Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 421

The “naked year” is 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution, and Boris Pilnyak’s attempt to capture its essence in his narrative established him as Russia’s first important postrevolutionary novelist. It can be strongly argued that The Naked Year is neither in form a novel nor in substance a communistic document. The fragmentary, lyrical, relatively plotless and characterless series of vignettes that make up the book are more like a sequence of random impressions and rhetorical digressions, thinly tied together in time and place, than a controlled, directed narrative. The origins and essence of the revolution, as Pilnyak presents them, do not conform to the tenets of Soviet political dogma.

Despite its narrative difficulties and ideological impurity, The Naked Year was generally hailed as a masterpiece upon its publication in 1922. The main character of the book is the Russian people, and the substance of it is their diverse reactions to the civil turmoil that swept across Russia from 1914 to the early 1920’s. Although Pilnyak uses a mixture of prose styles and jumps from character to character and event to event with few formal transitions, he does focus most of the action in the town of Ordynin and on characters who represent all levels of Russian society—the Ratchin family belongs to the middle class, the Ordynins are aristocratic, Arkhip represents the rising peasantry—in a fairly complete, if unsystematic fashion. Thus the reader comes away from The Naked Year with a coherent impression of life in revolutionary Russia.

The historical vision Pilnyak presents in the novel is that of a spontaneous peasant revolt overthrowing the old order. He sees the conflict not so much in terms of the bourgeoisie versus the proletariat as the “natural” Eastern side of Russian culture, represented by the peasantry, in conflict with the “artificial” European urbanized Russia. The revolution was, in his opinion, the necessary cleansing force, and the Bolsheviks were merely the agents of historical change, not the inevitable culmination of it.

Such unorthodox views displeased the revolutionary hierarchy, but the power and the popularity of the novel, coupled with the relative instability of Soviet politics at the time, kept Pilnyak in the ranks of accepted writers. In such later works, however, as “The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon” (1927)—a direct attack on Stalin—and Krasnoye derevo (1929; Mahogany, 1968), he provoked the dictator’s wrath. Despite abject disavowals of his works, pitiable recantations, and several orthodox writings, Pilnyak was imprisoned during the Stalinist purges of the mid-1930’s and presumably perished in neglect and disgrace.

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