Boris Pilnyak Essay - Critical Essays

Pilnyak, Boris


Boris Pilnyak 1894–-1937

(Pseudonym of Boris Andreyevich Vogau; also transliterated as Pil'niak, Pil'nyak, Pilnjak, Pil'njak, and Pilniak) Russian novelist, short story writer, and travel writer.

A prolific writer, Pilnyak is remembered today for his controversial short stories that explore the impact of oppressive political policies on the lives of ordinary citizens. His examination of Soviet Russia and the consequences of the Russian revolution earned him political disapprobation from Communist authorities and eventually resulted in his arrest in 1937. Pilnyak's short fiction is often compared to that of Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Ivan Turgenev.

Biographical Information

Pilnyak was born in Mozhaisk, Russia, on October 11, 1894. His father was a country veterinarian who inspired Pilnyak's interest in nature and animals. At the age of five, Pilnyak began to write short fiction, and his first two short stories were published in 1905. In 1913 Pilnyak attended the Nizhnii Novgorod Academy of Modern Languages; he later earned a degree in economics from the Moscow Commercial Institute in 1920. His short stories were regularly published in a variety of Russian-Soviet periodicals. Pilnyak's second novel Golyi god (The Naked Year) was published in 1922 and garnered Pilnyak critical and commercial success. In the late 1920s Pilnyak came under attack from the Soviet authorities for his undoctrinaire view of the Russian revolution. His novella Povest' nepogachenoi luny (1926; The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon, and Other Stories) inspired official condemnation because it was perceived to portray the death of the popular Soviet-Russian army commander General Frunze. The appearance of another controversial novella, Krasnoe derevo (1929; Mahogany), resulted in Pilynak's expulsion from the Union of Soviet Writers. In the 1930s Pilnyak attempted to rehabilitate his reputation but was not successful. Pilnyak was last seen in October of 1937 when he was arrested, convicted, and allegedly executed on charges of “fascist” activities and espionage by Soviet authorities.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Pilnyak employed a complex narrative style that utilized such literary conventions as flashback, lyrical digressions, the frame story, mixed tenses, leitmotifs, symbolism, and dialect. Thematically, his short fiction often focuses on the interaction of humans and nature, particularly the primal and instinctive laws of nature and the ways in which they affect animals and humans. For example, the story “Above the Ravine” chronicles the life cycle of a bird as she mates, gives birth, and begins the pattern again. The tale “Snow” illustrates the life of a middle-aged, attractive, intellectual woman named Kseniia who is considered a failure because she has decided to remain childless. Her male counterpart, however, is viewed as a complete human being because he has given up his relationship with Kseniia in order to marry a simple peasant woman and have a child. Thus, he has avoided the corruption of culture and may enjoy a life in harmony with nature. Several of Pilynak's stories are thinly veiled explorations of the sociopolitical situation in the Soviet Union. The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon portrays the death of General Gavrilov, a famous Soviet hero, after undergoing surgery ordered by a high-ranking Soviet official. This episode is perceived to reflect the true story of a popular Russian soldier, General Mikhail Frunze, the commander-in-chief of the Red Army, and his death after an operation ordered by the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Critical Reception

Pilynak's short fiction is often praised by commentators for its sympathetic, sometimes comic portrayal of peasantry and the ordinary people affected by the Bolshevik revolution. However, some critics have condemned his work as derivative and academic and his tone as allusive and difficult. Scholars have traced Pilnyak's prose development from a pre-Revolutionary narrative style—which is characterized by fragmentary composition, an absence of coherent plot, haphazard use of language, and abundance of digressions—to a more subdued, compact form. Thematically, reviewers have noted Pilnyak's focus on time and memory, the impact of nature and culture on civilization, the role of sexuality, the theories of Sigmund Freud, and the repercussions of political policies and parties on citizens. In fact, Pilnyak's political ideology is fertile ground for commentators, as many have tried to place him within the context of other Soviet dissidents and authors of the time. Considered a Slavophile, his attitude toward Europe and the United States has also attracted critical attention. Many scholars perceive several of Pilnyak's works as explorations of Russian identity, particularly the effect of the Soviet system on the Russian population.

