Pilnyak took a correspondence course from the Moscow Commercial Institute and gradutated in 1920 as a candidate of economic sciences, with a specialization in financial administration.
Pilnyak wrote his first story, about an owl, in 1902 at the age of nine. His first publications of prose and poetry came in 1909, when he was 14 years old (In The Spring and Gamzulteivo). But he considered his literary career to have begun in 1915 when he was published in the journals Russkaya Mysl, Zhatva and others.
Also in 1915, because of the anti-German sentiment during World War I, the writer decided he would have to shed the German-sounding "Vogau" for something more Russian. He derived the pseudonym "Pilnyak" from "Pilnyanka", the name of a Belorussian town where he spent some time with his maternal uncle, the painter Aleksandr Savinov.
Early stories by Pilnyak included Entire Life (Tselaya zhizn', 1915), Year of Their Life (God iz zhizni, 1916), and Snows (Snega, 1917). Entire Life is the story of two birds who mate, release their young into the world without regrets, and finally separate when the male can no longer provide. Sentiment, loyalty, even habit--the bases of human marriage--have no place in this superior realm of sheer instinct. In Year of Their Life, a hunter and his bear companion both feel the urge to mate. Snows tells of an intellectual, weary of civilization, who unlocks the secret of life through a liaison with a simple peasant woman.
Pilnyak was unable to make a living at literature at this stage, and earned money writing ethnographic sketches and other articles.
In early 1917, Pilnyak married Mariya Alekseevna Sokolovna, a zemstvo physician. With her, Pilnyak had two children, Natalya (born 31 Jan 1918) and Andrei (born 17 Oct 1921).
Following the February Revolution, Pilnyak got a job with the provisional government, traveling to the front lines to encourage allegiance among the troops. This, of course, did not win him friends among the Bolsheviks, and when they came to power, Pilnyak soon found himself in jail. In early 1918, he wrote:
I have beenput on the list of "counterrevolutionaries" by our faddish Bolsheviks, and I greeted the new year in prison. I was arrested, and they even posed the question about me: "Should we shoot him?"Pilnyak was, of course, released. He spent a great deal of the next year on trips to the countryside in search of food. But he was also soaking up impressions of those chaotic years which would later find reflection in his writing.
During the summer of 1918, Pilnyak joined an anarchist commune near Peski. Unfortunately, the commune broke up following a deadly gun-battle among commune members arguing over distribution of confiscated property. This episode is reflected in Pilnyak's story At Nikola on the White Springs (U Nikoly, chto na Belykh Kolodeziakh, 1919)
During 1918-1920, Pilnyak began to garner increasing attention in literary circles through his publications and public readings. Two collections of his stories were published: With the Last Steamer (S polednim parakhodom, 1918), and Bygones (Byl'e, 1920)
Pilnyak came to the attention of the Minister of Education, Lunacharsky, who provided the writer with documents freeing him from prescribed work assignments. Gorky also was much impressed with this early Pilnyak and invited him to Petrograd for a visit. True stardom came to Pilnyak in 1921 with publication of his first major work, The Naked Year (Golii god). This work is a rich compendium of language and events swirled around the skeleton of the first year of the Revolution. The main theme of this work is that of Europe (order, intellect, revolutionaries) vs. Asia (chaos, nature, peasants).
Even Gorky liked The Naked Year, excerpting part of it in the House of Arts almanac he was editing.
In early 1922, Pilnyak spent two months in Germany, staying with Aleksei Remizov. Upon his return to the Soviet Union, Pilnyak completed the story The Third Capital (Tret'ya stolitsa) and helped found the Krug ("Circle") publishing house. Besides the writings of Pilnyak, Krug was eventually to publish Aseev, Bely, Babel, Ehrenburg, Esenin, Fedin, Ivanov, Leonov, Liashko, Mayakovsky, Mandelshtam, Nikitin, Pasternak, Prishvin, Vesely, Zamyatin, and others.
