"Pilnyak is not an
artist of the revolution, but only its artistic fellow-traveler....
Vague, obscure, two-faced."
Pilnyak is a realist and an excellent observer with a fresh eye and a good ear. For him,
people and things don't seem old and worn out; they're not the same as they always were and just merely thrown
into temporary disorder by the revolution. He takes in everything as fresh and unique--that is to say, living,
not dead; and in the disorder of the revolution--which, for him, is a living, basic fact--he searches for
support for his own artistic order.
In art, as in politics (and in some respects the arts resemble politics and politics resemble the arts, for both
are an art), a "realist" might see only as far as his own two feet, noticing only the obstacles, drawbacks,
pot-holes, torn shoes, and broken dishes. In such instances, politics will become timid, meek, and
opportunistic, and art will become insignificant, corroded with skepticism, and merely episodic. Pilnyak is a
realist. The only question is the scale of his realism. And our time requires a grand scale.
The everyday life of the revolution is a bivouac life. Our personal life, our institutions, methods, thoughts,
feelings--everything is extraordinary, temporary, transitory; it all acknowledges its own impermanence,
expressing this even in its chosen names. From here arises the difficulty for an artistic approach. Bivouac
life, episodic life, holds within itself an element of chance, and chance bears the mark of insignificance.
The revolution, taken in episodes, suddenly seems insignificant. Where's the revolution? This is where the
difficulty lies. This difficulty will be overcome by he who understands and thoroughly feels the meaning of
this episodic life and who can discover the historical axis of crystallization behind it. "Why do we need
solidly built homes?" the raskolniki1 used to say. "We are awaiting the coming of Christ." The
revolution doesn't build solid houses either, replacing them with resettlements, housing consolidations, and
barracks. All its institutions have a temporary and barracks character. Not because it's awaiting the coming
of Christ--that is to say, not because its higher purpose is in opposition to the material process of vital
construction--but rather because it is striving, in unceasing trials and experiments, to find the best methods
for constructing its solid buildings. Everything that it undertakes can be thought of as studies, drawings,
and drafts on the assigned topic. There have been, and will continue to be, a great
number of these. And there have been many more unsuccessful results than those which promise success. But they
are all permeated with a single thought, a single striving. A single historic task inspires them.
GVIU2 and GLAVBOOM3 are not simply sound combinations in which Pilnyak hears the howling
of revolutionary poetry; no, these are deliberate, devised, consciously concatenated working words (as there
are working hypotheses) for conscious, premeditated, intentional construction, with a degree of intentionality
hitherto unknown on earth.
"Yes in a hundred or a hundred and fifty years people will long for today's Russia, seeing it as a magnificent
display of the human spirit... But I have a hole in my shoe and I want to sit in a restaurant abroad, sipping
whiskey." ("Ivan and Marya"). Just as one doesn't notice the countryside outside a train on a 2,000-verst trip
because of the commotion of hands, legs, sacks, and lice--Pilnyak notes in the same source--the historic
crossing being accomplished today goes unnoticed because of worn shoes and all the other deficiencies of Soviet
life. "The sea and plateau have changed places! Because in Russia there are the magnificent pangs of birth!
Because Russia is undergoing an ozone transformation! Because in Russia there is life! Because the flood has
made the water turbid with dung! I know this. But they see lice and curses." The question is posed with fine
precision. They (wounded philistines, deposed leaders, insulted prophets, pendants, dolts, professional
dreamers) see only lice and dirt when there is, above all, the pangs of birth. Pilnyak knows this. Can he
limit himself to moans and spasms? No, he wants to
present the feeling of birth. This is a tall order, and very difficult. It is good that Pilnyak has chosen
this task. But the time has not yet come to say that he has solved it.
Pilnyak is plotless out of fear of being episodic. Essentially, he has the thread of two, three, or more
plots, which pass to and fro across the fabric of the narrative; but only a thread, and a thread, moreover,
lacking that central, basic meaning which, in general, belongs to a plot. Pilnyak wants to present current
life in its connections and movements; he grabs hold of it this way and that, making diagonal and lengthwise
cuts in various places because life everywhere is not what it once was. Plots--or more correctly, plot
possibilities--which criss-cross in his works are just accidentally captured images of life, which, we note,
is filled with incomparably more plot than ever before. But these episodic, sometimes anecdotal plots do not
serve as the axis for Pilnyak. Then what does? Here is the stumbling-block. Serving as the invisible axis
(the axis of the Earth is also invisible) should be the revolution, around which revolves everyday life, which
is ultimately smashed and chaotically reshaped. But for the reader to feel this axis, the author himself must
feel it and think it through anew.
