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Historical Criticism is using the time period the novel was set in to analyze the story.
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This approach is commonly used in analyzing ancient texts, such as the bible, which was one of the largest ways it is used.
In the 1900s, however, Historical Criticism saw a time period of abandonment until it came back in the form of "New Historicism", a form that emphasizes the gap between readers and the period the story was written in.
In the time period of the book, the 1860s, serfdom was just abolished in Russia, creating a massive influx of poor serfs moving to cities. In addition, the serfs were upset because of the terms of their freedom. They got freed but got no land as part of their freedom, land they thought was there's.
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