Boris Pilnyak Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

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.