In the spring of 1923, Pilnyak was again travelling, this time to England to help organize a Russian chapter of the international PEN club. While in England, Pilnyak met the aristocrat-critic Prince Dmitri Mirsky. They didn't like one another. Mirsky said that Pilnyak was "muddle-headed", "fundamentally uncultured", and "devoid of ideas". He called Pilnyak's thought "incoherent and cheap" and his method "essentially unoriginal and derivative". In short, he considered Pilnyak "eminently unreadable."
Back from England, Pilnyak produced several travel sketches and the stories Speranza and Old Cheese, aka Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (Starii syr, 1923). In Old Cheese, some Russians are living on an anarchist commune on the steppe. The commune is raided by Kirghiz tribesmen, who kill the men and rape the women. One of the women becomes pregnant as a result, but she accepts and loves the child nonetheless. The Kirghiz raiders are swept away by the Red Army, and the commune again flourishes
Around this time, Pilnyak found himself constantly badgered with the question: "Are you for or against the Communists?" He recorded this response in his diary:
This is what I am against: that I must pant breathlessly when I write about the Communist Party like very many do, especially the quasi-communists, who thereby give our revolution a tone of unpleasant boasting and of self-congratulation. I am against a writer having to live "willingly not seeing", or, simply, lying. And a lie results when some sort of statistical proportion is not observed. ... I am not a communist, and for that reason I do not agree that I should have to... write in a communist manner. ... To the degree that the communists are with Russia, I am with them (so now, at this time, more than ever before, for I do not agree with the philistines.) I admit that the fate of the communist paty is less interesting to me than the fate of Russia. The CP for me is only a link in the history of Russia.In June 1924, Pilnyak completed Machines and Wolves. In the words of Gary Browning, this work is "a galaxy of narrative voices, points of view, mannequin characters, Russian cultural milieus, perspectives on life, ruminations on the spirit of the changing times, and artistic styles." The basic thesis in Machines and Wolves is that the old "wolf" Russia (countryside, simplicity, spontaneity, freedom, poverty, ignorance, and unreliability) must be replaced by the new "machine" Russia (city, complexity, order, control, wealth, intelligence, and dependability).
Pilnyak then set out on a trip to the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic Circle. The impressions he gathered there eventually found themselves into the story Zavoloche (1929), about an ill-fated polar expedition, aflicted with shipwreck, starvation, scurvy, insanity, and murder. The magnitude of nature, love, and scientific obsession are also examined in the story.
Also in 1924, Pilnyak penned Damp Mother Earth (Mat syra-zemlya). In this story, a Party worker in the Volga area tries to keep peasants from ravaging the forest. He is almost killed by the rebellious local village council. A young woman revolutionary tries to restart a tanning works in the region. She adopts a young wolf pup, but as it grows up it becomes more vicious and attacks its benefactress.
Around this time, a firestorm erupted in Soviet literature, with the On Guardists and Octobrists launching a fierce attack on Pilnyak and other fellow travelers. The Communist Party felt compelled to step in, telling the proletarian writers to calm down and let various prose styles compete peacefully. Most fellow travelers welcomed this development, but Pilnyak was cynical, noting:
The last two years have taught me that no resolution ever takes adequate consideration of real life, nor does it significantly affect life.In 1925, Pilnyak divorced his first wife and married Olga Sergeevna Shcherbinovskaya, an actress. He was also off for more traveling. In the summer he spent three weeks flying around north and central Russia in a seaplane. This resulted in a book of travel sketches, Russia in Flight (Rossiya v polete). And in the fall he sailed around the Mediterranean, visiting Athens, Jaffe, and Constantinople.
