Pil'niak, Boris

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Pseudonym for Boris Andreevich Vogau. Nationality: Russian. Born: Mozhaisk, Moscow Province, 11 October 1894. Education: Nizhnii Novgorod Academy of Modern Languages, 1913; University of Kolomna; Moscow Commercial Institute, degree in economics 1920. Family: Married three times; three children. Career: Writer, from 1920 (used pen name from 1915); chairman, Krug Publications, 1923-23; traveled in Europe, the Arctic, U.S., Middle East, and Far East, 1922-32. Arrested and disappeared 6 October 1937. Member: All-Russian Writers Union (president, then expelled 1929). Died: (official date) 9 September 1941.



Izbrannye proizvedeniia [Selected Works]. 1976.

Short Stories

S poslednim parokhodom i drugie rasskazy [With the Last Steamer and Other Stories]. 1918.

Ivan-da-Mar'ia [Ivan and Mary]. 1922.

Byl'e [Existed in the Past]. 1922.

Nikola-na-Posadiakh. 1923.

Povesti o chernom khlebe [Stories about Black Bread]. 1923.

Mat' syra zemlia. 1924; as Mother Earth and Other Stories, 1968.

Angliiskie rasskazy [English Tales]. 1924.

Tales of the Wilderness. 1924.

Sperantso. 1927.

Rasskazy [Short Stories]. 1927; revised edition, 1929; revised edition, 1933.

Kitaiskaia povest'. 1927; as Chinese Story and Other Tales, 1988.

Povest' nepogachenoi luny. 1927; as The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon, 1967.

Ivan-Moskva. 1927; as Ivan Moscow, 1935.

Raplesnutoe vremia [Spilled Time]. 1927.

Krasnoe derevo (novella). 1929; as "Mahogany," in Mother Earth and Other Stories, 1968.

Shtoss v zhizn' [A Chance on Life]. 1929.

Rozhdenie cheloveka [The Birth of Man] (novella). 1935.

Izbrannye rasskazy [Selected Stories]. 1935.


Golyi god. 1922; as The Naked Year, 1928.

Mashiny i volki [Machines and Wolves]. 1923-24.

Dertseylungen. 1928.

Volga vpadaet v Kaspiiskoe more. 1930; as The Volga Falls to the Caspian Sea, 1931; as The Volga Flows to the Caspian Sea, 1932.


Sobranie sochinenii [Collected Works]. 3 vols., 1923.

Korni iaponskogo solntsa [Roots of the Japanese Sun]. 1926.

Kamni i korni [Stones and Roots]. 1927.

Sobranie sochinenii [Collected Works]. 8 vols., 1929-30.

O'kei: amerikanskii roman [O.K. An American Novel]. 1932.


Critical Studies:

"The Pioneers: Pil'nyak and Ivanov" by Robert Maquire, in Red Virgin Soil: Soviet Literature in the 1920s, 1968; "The Enigma of Pil'nyak's The Volga Falls to the Caspian Sea " by Kenneth N. Brostrom, in Slavic and East European Journal 18, 1974, and "Pil'nyak's Naked Year: The Problem of Faith" by Brostrom, in Russian Language Triquarterly 16, 1979; Pil'nyak: A Soviet Writer in Conflict with the State by Vera T. Reck, 1975; "Pilnyak's A Chinese Tale: Exile as Allegory" by Kenneth N. Brostrom, in Mosaic 9 (3), 1976; Nature as Code: The Achievement of Pilnyak by Peter Alberg Jansen, 1979; Pilniak: Scythian at a Typewriter by Gary Browning, 1985.

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Although Boris Pil'niak wrote five large novels, he is better known as a writer of short fiction. He began to write at the age of nine, and his first two short stories were published when he was eleven. From 1915, when he was 21 years old, until the end of his life, in 1937, his short stories appeared regularly in a variety of Russian-Soviet journals such as Krasnaia Niva, Zvezda, Novyi Mir, Russkii Sovremennik, Mirskoe Delo, Literaturnyi Sovremennik, and Zori; in single volume collections; and in two editions of his collected works.

