Boris Pilniak (or in more correct transliteration, Pil'nyak) is the
pseudonym of Boris Andreyevich Wogau. He is not of pure Russian
blood, but a descendant of German colonists; a fact which incidently
proves the force of assimilation inherent in the Russian milieu and
the capacity to be assimilated, so typical of Germans. For it is
difficult to deny Pilniak the appellation of a typical Russian.
Pilniak is about thirty-five years of age. His short stories began to
appear in periodicals before the War, and his first book appeared in
1918. It contained four stories, two of which are included in the
present volume (_Death_ and _Over the Ravine_). A second volume
appeared in 1920 (including the _Crossways, The Bielokonsky Estate,
The Snow Wind, A Year of Their Lives_, and _A Thousand Years_). These
volumes attracted comparatively little attention, though considering
the great scarcity of fiction in those years they were certainly
notable events. But _Ivan-da-Marya_ and _The Bare Year_, published in
1922, produced a regular boom, and Pilniak jumped into the limelight
of all-Russian celebrity. The cause of the success of these volumes,
or rather the attention attracted by them, lay in their subject-
matter: Pilniak was the first novelist to approach the subject of
"Soviet _Byt_," to attempt to utilise the everyday life and routine
of Soviet officialdom, and to paint the new forms Russian life had
taken since the Revolution. Since 1922 editions and reprints of
Pilniak's stories have been numerous, and as he follows the rather
regrettable usage of making up every new book of his unpublished
stories with reprints of earlier work the bibliography of his works
is rather complicated and entangled, besides being entirely
uninteresting to the English reader.
The most interesting portion of Pilniak's works are no doubt his
longer stories of "Soviet life" written since 1921. Unfortunately
they are practically untranslatable. His proceedings, imitated from
Bely and Remizov, would seem incongruous to the English reader, and
the translation would be laid aside in despair or in disgust, in
spite of all its burning interest of actuality. None of the stories
included in this volume belong to this last manner of Pilniak's, but
in order to give a certain idea of what it is like I will attempt a
specimen-translation of the beginning of his story _The Third
Metropolis_ (dated May-June 1922), reproducing all his typographical
mannerisms, which are in their turn reproduced rather unintelligently,
from his great masters, Remizov and Bely. The story, by the way, is
dedicated "To A. M. Remizov, the Master in whose Workshop I
was an apprentice."
THE THIRD METROPOLIS
By the District Department for Popinstruct [Footnote: That is
"District Department for popular instruction" - in "Russian,"
_Uotnarobraz_.] provided with every commodity.
- BATHS -
(former Church school in garden) for public use with capacity to
receive 500 persons in an 8-hour working-day.
Hours of baths:
Monday - municipal children's asylums (free)
Tuesdays, Friday, Saturday - males
Wednesday, Thursday - females
Price for washing
adults - 50kop.gold
children - 25kop.gold
DISDEPOPINSTRUCT [Footnote: That is "District Department for popular
instruction" - in "Russian," _Uotnarobraz_.]
Times: Lent of the eighth year of the World War and of the downfall
of European Civilisation (see Spengler) - and sixth Lent since the
great Russian Revolution; in other words: March, Spring, breaking-up
of the ice - when the Russian Empire exploded in the great revolution
the way Rupert's drops explode, casting off - Estia, Latvia,
Lithuania, Poland, the Monarchy, Chernov, Martov, the Dardanelles - -
Russian Civilisation, - Russian blizzards - -
- and when - -
- Europe -
- nothing but one Ersatz
from end to end -
(Ersatz - a German word
- means the adverb
_Place_: there is no place of action. Russia, Europe, the world,
Dramatis person√¶: there are none. Russia, Europe, the world, belief,
disbelief, - civilisation, blizzards, thunderstorms, the image of the
Holy Virgin. People, - men in overcoats with collars turned up, go-
alones, of course; - women; - but women are my sadness, - to me who am a
- the only thing, the most
beautiful, the greatest
All this does after all make itself into some sort of sense, but the
process by which this is at length attained is lengthy, tedious, and
full of pitfalls to the reader who is unfamiliar with some dozen
modern Russian writers and is innocent of "Soviet life."
