What do Tolstoy's stories tell about the Russian person of the 19th century and of the Russian "soul"?
I'm currently reading "The Death of Ivan Illych," "Family Happiness," "The Kreutzer Sontana," and "Master and Man."
The Russians were not geographically or culturally akin to Western Europeans until Peter the Great developed an expanded world view by visiting continental European countries and England. Then he chose to envision Russia as being part of, an extension of, the greater European community. He initiated drastic cultural changes in clothing and grooming trends (particularly as regards to men's facial hair...) as well as intellectual trends that introduced Western European ideas of art, philosophy, religion (though Russian Orthodoxy's strength was not threatened by the awareness of Western religious views), etc.
In a way, Peter the Great's changes initiated the historic quest for the Russian soul because Russia's isolation and deeply entrenched cultural beliefs and practices were overturned and subject to upheaval, an experience that began in major cultural centers, like Moscow and St. Petersburg and slowly, over a couple of centuries spread to the villages, even arriving in villages after the 1917 Revolution.
Tolstoy's fiction reveals the conflicts between the old Russian ways and the newer Western-Russian ways, a conflict of both bad and good. For instance, stories like "The Death of Ivan Ilych," "Family Happiness" and "The Kreutzer Sonata" show the uneasy alliance between pursuing the Western style careers, such as in the bureaucracy, and social standing while sacrificing deeper, age-old Russian values of family and community. Whereas stories like "Master and Man" show the conflict between growing Western philosophies propounding the freedom and dignity of humanity and the Russian cultural tradition of serfdom, a version of feudalism, whereby serfs are attached to the land as part of the estate and are therefore inheritable and counted as property, not as humans.
These stories reveal that a major emphasis Tolstoy draws out in his stories is that men and women in social positions suffer confusion as to the expression of their souls within society that seemed to Tolstoy to require selfishness, pettiness and self-absorption. The complementary emphasis is that peasants, mistreated and wrongly thought of as inhuman property have sincere values of goodness that can teach "the master" of Russia to be human and to honor humanity as is seen in "Master and Man."