Tolstoy wrote this excellent tale against a backdrop of massive changes in 19th century Russia. Until the emancipation of Russian serfs by Czar Alexander II, these peasants were virtual slaves of landowners and aristocrats. They could be bought or sold and were not allowed to own property. Tolstoy wrote this story after these serfs had already had their freedom for 25 years. They now had rights and could own land. Certainly this was progress, and Tolstoy, who was himself an ardent reformer in Russia, would never wish a reversal of the decree, yet in this parable we see Tolstoy ask the question - with often black humour - of whether the peasants' progress brought changes they would regret.
This sets the stage for the parable that is contained within this story and the harsh warning of unchecked materialism is clearly established through the fate of Pahom and his sad death.