Giving rise to the question, "What could he possibly have been thinking?", in 1926, Pilnyak published the story Tale of the Unextinguished Moon (Povest' nepogashennoi luny). The story is clearly based on the death of Soviet military commander Mikhail V. Frunze who succumbed after abdominal surgery that was ordered by the Party. (In a preface to the story, Pilnyak denied the connection; but that denial was obviously a lie.) Rumors at the time and the implication in Pilnyak's story were that Stalin himself was responsible for Frunze's death. Needless to say, furor ensued. The issue of Novy Mir in which the story appear was immediately confiscated and reissued with a substitute story. The editors apologized and admitted their "clear and flagrant error". Aleksandr Voronsky, the editor of the journal Red Virgin Soil (Krasnaya nov') wrote:
Such a portrayal of a profoundly sad and tragic event is not only the crudest distortion and extremely insulting to the memory of Comrade Frunze, but it is also a malicious slander on our Communist Party.Pilnyak was off on another trip (to Japan and China) when the controversy arose. Upon his return in January 1927, he gave an ambiguous recantation, apologizing for the furor, not for the story:
Not considering external circumstances I in no way expected that the tale would play into the hands of the counter-revolutionary philistine and would be used by him to the party's disadvantage. I had no idea that I was writing malicious slander.By this time, Gorky's opinion of Pilnyak had changed and he wrote:
I do not like him and I do not trust him. As a writer, I consider him more helpless than many of the beginning "proletarian" writers.Pilnyak's excursion to the Orient resulted in two more books of travel sketches: Roots of the Japanese Sun and Chinese Diary. Pravda criticized the former work for containing many harmful errors, of omitting any reference to class struggle, and of catering to Japanese chauvinists and the bourgeoisie, thus playing into imperialist hands. Pilnyak angrily denied it, saying he got most of his material from Soviet scholars.
Then, as if addicted to controversy, in December 1927, Pilnyak wrote the story Nizhegorod Slope (Nizhegorodskii otkos), which portrays and subtly defends sexual love between a mother and her 16-year-old son.
In 1928-1929, Pilnyak produced two collaborations with Andrei Platonov. The first was Che-Che-O, a sarcastic expose of bureaucratic stagnation and abuse of power in Voronezh. It shows young workers abandoning their lathes for the good life in Party headquarters. Pilnyak and Platonov also wrote a four-act play entitled Devils on the Periphery (Cherti na pereferii). It is a comedy centered on an accountant who, burdened with a large family, succeeds in having his city commission declared legal guardians of his latest child after the commission prevents his wife from having an abortion. The action then revolves around their clumsy efforts to raise the child and culminates in the child's tragic death.
In 1929, Pilnyak published Mahogany (Krasnoye derevo). It tells of NEPmen come to a provincial town looking to buy mahogany furniture from impoverished townspeople. A Trotskyite also returns to see what has happened to his home town in that last ten years. He is not happy with the results he sees. Also wandering around are "fools in communism", idealistic communists who reject the bureaucratization they see going on. Much of this work was later incorporated in The Volga Falls to the Caspian Sea.
Pilnyak campaigned for apolitical literature. He condemned social command in literature as the "castration of art". He insisted that writers need not be politically astute or conform to the predominant ideology. To the Octobrists and On Guardists, this idea was anatham. In August of 1929, they seized control of the Literaturnaya Gazeta editorial board and unleashed a fierce campaign against Pilnyak. They accused of him treason, to wit, he published "Mahogony" abroad. Foreign publication was a practice common to Soviet authors--such as Kaverin, Fedin, Tynyanov, Tolstoy, and Sholokhov--seeking to ensure their international copyrights. Nonetheless, a Literaturnaya Gazeta headline screamed, "The Writers' Community Unanimously Condemns the Anti-Soviet Act of B. Pilnyak". Even Mayakovsky joined in the criticism, calling Pilnyak's action "the same as betrayal at the front." The hysteria died down somewhat after about three weeks when Gorky published a call for tolerance in Izvesita
In April 1930, Pilnyak got an assignment from Izvestia to travel to Turkestan for the opening of the Turkestan-Siberian Railway. He produced articles and sketches praising the heroic accomplishments of the workers in overcoming harsh conditions. He then moved on to Tadzhikstan. There he wrote about the contrasts between the old silk-making methods and the modern factories. He also portrayed the contrabandists, swindlers, and grabbers who were pouring into this "Soviet Klondike". Pilnyak even smoked the local opium--just for research purposes, of course.
In 1931 Pilnyak was off for a six-month stay in American. He began in New York, but then moved on to Hollywood, where MGM hired him as a writer and consultant for a new film about Bolsheviks. When he found out that the producers were intent on a film of anti-Soviet content, Pilnyak said he refused to "compromise reality" and resigned. He bought himself a Ford automobile and set off on a motor trip back east, passing through Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Detroit, Boston, and Washington, D.C. His numerous impressions of America were portrayed in his book O.K.. Called an "American novel", O.K. is really Pilnyak's travel sketch about his trip. His impressions of the US were mainly negative, seeing it as in the clutches of crass materialism.