Principal Works

S poslednim parokhodom i drugie rasskazy 1918

Povesti o chernom khlebe 1923

Angliiskie rasskazy 1924

Mat' syra zemlia [Mother Earth and Other Stories] 1924

Tales of the Wilderness 1924

Povest' nepogachenoi luny [The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon, and Other Stories] 1926

Kitaiskaia povest' [Chinese Story and Other Tales] 1927

Raplesnutoe vremia 1927

Rasskazy 1927

Krasnoe derevo [Mahogany] 1929

Sobranie sochinenii 8 vols. 1929–30

Izbrannye rasskazy 1935

Rozhdenie cheloveka 1935

Golyi god [The Naked Year] (novel) 1922

Mashiny i volki (novel) 1923–24

Korni iaponskogo solntsa (travel essays) 1926

Kamni i korni (travel essays) 1927

Volga vpadaet v Kaspiiskoe more [The Volga Flows to the Caspian Sea] (novel) 1930

O'kei: amerikanskii roman (travel essays) 1932


Joseph Wood Krutch (review date 1925)

SOURCE: “New Russia or Old?,” in Nation, Vol. 120, February 11, 1925, pp. 163–64.

[In the following unfavorable assessment of Tales of the Wilderness, Krutch maintains that Pilnyak's stories “are singularly barren of either intellectual or emotional content.”]

Prince Mirsky begins his introduction to Tales of the Wilderness with the statement that the English reading public knows next to nothing of contemporary Russian literature and then, as he proceeds to discuss the prose writers since Chekhov, comes very near to saying that they are not worth knowing. Dismissing Merezhkovsky, Andreev, and Artsybashev as “second- and third-rate writers,” he proposes Remizov and Pilniak as representatives of the best which contemporary Russia has to offer; but of them and their school he says that they have little except a self-conscious and fastidious style to distinguish them. Both from this introduction and from the tales themselves we learn that they are devoted to meticulous, rather pointless studies of the mean and grotesque aspects of contemporary life and that, lacking the social ideas of their great predecessors, they have created a sort of inverted aestheticism which toys with ugliness without exactly knowing why it does so. A certain gift for clear-cut description they certainly have, but their stories are singularly barren of either intellectual or emotional content.

Politically, perhaps, Russia has taken on a new life; but literature is a slower growth than government and artistically she is still (if we may judge from these two writers) hesitating between the dead world and the world which is still powerless to be born. No new impulse, social, intellectual, or artistic, is discernible in these translations, and the old ones seem exhausted. The belief in the people which sustained some of Russia's great writers seems to have vanished before the time came for that faith to translate itself into energy, and Pilniak pictures both the defeated aristocracy and the triumphant proletariat as blundering futilely from one despair to another without having the energy even to suffer. Unsympathetic observers have accused the Russian of loving despair because it relieves him of the necessity of effort, and without taking so unfavorable a view one may at least suggest that Pilniak is too tired to hope. He seems when confronted with the triumph of the revolution to have said merely: “Oh well, you cannot expect anything from the people either,” and then to have sunk back into...

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M. Capitanchik (review date 1969)

SOURCE: “Politic Views,” in Spectator, Vol. 222, June 14, 1969, pp. 788, 790.

[In the following excerpt, Capitanchik offers a mixed assessment of Mother Earth and Other Stories.]

‘Human kind,’ wrote Eliot, ‘cannot bear very much reality’. One of the more baleful aspects of contemporary Russian society is its treatment of writers who do not accept that great flight from reality, the view of the revolution as the beginning of universal justice. Boris Pilnyak, some of whose stories are now published in translation for the first time, was an experimental writer, interspersing incantatory imagery with reports from documents, who welcomed the revolution as an...

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Edith Rogovin Frankel (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “A Note on Pilnyak's Tale of the Unextinguished Moon,” in Soviet Studies, Vol. 24, No. 4, April, 1973, pp. 550–53.

[In the following essay, Frankel elucidates the moral of Pilnyak's Tale of the Unextinguished Moon.]

Boris Pilnyak's Tale of the Unextinguished Moon is usually summed up, briefly or in some detail, simply as a story which relates in fictional form the death of Frunze. Pilnyak's Gavrilov, like Frunze, is a famous general who is ordered by a high political figure (in Frunze's case it was said to be Stalin) to undergo an operation which medical advisers deemed unnecessary. In both cases the general died. Pilnyak is described as...

