of the land individually, according to what each person can afford. Pahom uses his savings, sells some property, borrows some money, and manages to buy forty acres. He agrees to pay for half of it immediately, with the remainder due in two years. Pahom is now a landowner. He has good harvests and soon pays off his debt. He is happy.
The only problem Pahom has is that the neighboring peasants trespass on his land with their cattle and horses. At first he tries to be understanding. He knows that the peasants do not have much land, and he refuses to prosecute them. But after a while he loses patience, and a few of the peasants are forced to pay fines. The neighbors start to bear a grudge against him. After one peasant cuts down five of Pahom’s lime trees, Pahom is angry. He decides that a peasant named Simon is the culprit. He brings a complaint against Simon, but Simon is acquitted at the trial, since there is no evidence against him. Pahom accuses the judges of letting a thief go free, and he gets even more unpopular with his neighbors.
He hears a rumor that many of the peasants are moving to a new area. He does not want to move and hopes to acquire more land where he is, since he has convinced himself that he does not have enough to be comfortable.
Pahom offers a meal and shelter to a visiting peasant, who tells him that many peasants from Pahom’s area have been moving to a place beyond the river Volga. They had each been granted twenty-five acres of good land by the commune (the village community of peasants), and they were flourishing.
Pahom decides to investigate. That summer he makes the journey of hundreds of miles to the place the peasant spoke of. He finds that everything the peasant said was true. In the autumn he returns home and sells his land and cattle. In the spring, he heads off with his family for the new place.
When he arrives he joins the peasant commune of a large village, and he and his sons are given 125 acres. He is ten times better off than before and has all he needs. But then he finds that he wants to grow more wheat on his share of the communal land than he is allowed to. He rents some land and grows more wheat, but the crop is ten miles from the village and Pahom finds this inconvenient. For three years he has good crops but he grows tired of having to rent land and having to compete with other peasants to get it. He decides to buy some land and is about to buy thirteen hundred acres from a peasant. But then a dealer stops by and tells Pahom that he has just returned from the land of the Bashkirs. The Bashkirs, a nomadic people, live a long way away. The dealer says he has bought thirteen thousand acres for a mere one thousand rubles. This is much less than Pahom was going to pay for a tenth of that amount of land in his current area. The dealer says that all he had to do was befriend the Bashkir chiefs and present them with some gifts, and in return he got all that excellent land at a very cheap price. Pahom expresses interest in purchasing land from the Bashkir.
Pahom takes a servant with him and travels three hundred miles to the Bashkirs, who live in tents and seem to live an easy life. They do not work on the land but spend their days eating mutton and cheese and drinking kumys, made from cows’ milk. They are simple but good-natured folk and make Pahom feel welcome. He gives them some gifts and they are delighted. They ask him what he would like in return and he replies that he would like some land. The Bashkirs are happy to give him as much land as he wants.
The Bashkir chief arrives, and Pahom offers him some gifts, which the chief accepts. The chief agrees to let Pahom take as much land as he wants. Pahom asks for a title deed so that he can be assured that the land will really be his and cannot be taken from him. The chief agrees, and then says that the price of the land will be one thousand rubles a day. This means that Pahom can have as much land as he can walk around in a day. The only condition is that if he does not return by sunset to the same place where he started, he will lose his money. The chief tells Pahom that he can mark the land he passes by digging a hole and piling up the turf. Pahom is pleased and agrees to mark out the land starting at sunrise the next day.
During the night, Pahom plans to cover a circuit of thirty-five miles the following day. He is full of ideas of what he will do with all that land. He lies awake almost all night, but as he dozes off near dawn he has a dream. In the dream he hears someone outside laughing. He goes outside and finds the Bashkir chief laughing. But when Pahom asks him why he is laughing, he sees that it is not the chief but the dealer who first told him about the Bashkir land. Then he sees that it is not the dealer but the peasant who had come to him and told him about the region where he currently owned land. Then finally Pahom sees that the figure is in fact the Devil. In front of the Devil lies a dead man, and Pahom sees that the dead man is himself. He wakes up horrified, but it is nearly dawn and time to set off.
The Bashkirs and Pahom ride on horses and in carts to a small hill. The chief marks the spot with his cap, and Pahom puts his money on it. As the sun rises, Pahom sets off towards the east, digging holes and piling up turf every so often. After three miles it is getting warm. He takes his boots off and walks three more miles. Then he turns to the left and keeps on walking. By noon he is tired. He sits down to eat and drink and then starts off again. He feels hot and sleepy but carries on. When he turns once more and looks back to the hillock he sees it is very far away, and he decides to make the next side of his land shorter. But as the sun sinks he has still not walked two miles on this third side, and he still has ten miles to go. He decides to hurry back in a straight line.
Pahom heads straight back to the hillock but he is tired and walks with difficulty. He wonders what will happen if he is late back. He walks faster and faster but is still far from the hillock where the Bashkirs are waiting for him. He starts to run, although his strength is failing him. He fears he may die from the strain. As he gets closer to the hill, he hears the Bashkirs shouting and waving to him, telling him to hurry up. Pahom remembers his dream and wonders whether he will survive. The sun disappears below the horizon and it grows dark. Pahom thinks he has failed, but then he realizes that since the Bashkirs are on a hillock, they will still be able to see the sun. He runs up to the hillock. As his legs give way he reaches the cap with his hands. The chief exclaims that Pahom has gained much land, but when Pahom’s servant rushes up to him he finds that Pahom is dead. The servant digs a grave and buries him. All the land that Pahom needs now is six feet.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Leo Tolstoy – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.