In the story, Levin, the rural nobleman, has big plans for modernizing his farm. Unfortunately, his undisciplined workforce gets in the way. A choice passage:
Levin gave orders for a trough to be brought out and hay to be put in the racks. But it appeared that, since the paddock had not been used during the winter, the racks made in the autumn were broken. He sent for the carpenter, who, according to his orders, ought to have been at work at the threshing machine. But it appeared that the carpenter was repairing the harrows, which ought to have been repaired before Lent. This was very annoying to Levin. It was annoying to come upon that everlasting slovenliness in the farmwork against which he had been striving with all his might for so many years. The racks, as he ascertained, being not wanted in winter, had been carried to the cart horses' stable, and there broken, as they were of light construction, only meant for foddering calves. Moreover, it was apparent also that the harrows and all the agricultural implements, which he had directed to be looked over and repaired in the winter, for which very purpose he had hired three carpenters, had not been put into repair, and the harrows were being repaired when they ought to have been harrowing the field. Levin sent for his bailiff, but immediately went off himself to look for him. The bailiff, beaming all over, like everything that day, in a sheepskin bordered with astrakhan, came out of the barn, twisting a bit of straw in his hands.
`Why isn't the carpenter at the threshing machine?'
`Oh, I meant to tell you yesterday, the harrows want repairing. Here it's time they got to work in the fields.'
`But what were they doing in the winter, then?'
`But what did you want the carpenter for?'
`Where are the racks for the calves' paddock?'
`I ordered them to be got ready. What would you have with those people!' said the bailiff, with a wave of his hand.
`It's not those people but this bailiff!' said Levin, getting angry. `Why, what do I keep you for?' he cried. But, bethinking himself that this would not help matters, he stopped short in the middle of a sentence, and merely sighed.
If you think I'm reading too much into this, Tolstoy actually makes it explicit:
In addition to his farming, which called for special attention in spring, in addition to reading Levin had begun that winter a work on agriculture, the plan of which turned on taking into account the character of the laborer on the land as one of the unalterable data of the question, like the climate and the soil, and consequently deducing all the principles of scientific culture, not simply from the data of soil and climate, but from the data of soil, climate and a certain unalterable character of the laborer.
I'm trying to remember if Tolstoy ever blames economic backwardness on bad policies. Anyone?