Though his writing style has elements of ornamental prose, Leskov's storytelling, Chekhovien short fiction, and Belyi's musicality, Pil'niak developed his own original narrative style, congenial to his personal values and to his world view. That style is characterized by musical dissonance, primitive expression of complex ideas, and a Chekhovien atmosphere. He often alternates narrational voices within a story to create a narrative mosaic and enriches this with diary and epistolary styles to further the effect. He also mixes tenses, and often his writing seems not to be rhetorically consistent: he switches from narrational past tense to the present, making the style more journalistic. While his themes take different shapes and undergo variations in form, they remain remarkably similar throughout the writing of his short fiction.

Always present in Pil'niak's stories is the interaction of humans and nature—how humanity affects nature and how nature molds the conditions in which humanity exists. Pil'niak is preoccupied with the importance of elemental, instinctive laws of nature as they affect the fortunes of animals and humans. The short stories "Above the Ravine" and "One Year of Their Life" are representative of these themes. Both are reminiscent of primitive pagan painting, when nature was the ruling force and humanity was only of modest significance. In these stories Pil'niak emphasizes the power of instinct: nature holds a primacy with its eternal circle of birth, death, and rebirth. In the story "Above the Ravine" the central figures are birds whose function is to illustrate this circle. Pil'niak describes the life of a mother bird, the bearer of life, as a function of her procreative instinct. There is no attachment, there are no emotions, there are no years of shared life; there is only the instinct driving the mother bird to attract and then to follow the most able, the strongest, and the most powerful male bird, the one who will best promote the fulfillment of her instinctive goals of life, of procreation. In the story "One Year of Their Life" Pil'niak shows that human life is also centered around the instinct of procreation. His protagonists in this story, though human, are described in a most simplistic way. There is no character development. The characters are like the birds, two animals put together by nature to continue its eternal circle, to procreate. In these stories Pil'niak's lack of differentiation in presenting lives of birds and people is a clue to the significance of procreation to his universal demands of nature.

In the stories "Snow" and "Lesnaia dacha" ("Forest Country House") Pil'niak maintains his views of the important function of nature, but he expresses them differently. These stories have Chekhovien atmosphere and even a Chekhovien method of expressing the ideas. If "Above the Ravine" and "One Year of Their Life" have a pantheistic orientation—with the main characters merging into nature—the stories "Snow" and "Forest Country House" are centered around people, focusing on aspects of their individuality and character. Although they are surrounded by nature—by snow in "Snow"; by the forest in "Forest Country House"—they are exclusive of their environment, and this exclusion is the reason for their unhappiness. Just as Chekhov's protagonists are often victims of life because they lack will, Pil'niak's protagonists are victims of life as well, not because they lack will but because they have betrayed nature by ignoring its universal laws and their own place within it. Pil'niak's nature, with its laws and demands, often takes revenge on those who reject it. For him only those who reconcile themselves with nature find harmony and happiness in life; only for them life becomes useful and meaningful. "Snow" illustrates these views with a story of two people. Kseniia Ippolitovna, an attractive, cultured woman, the product of the most civilized part of Russian society, is a failure because she has wasted her life for her selfish "civilized" pleasures and did not fulfill her "natural" function: she did not procreate. In the twilight of her life this failure to accommodate nature's laws comes back on her; nature seeks its retribution through a meaningless and empty life. Kseniia is a foil to the man, Plunin, who is also a cultured intellectual and originally was in love with Kseniia. In contrast he "saves" himself and finds balance in his life by living with a simple woman and having a child by her. His wife is a symbol of life and nature, das ewig weibliche, saving Plunin's lost soul from the "corruption" of culture.

The theme of natural instinct and the responsibility to recognize the primacy of nature in all living things, including humanity, reappears in Pil'niak's later stories, especially in "The Cheshire Cheese" (1923) and "The Birth of a Man" (1935). In both stories Pil'niak shows the power of instinct and the positive response of nature for those who, in spite of their inclination toward trading intellectual and cultural development for instinctive behavior, recognize their responsibility to nature, follow their instinct, and fulfill their duty. Nature is kind to those who surrender themselves to the fabric of its universal purpose. In both stories women are forced by circumstances to have children and are at first resistant to the idea; at the approach of birth they accept their situations and, in doing so, realize profound happiness, a feeling of fulfillment of their destiny.