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Vera T. Reck (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon,” in Boris Pil'niak: A Soviet Writer in Conflict with the State, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1975, pp. 20–51.

[In the following essay from her full-length study, Reck examines the controversy surrounding the creation and publication of Pilnyak's most renowned works.]

An ear cocked for the rumours, an eye on the papers, which in the first days of November were filled with accounts of Frunze's death, biographical articles, and reminiscences of friends and comrades in arms, Pil'niak set about writing The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon.1

As time was to show, the story marked...

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Vera T. Reck (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “Mahogany and Soviet Critical Opinion,” in Boris Pil'niak: A Soviet Writer in Conflict with the State, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1975, pp. 82–6.

[In the essay below, Reck discusses Pilnyak's novelette Mahogany and the criticism it generated.]

In a report on the literary “war” in Moscow, Walter Duranty informed the readers of the New York Times that Mahogany had been “saluted with howls of joy by the White Russian press abroad.”1 His information must have come from Moscow newspapers or other Soviet sources: there is no evidence of such a reception in the émigré press. Mahogany, this...

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Stanley Edgar Hyman (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Varangian Times,” in New Leader, Vol. 60, No. 11, May 5, 1977, pp. 9–11.

[In the following essay, Hyman provides a positive review of Pilnyak's short fiction, asserting that “at his best, Boris Pilnyak was a matchless captor of the historical moment in all its rich life, a master of the full range of comic rhetoric, and a unique poetic voice in fiction.”]

“Boris Pilnyak,” the pen name of Boris Andreyevich Vogau, born in 1894, was part of the teeming growth of fictional talents that mushroomed after the Russian Revolution and Civil War, including Isaac Babel, Evgeni Zamyatin, Yuri Oleska, and many others. Like a number of them, he modeled his...

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Marc Slonim (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Boris Pilnyak: The Untimely Symbolist,” in Soviet Russian Literature: Writers and Problems, 1917–1977, Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 59–66.

[In the following essay, Slonim discusses Pilnyak's political beliefs and how they were expressed in his fiction.]

Chronologically, the first significant panorama of the Great Upheaval was presented in The Naked Year (1922), a novel consisting of a series of flashbacks and close-ups of an aristocratic family, an anarchist's bohemian colony, peasants, uprisings, fratricidal strife, and various episodes of cruelty, lust, famine, physical frenzy, and mental exaltation. The author of this strange yet...

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Carol Avins (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Pil'njak's ‘The Third Capital’: Russia and the West in Fact and Fiction,” in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 39–51.

[In the following essay, Avins contends that “The Third Capital” is important “for its extended treatment of the contrast between Europe and Russia present in a number of his other works.”]

The Russian preoccupation with Europe is reflected in the works of many Russian writers and expressed in many forms. It appears in eighteenth-century adventure tales, travel writings, and satire, and in contemporary poetry and prose. Often the writer's look westward is simultaneously an act of...

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Michael Falchikov (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Rerouting the Train of Time: Boris Pil'nyak's ‘Krasnoye Derevo’,” in Modern Language Review, Vol. 75, No. 1, 1980, pp. 138–47.

[In the following essay, Falchikov explores the roles of time and memory in Pilnyak's Mahogany.]

At the end of the fourth chapter of his five-chapter novella Krasnoye derevo Pil'nyak comes out with a cliché which nevertheless seems to provide an important clue to an interpretation of the work. Describing a futile attempt by one of the characters to catch a train by making a cross-country journey by horse and cart, Pil'nyak finishes the chapter with the words: ‘Akim, the Trotskyite, missed the train, just as he...

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T. R. N. Edward (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Pil'nyak: The Fatal Confusion,” in Three Russian Writers and the Irrational: Zamyatin, Pil'nyak, and Bulgakov, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 87–136.

[In the following essay, Edward traces the theme of the irrational in Pilnyak's fiction.]


The examination of a specific theme in the work of several writers calls for an approach which should be both extensive and intensive: extensive, because it must range over a wide field, and therefore precludes the close study of his entire oeuvre which concentration on one author demands; intensive, since detailed discussion is required where the irrational is most fully and...