In 1932, Pilnyak divorced his wife, Olga Sergeevna, and took a second trip to Japan, after which he produced another Japanese travelogue, this time entitled Rocks and Roots (Kamni i korni).
Some of the political pressure came off Pilnyak in 1932 as RAPP and other literary organizations were dissolved and replaced by the Union of Soviet Writers.
In November 1932, Pilnyak went north to the Kola Peninsula, where a polar geological conference was held. Along with Nikoai Zarudin, Pilnyak co-authored some positive sketches on the conference.
In 1933, Pilnyak married a third time. This time to Kira Georgievna Andronikoshvili, sister of a well-known Georgian film actress, Nata Vachnadze. Together, they had one child, Boris, born on 28 October 1934.
Despite the fact that his novel Twins (Dva dvoinika) was rejected for publication, Pilnyak's books were selling well and he was well off financially. He purchased a second car and was awarded one of the first dacha's in the new writers' colony in Peredelkino.
In 1935, however, the tide began to turn against Pilnyak again. Gorky accused Pilnyak of "literary holliganism" and a "lack of respect for his reader", because of his overly convoluted language. Pilnyak's Story Birth of Man (Rozhdeniye cheloveka, 1935) also came in for some criticism. In the story, a pregnant female communist awakens to maternal instincts and develops into a more complete human being. Many saw the emphasis on an instinctive, biological basis of man as a serious error. A republication of many of his earlier stories dealing with birth, love, family, and instinct, reinforced this negative notion, as did The Ripening of Fruits (Sozrevaniye plodov, 1935), a formally complex work about the Palekh master painters, which again gave prominece to biological instinct.
A writers conference was held in March 1936 to consider how to battle against formalism and naturalism. Pilnyak, Pasternak, Leonov, Fedin, and Lidin were all blasted. Then in August 1936 came the trial of the "Trotskyite Center". A meeting of writers, critics, and publishers was held in September, giving everyone a chance to bare their souls of any Trotskyite or other deviant sympathies. Leonov, Fedin, Olesha, and others were sufficiently abject and apologetic. Pilnyak, however, while admitting that he gave financial help to Karl Radek, didn't present himself as politically culpable in any way.
Pilnyak's recalcitrance led to a meeting of the presidium of the Writers Union in October 1936 to examine his position. Again Pilnyak failed to display any repentance. He labeled the attacks on him as "malicious criticism" and stressed the importance of independence for himself as a writer. Many writers, including friends such as Aseev, Pogodin, and Pasternak, rose to criticize Pilnyak for his excessive calmness, self-assurance, and political blunders.
In February 1937, things became even more serious. An article in Izvestia linked Pilnyak directly with the "anti-Soviet Trotskyite degenerate Radek". The article focused not so much on the recent controversy around Pilnyak, instead resuscitating the vile anti-Soviet spectre of "The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon" and "Mahogany".
Pilnyak finally understood that he was in trouble. At a meeting of Moscow writers, he spoke, subjecting his "Trotskyite-influenced" work to sharp criticism and promising to correct his previous errors in a new novel.
The novel in question was Salt Barn (Solyanoi ambar), which he completed on 25 August 1937. While the work was of high literary quality and ideologically orthodox, it came too late to do any good.
Arrests of literary figures increased during the spring and summer of 1937. Pilnyak's name was linked to many of the arrestees in the press, and the drumbeat of accusations over "The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon" grew louder. Finally, Pilnyak's turn came and he was arrested on 6 October 1937. No one ever heard from him again. He reportedly died on 9 September 1941, although there is some controvery about the exact date. He was rehabilitated on 6 December 1956.
1. Browing, Gary. "Boris Pilniak: Scythian at a Typewriter." Ardis Publishers. 1985
1. Maguire, Robert A. "Red Virgin Soil: Soviet Literature in the 1920s". Cornell University Press, 1968.