It is a well-aimed and deadly shot when Pilnyak--aiming at someone unknown but hitting the Zamyatins4
and other Islanders5 with his stone--says that an ant doesn't understand the beauty of a stone
image because he sees nothing but the tiny protuberances as he crawls along it. Every great era--the
Reformation, the Renaissance, the Revolution--must be taken as a whole, not in pieces
or parts. The masses take part in these events with an irresistible social instinct. In some cases, it rises
to the level of a generalized consciousness. But those who are spiritually average turn up neither in the
former nor the latter, being too individualistic for mass perception, not having matured to the point of a
synthetic understanding. To them are left ruts and protuberances on which they bang their wheels to the
accompaniment of philosophic and aesthetic cursing. How do things stand with Pilnyak in this regard?
Pilnyak is a very sharp and accurate observer of our fragmented daily life. His strength lies in this;
he is a realist. Above all, he knows--and he proclaims this knowledge--that the air is changing in Russia, that
the magnificent pangs of birth are going on in it and with it; that in the turmoil of lice, cursing, and
scrounging for food, the most significant transformation in history is taking place. Even Pilnyak knows
this, since he has pronounced it. But the problem lies in the fact that he only pronounces it, as if placing
these pronouncements of his in contrast to the living and cruel authenticities of everyday life; artistically he
can't justify it because he doesn't comprehend it. This is why so often Pilnyak rips the fabric of his own
narrative to tie up loose ends with a quickly tied knot, to explain (sort of), to generalize, and to lyrically
color (sometimes beautifully, but most often excessively). Pilnyak's work is full of a great number of such
deliberate intrusions by the author. And the work becomes divided in two: it's neither the invisible
axis--the revolution--nor the all too visible axis--the author himself, uncertainly wobbling around and in the
general vicinity of the revolution. Thus is Pilnyak for now.
In terms of plot, Pilnyak is provincial. He takes the Revolution in its periphery, in its backwoods, in
the village and particularly in the provincial town. His is a regional revolution. Such an approach can be
close to life, in its own way even more organic. But one mustn't get bogged down in the periphery; one must
find the axis of the revolution, which is not in the village and not in the districts. One can cross through
the regions to the revolution, but one must not have a regional point of view on the revolution.
The Regional Congress of Soviets, the sleigh road--"Comrade, sit down!"--bast shoes, sheepskin coats, a line at
the House of Soviets for bread, sausage, and tobacco--"Comrades, you are the sole masters of the Congress, the
district, and the revolution"--"Hey, darling, you're giving me so little!" (concerning the sausage)--"This will
be the final and decisive battle!"--"The Internationale! The Entente! World-wide capitalism!"...
In these fragments of conversation, life, speeches, sausage, and hymns there is something of the revolution, a
living piece of it caught with a sharp eye; but it's all in a rush and in passing, as if from the outside,
from a distance. It lacks something that would unite all these fragments. It lacks the concept of our epoch.
When Pilnyak writes about passengers on a train car, you feel the work of a master, a future master, a
possibly future master. But you don't extract that satisfaction of resolving contractions which is the
highest mark of an artistic work. Bewilderment remains, and even partially deepens. Why this train?
Why this compartment? And what do they carry within themselves--from Russia and for Russia? No one is
demanding that Pilnyak provide a historical analysis of the train car in the context of everyday life and in
the context of the time, and certainly not the prophetic pronouncements to which he himself is so unreasonably
inclined. But if Pilnyak himself had understood the train car and its connection to the course of events,
this would have been conveyed to the reader. However, for now, the lice-ridden train car is speeding along
with no explanation, and, taking it up, Pilnyak gives birth to bewilderment.
One of Pilnyak's more recent works, "The Blizzard", again gives witness to the fact that he is a significant
writer. The provincial confusion of dirty philistinism dying out in the circumstances of the revolution as
well as the prosaic hurly-burly of Soviet daily life--and all this surrounded by an October snow storm--comes
out in Pilnyak not as a complete, continuous picture, but as bright spots, pointed silhouettes, and
convincing sketches. But the general impression is just the same--a troubling duality.