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Carol Avins (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Ice and Icon, Spengler in Russia: Boris Pilniak, ‘The Third Capital’ (1923),” in Border Crossings: The West and Russian Identity in Soviet Literature, 1917–1934, University of California Press, 1983, pp. 35–47.

[In the following essay, Avins considers Pilnyak's contrast of Russia and Europe in his story “The Third Capital.”]

The two basic terms in the political formulas of the day, “we” and “they,” fit a variety of categories—ideological, class, national. Blok's essay “The Collapse of Humanism” shows the chameleon quality of the first person plural. The pronoun both distinguishes the Russian intelligentsia from the masses and...

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Gary Browning (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Works,” in Boris Pilniak: Scythian at a Typewriter, Ardis, 1985, pp. 95–114, 127–131.

[In the following excerpt, Browning provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of several short stories by Pilnyak.]

In general, Pilniak wrote rapidly and prolifically. His mind and pen raced from work to work; many were typeset prematurely, while their author hurried on to new projects.1 Consequently, Pilniak's performance is uneven. When writing with great vigor, concentration, and integrity, he produced excellent art, occasionally with surprising speed but usually only after the discipline and refinement characteristic of longer periods. In what follows...

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Tom J. Lewis (review date 1989)

SOURCE: A review of Chinese Story and Other Tales, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 3, Summer, 1989, p. 500.

[In the following essay, Lewis provides a favorable review of Chinese Story and Other Tales.]

The style of Boris Pilnyak's fiction has been described as disorderly and emotional but appropriate for the troubled times and events it treats. The stories translated for the collection Chinese Story and Other Tales would confirm that judgment, especially “Chinese Story” itself. Written in what at first seems to be a form of internal monologue, it later becomes apparent that the text is a diary kept by a Russian visitor to China in the year...

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Sally Laird (review date 1989)

SOURCE: “A Rush to Remember,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 21, 1989, p. 808.

[In the following review, Laird offers a mixed assessment of Chinese Story and Other Tales.]

With the exception of one charming early tale, “A Year of Their Life,” all the stories in this volume [Chinese Story and Other Tales] date from the 1920s. Anyone wishing to feel what it was like to live through that decade in Russia would do well to add Boris Pilnyak's account to Bulgakov's or Pasternak's. His sense of the present—the latest moment—is extraordinarily vivid, as if someone from the future had called out to him “Remember everything! Because all this—and you...

(The entire section is 837 words.)

Frank Day (review date 1989)

SOURCE: A review of Chinese Story and Other Tales, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1989, p. 564.

[In the following essay, Day offers a favorable review of Chinese Story and Other Tales.]

In Mother Earth, Pilnyak's loving testimonial short story of Russia's “fields, forests, swamps, coppices, hills, distances, years, nights, days, blizzards, storms, calms,” Arina Arsenyeva the tanner has fallen from bourgeois comfort in the post-revolution years. Her comfortable childhood home now houses workers, and she herself works hard hours in the tannery:

The house was as it had always been, but her days...

(The entire section is 534 words.)

Luis H. Francia (review date 1989)

SOURCE: A review of Chinese Story and Other Tales, in Village Voice Literary Supplement, Vol. 5, October, 1989, pp. 5–6.

[In the following positive review of Chinese Story and Other Tales, Francia maintains that “underneath the seemingly rambling passages is a passionate, inquisitive intelligence, gifted and large enough to let a certain amount of disorder flourish.”]

While Stalin was consolidating his hold over a still young Soviet Union, Boris Pilnyak—one of the finest Russian writers of a generation that included Mikhail Bulgakov, Yevgeny Zamyatin, and Yevgeny Katayev—was president of the All-Russian Writers' Union's Moscow branch. Pilnyak...

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Further Reading


Browning, Gary. Boris Pilniak: Scythian at a Typewriter. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1985, 259 p.

Critical analysis of Pilnyak's work. Browning includes a selected bibliography.

Ciesol, Forrest. Review of Chinese Story and Other Tales, by Boris Pilnyak. Bloomsbury Review 10, No. 4 (July-August 1990): 25.

Favorable review of Chinese Story and Other Tales.

Graham, Kenneth. “Miner's Monument.” Listener 81 (12 June 1969): 835.

Negative review of Mother Earth and Other Stories.

Hoggart, Simon. “All Russian.” Guardian...

(The entire section is 162 words.)