Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 19, 2021

‘Master and Man’, by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Louise Maude and Aylmer Maude, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders

I hope you’re not getting sick of my current preoccupation with Russian short stories!  (I’m nearly finished my current novel, so there’ll be something different soon.)

The fourth story that George Saunders explores in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is Master and Man, by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), first published in 1895. It’s a superb story.

The Russian Winter is a force to be reckoned with, but when there’s business to be done, Vasili Andreevich—who prides himself on being a self-made man—lets nothing stand in his way.  He’s done his duty as a church elder in respect of the fête on the day after St Nicholas’s Day, and he’s impatient to be off.  There’s a parcel of land in Goryachkin that he wants, and he’s been driving a hard bargain but now there are rivals for the grove and he needs to beat them to it.

So as soon as the feast was over, he took seven hundred rubles from his strong box, added to them two thousand three hundred rubles of church money he had in his keeping, so as to make the sum up to three thousand; carefully counted the notes, and having put them into his pocket-book, made haste to start. (p.165)

So we know from the third paragraph that he’s not exactly an honest man, and before long we also learn that he cheats his labourers and they can’t do anything about it.

His companion for the journey is the peasant Nikita.  Vasili’s wife timidly insists on it despite Vasili’s derisive, snappish, patronising response.  Maybe she knows he’s had a vodka or two, and perhaps she thinks Nikita, remorsefully sober now for two months and the only labourer not drunk that day, will be a deterrent to would-be thieves.  But Tolstoy spares us no detail in the contrast between the two men: Vasili has two fur-lined coats one over the other, sturdy boots and gloves, while Nikita has a miserable worn out cloth-coat over a frayed and torn short sheepskin leather gloves and patched felt boots.  This abysmal state of affairs is because on the last day before the fast, he had drunk his coat and leather boots, a disaster which is helping him to keep his vow to stay off the drink.

Still, he gets the sleigh ready and saddles the horse Mukhorty, a good-tempered, medium-sized bay stallion, with whom Nikita keeps up a cheerful chatter, speaking to the horse just as to someone who understood the words he was using. Nikita has flaws, but his affection for this animal establishes the contrast further. Nikita is  a good-natured, easy-going patient man not given to complaining.

He certainly needs that patience.  Vasili is the master, so he takes the reins, and he insists on taking ‘the short way’ although the road through Karamyshevo is better going, and before long as Nikita nods off beside him, Vasili has got himself lost.  It is Nikita who has to get out of the sleigh to feel for the stakes which mark out the road, and it is he who who gets snow into his boots in places where it is knee-deep. It is his common sense that gets them back onto a road, though not the one they wanted, and they end up in Grishkino, four miles from where they want to be.

Do they stop? No, they do not.  Vasili insists that they keep going, the weather worsens, and he once again fails to take note of the way marks and they get lost again, and worse than before.  This time there is no road to be found despite Nikita searching for it in the snow, but once again Nikita saves the day by taking the reins and letting the horse take its own way.  Murkhorty leads them back to Grishkino.

This time, at least, Vasili agrees to take comfort at a welcoming household, which means vodka for Vasili and a long wait for a cup of tea to thaw poor Nikita., bravely sticking to his vow of temperance

But do they stay the night?  No, they do not.  Vasili prides himself on his indefatigable nature, so they set off again. And this leads to several sharp-intake-of-breath moments as the ruthless Russian Winter has its way…

Tolstoy by this time in his life was Christian in his beliefs, and his portrayal of these two men in extremis shows his faith in redemption and resurrection.  It’s a very powerful story which the unexpected ending does nothing to dispel.

This story is available in a Penguin Classics edition with other stories by Tolstoy, ISBN 9780140449624. It has Notes by Paul Foote, and an Introduction by  Hugh McLean but you can probably find it for free at Gutenberg.

Image credit: Tolstoy in 1897, by F. W. Taylor – Public Domain,


Why does Saunders include this story in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain?

Re-reading what I’ve written above, I realised that I did not actually care. But I read him, dutifully, and can tell you that the chapter ‘And yet they drove on’ focuses on ‘causation’ i.e. writing the cause and effect aspects of the story, linking the various facts that contribute to the reader drawing conclusions not just about why something happens but about the characters.  ‘Escalation’—incidents which make the stakes higher—is a technique adds to what we call narrative drive, though he doesn’t use that term.

The next story is another by Chekhov.  It’s called ‘Gooseberries’…

Author: Leo Tolstoy
Title: ‘Master and Man’, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders.
Translated from the Russian by Louise Maude and Aylmer Maude for Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy, 1967
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2021, first published in the No.1, 1899, issue of Semya (Family) magazine, Moscow
ISBN: 9781526624284, hbk., 408 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury


  1. “I realised that I did not actually care” – that’s *exactly* the point I got to with this book. I loved all the Russian stories but ended up hating the commentary!!!


    • What’s especially tiresome is that he doesn’t seem to offer anything useful. That might be because I’m an experienced reader, and he is, after all, pitching his course to people who presumably are not, but still, the more I read of it, the less relevant it seems to the development of writing skills.

      Liked by 1 person

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