Pil'niak has a deep distrust of civilization and reflects this in some of his stories by undercutting its apparent progressive function. He develops action and characters that show civilization as destructive not only of nature but also of Pil'niak's perception of the true nature of humankind. In the story "Big Heart" (1926) Pil'niak characterizes white civilized people as narrow-minded, powerless, and cowardly in contrast to wild Mongols, who he shows as courageous and beautiful and devoted to the protection of their land and their relationships with it. Pil'niak's Mongols are an elemental part of nature. They live in harmony with natural forces and feel a stewardship toward nature, particularly when it is threatened by a civilization bent on exploitation of nature for "civilized" greed. In Pil'niak's battle between nature and artifice "Big Heart" describes the confrontation of nature with civilization, which comes in a poor second when confronted with the unlimited power of nature.

Pil'niak had a complex and evolving reaction to the Russian Revolution. His views of the revolution and of its function parallel his changing perception of social development and the kind of individual needed to effect this development. It is the children of Pil'niak's protagonists who will become the basis for a new and better humanity and who will realize a better society. In his early works, such as "Snow" (1917), Pil'niak develops this scheme of second-generation renewal. The progeny of an intellectual cultured father, the bearer of Russian intellectual tradition, and of a simple mother, a child of nature, is the hope for an invigorated Russia. By the time he completed "Death Beckons" (1918) Pil'niak had become more skeptical. The new world could not be built by the product of this union; the father's blood carries with it far too much weight of human civilization. The figure who will renovate human existence must be freed from the past and must look only to the future. This evolving view first appears in "Death Beckons," and Pil'niak continues the development of his perception of the origin of this new figure in his stories "The Cheshire Cheese" (1923) and "The Birth of a Man" (1935). "Death Beckons" is the continuation of "Snow," but in this story the death of Plunin's child can be interpreted as a necessity for developing Pil'niak's evolving concept of society and those who will be responsible for the construction of that new society. In "The Cheshire Cheese" this figure is begotten of a mother, Marie, who, though she belongs to the cultured intelligentsia of pre-Revolutionary Russia, has lost her part. She confronts the future with her child, conceived with an unknown man, a bandit from the Kirghiz steppes who raped her, killed those whom she loved, and burned her home, wiping out her past. Though the child does not know his father, he is genetically linked to that father, who symbolizes the powerful force of nature. In "The Birth of a Man" Pil'niak's views become more radical. His new "savior" no longer has an intellectual or cultured past; he is the child of the mother, another Marie, who is a Soviet lawyer, a communist, and herself a child of revolution and without a cultural past; but she has a present and a future. She is strong, independent, knowledgeable, and the raison d'etre of her life is service to the new communist state. Though only a minor character, the child's father is also a communist and serves the new socialist state. Marie writes in her diary: "I did not have a family which might in its roots give me the means to live. And apparently my race is not continuing but beginning—begin-ning. It is enclosed by a very narrow and restricted circle, by my son, who does not even have a father: but this race has an advantage, it does not look back but forward!" The Christian symbolism and its allusion to salvation is clear. Both mothers are named Marie. In the first story the father is a figure closely linked to nature; in the second, though the natural father is not named, Pil'niak introduces a character who has the function of the biblical Joseph, a man who is not the father of the child but who cares for Marie before she gives birth, marries her later, and adopts the child.

Although Pil'niak's views on life and his set of values change throughout his literary career, his views toward individuality remain constant. Initially humanity is only a consistent element in the larger fabric of the universe. Later the revolution, embodied by the construction of the new Soviet industrial state, becomes a paradigm for this general view. In the majority of his stories he emphasizes the insignificance of human destiny in contrast to the grandeur of the universe and grandiose projects of revolution. Pil'niak illustrates this schema in "The City of Wind," which is set against the background of a city beset by winds and fire, elements eventually tamed by people who are building the new Soviet state. Pil'niak describes the fruitless though stubborn search of a young Russian man, Pavel, who was brought up in Germany and returns to Russia to trace his roots. Though Pavel makes an enormous but unsuccessful effort to find his father, Pil'niak shows this failure as unimportant; what is important is that Pavel has discovered the city of wind and fire that for generations has subjugated the city's inhabitants, claiming many lives; now these elements are partly tamed by the industrialization made possible by the Soviet revolution.

It is Pil'niak's achievement to illustrate, using his own original style, the immensity of the universe, the fatality of its laws, and the grandiosity of the power of the revolution in comparison to the smallness of the human being. Pil'niak reminds humanity of its strong connection to nature and its secondary, rather than central, function in the universe. Throughout his creativity the human being remains merely the vehicle and never becomes the purpose for the realization of the superior goal of universal existence.

—Rosina Neginsky

See the essay on "Mahogany."