"Olga thought that the Revolution was like a snow storm and that the people in it were like little storms."
That's the way Pilnyak himself thinks--and not without the influence of Blok,
who took the revolution
exclusively as poetry and, in keeping with his temperament, as something cold--not as a fire, but as a
snow storm--"and the people in it were like little storms." But if the revolution is only a powerful,
unbridled force of nature playing with man, then whither comes "days of the most magnificent display of the
human soul"? And if the torments are justified because they are the torments of birth, then exactly what
in fact is being born? Without an answer to this you'll still have the torn shoe, lice, blood, snow
storm and a devilish whirlwind, but there will be no revolution.
So, does Pilnyak know exactly what is being born in these revolutionary torments? No, he does not. Of
course he has heard (how could he have not!), but internally he doesn't believe it. Pilnyak is not an
artist of the revolution, but only its artistic fellow-traveler. Will he become its artist? We don't
know. But he has not yet become such. Our descendants will talk about the "the most magnificent days" of
the human soul. That's wonderful. But the place of Pilnyak himself in these days? Vague, obscure, two-faced.
Is this not the reason why Pilnyak shies away from phenomena and people who strictly determine and give
meaning to events? Pilnyak circles around communists, most often with respect and coolly, sometimes with
sympathy, but from a distance. In Pilnyak's work you almost never see a revolutionary-worker and, most
importantly, the author doesn't look through such a character's eyes and is incapable of looking at events
through such a character's eyes. Moreover, in The Naked Year, he looks at life through the eyes of
various characters who are also absolute fellow-travelers of the revolution. And here's one quite
noteworthy fact: for this artist of the years 1918-1921, the Red Army doesn't exist. How is this? The
later years of the revolution where first and foremost years of war. Blood was rushing from the heart of
the nation to the fronts on the periphery, and it flowed there in abundance over the course of several
years. In these years the workers' avant-garde poured their enthusiasm, faith in the future, their
self-sacrifice, clarity of thought and their strength of will into the Red Army. The revolutionary
Red Guard from the capital at the end of 1917 and beginning of 1918 was transformed into front-line
divisions and battalions. Pilnyak has overlooked this. For him, the Red Army does not exist.
That is why, for him, 1919 was a naked year.
But shouldn't Pilnyak have some sort of answer to the question, What is this all for? Shouldn't he have
his own philosophy of the revolution? Here is where the most troubling circumstance is revealed: Pilnyak's
historical philosophy is completely retrograde. The artistic fellow-traveler thinks that its path leads
backwards, not forward. The revolution is acceptable to Pilnyak because it is national, and it is national
in that it casts off Peter and brings back the XVIIth century. So it comes out that the revolution is
national because it is retrograde.
The Naked Year, Pilnyak's main work, is suffused with this duality. Snow storms, incantations,
superstitions, wood-goblins, sectarians living according to a centuries-old tradition and who have no use
for Petrograd--this is the background, the foreground, and the base coat. But on the other hand, but only
in passing: "The factory revived itself"--the spontaneous action of a group of provincial workers: "Is this
not a poem, a hundred times more magnificent than the resurrection of Lazarus?"
The city in 1918-19 is being plundered, and Pilnyak welcomes this, for it suddenly turns out that even he
"has no use for Petrograd". But on the other hand, and again in passing--Bolsheviks, leather jackets:
"from the dislodged, rough Russian nationality--a selection. In leather jackets you don't get wet. So
we know, so we want, so we set it up, and that's it". Besides that, Bolshevism is a product of city
culture. Without Petersburg, this selection "from the dislodged nationality" would never had been made.
Magical rites, folk songs, age-old words. This is the basis. But "GVIU, GAU6, GLAVBOOM,
GUVUZ7! Ah, what a snow storm! How stormy!. How go-oo-od!..." Good is good, only he hasn't made
the ends meet, and this already isn't good.
Russia is indeed full of contradictions, including the most extreme: magical incantations right alongside
GLAVBOOM. Literary men squint disdainfully at these terminological neologisms, but Pilnyak repeats,
"Guvuz, Glavboom...How wonderful!" In these unusual, temporary words--like during a bivouac, like a
campfire on the river bank is temporary (a bivouac is not a home, and a campfire is not a hearth!)--Pilnyak
senses the reflection of the spirit of our times. "How wonderful!" and indeed it is good that Pilnyak feels
this (especially if this feeling is serious and lasts for an extended period). But how about the city to which
the revolution, born in it, has brought such loss? Here is a gap in Pilnyak. With neither his mind nor his
feelings has he decided what to take out of this chaos of contradictions. But one must choose. The
revolution has cut time in half. And while the sorcerer's incantation lives side by side with GVIU and
GLAVBOOM in today's Russia, they do not exist in the same historic stratum. GVIU and GLAVBOOM, no matter how
incomplete, are straining forward, while the incantation, no matter how much "of the people", is the dead
weight of history. The sectarian Donat, a thickset, horse-stealing muzhik of strict rules (he doesn't
drink tea) is good. He doesn't need Petersburg, if you please.
But also good is the Bolshevik Arkhipov, who runs the district, studies foreign words from a book at dawn, is
intelligent and firm, says "function energetically" and, most importantly, himself "functions" with all his
energy. But in which of these two can the revolution be found? Donat is the nonhistoric, "green" Russia, the
undistilled seventeenth century. Arkhipov is the 21st century, even though he knows foreign words poorly.
If Donat stretched out and this staid, pious horse-thief pulled apart both capitals as well as the cast iron
stove, then it's the end of the revolution and Russian along with it. Time is cut into two halves--living and
dead; and one must choose the living half. Pilnyak can't choose; he wavers in his choice; and as a
form of reconciliation, he tacks a Pugachevlike beard onto the Bolshevik Arkhipov. But this is just
window-dressing. We have seen Arkhipov, and he shaves.
The sorcerer Egorka says: "Russia herself is intelligent. The German is intelligent, too, but foolish with
his intelligence..." "'And Karla Marxov?' they ask. 'A German, I say, and so a fool.' 'And Lenin?' 'Lenin,
I say, comes from the muzhiks, a Bolshevik, but you I suppose are Communists.'" Pilnyak is hiding behind the
sorcerer Egorka. And the fact that he speaks openly in support of Bolsheviks and against "Communists" with
the sorcercer's holy-fool language is disturbing. Which is more internal and deeper for him? It is as if the
fellow-traveler missed a connecting train at one of the stations.
Here artistic danger flows directly from political danger. Reducing the revolution to a peasant revolt and
everyday life--if Pilnyak were to insist on this--would signify a movement of his artistic images toward
oversimplification. Currently, Pilnyak does not have a portrait of the revolution, but only the base coat and
background for it. The base coat has been put on with a bold and sure hand; but it's a pity if a painter
decides that the base coat is the entire picture. The October Revolution is the city--Petersburg and Moscow.
"The revolution is ongoing," Pilnyak lets drop in passing. But surely all of the revolution's further work will
be directed toward industrialization and modernization of the economy, on perfecting the forms and methods of
construction in all fields, on rooting out the idiotism of village life, on making the human personality
more complex and richer. The proletarian revolution can be technically and culturally completed and justified
only through electrification and not by a return to torchlight, only through the materialistic philosophy of
genuine optimism and not by forest superstitions and stagnant fatalism. It would be a pity if Pilnyak really
wants to be a poet of torchlight with the pretensions of a revolutionary! There would be no political loss in
this (who would ever take it into his head to drag Pilnyak into politics?) but a most real and direct
artistic danger. The mistake in historical approach and the falsity in world view and the blaring duality
behind it give rise to a diversion away from the most vital aspects of reality, the reduction of everything to
primitivism, to social barbarism, a further coarsening of representative images, naturalistic excesses
that are mischievous but not brave (since nothing is taken to its end); and then you look and see mysticism or
mystical pretense (disguised as romanticism), that is to say complete and final death.
Even now Pilnyak at any opportunity, particularly any embarrassing or difficult one, presents the passport of
a romantic. Particularly when he has occasion to reveal--not vaguely and somewhat ambiguously, but quite
distinctly--his take on the revolution, he makes a couple of typographic indents (in the style of
and then in a completely different tone he declares: don't forget, please, that I'm a romantic. A drunkard
has to act as if supremely responsible; but sober individuals who feign drunkenness to escape from a difficult
situation are not so rare. Does Pilnyak not belong to this group? And when he stubbornly calls himself a
romantic and begs us not to forget it, are these not the words of the frightened realist in him who lacks
a world view? Revolution does not equal a broken shoe plus a romantic. The art of the revolution does not
lie in closing one's eyes to the truth or the use of fantasy to transform--for oneself, for one's personal
use--harsh reality into the banality of a "legend being created." The psychology of a "legend being created" is
contradictory to the revolution. It marked the beginning of the counter-revolutionary epoch after 1905 with
mysticism and mystification.
To accept the revolution in the name of an elevating deception means not only to reject it, but to slander
it. All social illusions which humanity has collected--in the sphere of religion, poetry, law, morality,
philosophy--served only to deceive and constrain the oppressed. The socialist revolution rips the covers off
these illusions, off these "elevating", that is to say debasing, deceptions; it washes (with blood) the
grease-paint off of reality and is as strong as it is realistic, purposeful, strategic, and mathematical. Is it
really possible that the revolution needs to be seasoned with a little romantic ad-libbing just as cat meat in a
ragu needs a little "rabbit" sauce? Make this suggestion to Bely: let them eat their philistine cat stew with
some anthroposophical sauce.
Amid all the importance and freshness of Pilnyak's style, his affectation is disturbing, even more so
because it is not infrequently imitative. It's completely incomprehensible--how did Pilnyak fall into artistic
dependence on Bely, on the worst aspects of Bely? Persistent subjectivism in the form of recurring,
often confused lyrical insertions; quick and unexplained literary jumps from social ultra-realism to some sort
of psycho-philosophic prophesying; the arrangement of text with typographic indentations; completely
inappropriate quotations pulled together in a mechanical association; all of this is unnecessary, annoying and
imitative: black...in the style of Bely8. But Andrei Bely has a cunning: he covers up the
deficiencies of his teaching with lyric hysteria. Bely is an anthoposophist, he attained his knowledge
from Rudolf Steiner, he stood guard at the German-mystical temple in Switzerland, he drank coffee and ate
sausages. And as the mystical philosophy of Bely is meager and pitiful, so, too, a charlatanry that is half
sincere (hysterical) and half made of worn-out words has entered his literary work. But why does Pilnyak need
this? Or does Pilnyak also intend to preach the tragic-comforting philosophy of redemption to us along with a
Peter's "Gala" chocolate9 as an appetizer? Pilnyak takes the world in its corporality, and he values
it in this corporality. Where does this dependence on Bely come from? It's apparent that here, as in a crooked
mirror, some internal need of Pilnyak's is reflected in a synthetic picture. The deficiencies in spiritual
scope engender his weakness for Bely, a literary decorator of spiritual gaps. It would be so much better
for him to toss off this half-joking manner of Russian Steinerism and move forward on his own path.
Pilnyak is a young writer, but he is no longer a youth. He has reached a most critical age. An age at
which premature, so to speak, sudden eminence or venerability is a great danger: He had not yet ceased being
promising and he already became an oracle. He writes like an oracle, with multiple meanings and obscurity,
like a priest he hints and teaches, but what he should do is study and study, because he still hasn't joined up
the loose ends both socially and artistically. His technique is unstable and uneconomical, his voice
cracks and breaks, his imitativeness flies right into your eyes. All of these, perhaps, are the unavoidable
diseases of growth, but on the condition that they come without venerability. Even great talent cannot save
one from a bad end where there is the brittle voice of smugness and a professorial attitude. Even in
pre-revolutionary times, this was the lot of many promising individuals who plunged themselves into eminence
and choked on it. The example of Leonid Andreev should be included in readings on the promising.
Pilnyak is talented, but his difficulties are great. One can only wish him success.
First published in
Literatura i revoliutsia
Translated by Eric Konkol
1Raskolniki: Old Believer sectarians, who split with the official Russian Orthodox Church in the
2GVIU: Acronym for the 'Chief Military-Engineering Directorate'
3GLAVBOOM: Acronym for the 'Chief Directorate of the State Paper Industry Enterprises'
4Zamyatin: neo-realist writer Evgeny Zamyatin [1884-1936]
5Islanders: referring to a Zamyatin story of the same name.
6GAU: Acronym for, 'Chief Artillery Directorate'
7GUVUZ : Acronym for 'Chief Directorar of Military Education Establishments
8Punning on the fact that, in Russian, 'Bely' means 'White'.
9Type of chocolate bar sold by Daniel Peter, the inventor of milk chocolate.
See also: Biography of Boris Pilnyak
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