In the impossibility of giving an intelligible English version of the
_Bare Year_ and its companions, the stories contained in this volume
have been selected from the early and less sensational part of
Pilniak's writings and will be considerably less staggering to the
average English intelligence.
* * * * * * *
There are two things an English reader is in the habit of expecting
when approaching a new Russian writer: first he expects much - and
complains when he does not get it; to be appreciated by an English
reader the Russian writer must be a Turgenev or a Chekhov, short of
that he is no use. Secondly in every Russian book he expects to find
"ideas" and "a philosophy." If the eventual English reader approaches
Pilniak with these standards, he will be disappointed; Pilniak is not
a second Dostoyevsky, and he has singularly few "ideas." It is not
that he has no ambition in the way of ideas, but they are incoherent
and cheap. The sort of historical speculations he indulges in may be
appreciated at their right value on reading _A Thousand Years_. In
later books he is still more self-indulgent in this direction, and
many of his "stories" are a sort of muddle-headed historical
disquisitions rather than stories in any acceptable sense of the
word. Andrey Bely and his famous _Petersburg_ are responsible for
this habit of Pilniak's, as well as for many others of his
Pilniak is without a doubt a writer of considerable ability, but he
is essentially unoriginal and derivative. Even in his famous novels
of "Soviet life," it is only the subject matter he has found out for
himself - the methods of treating it are other peoples'. But this
imitativeness makes Pilniak a writer of peculiar interest: he is a
sort of epitome of modern Russian fiction, a living literary history,
and this representative quality of his is perhaps the chief claim on
our attention that can be advanced on behalf of the stories included
in this book. Almost every one of them can be traced back to some
Russian or foreign writer. Each of them belongs to and is eminently
typical of some accepted literary genre in vogue between 1910 and
1920. The _Snow_ and _The Forest Manor_ belong to the ordinary
psychological problem-story acted among "intellectuals"; they have
for their ancestors Chekhov, Zenaide Hippius, and the Polish
novelists. _Always on Detachment_, belongs to the progeny of A. N.
Tolstoy, with the inevitable blackguardly seduction of a more or less
pure girl or woman at the end. _The Snow Wind_ and _Over the Ravine_
are animal stories, for which, I believe, Jack London is mainly
responsible. In _A Year of Their Lives_ the same "animal" method is
transfered to the treatment of primitive human life, and the shadow
of Knut Hamsun is plainly discernible in the background. _Death_,
_The Heirs_, and _The Belokonsky Estate_ are first class exercises in
the manner of Bunin, and only _A Thousand Years_ and _The Crossways_
herald in, to a certain extent, Pilniak's own manner of invention.
From the point of view of "ideas" _The Crossways_ is the most
interesting in the book, for it gives expression to that which is
certainly the root of all Pilniak's conception of the Revolution. It
is - to use two terms which have been applied to Russia by two very
different schools of thought but equally opposed to Europe - a
"Scythian" or an "Eurasian" conception. To Pilniak the Revolution is
essentially the "Revolt" of peasant and rural Russia against the
alien network of European civilisation, the Revolt of the "crossways"
against the highroad and the railroad, of the village against the
town. A conception, you will perceive, which is opposed to that of
Lenin and the orthodox Communists, and which explains why official
Bolshevism is not over-enthusiastic about Pilniak. The _Crossways_ is
a good piece of work (it can hardly be called a story) and it just
gives a glimpse of that ambitious vastness of scale on which Pilniak
was soon to plan his bigger Soviet stories.
* * * * * * *
But taken in themselves and apart from his later work I think the
stories in the manner of Bunin will be found the most satisfactory
items in this volume. Of these _Death_ was written before the
Revolution and, but for an entirely irrelevant and very Pilniakish
allusion to Lermontov and other deceased worthies, it is entirely
unconnected with events and revolutions. Very "imperfective" and
hardly a "story," it is nevertheless done with sober and
conscientious craftsmanship, very much like Bunin and very unlike the
usual idea we have of Pilniak. The only thing Pilniak was incapable
of taking from his model was Bunin's wonderfully rich and full
Russian, a shortcoming which is least likely to be felt in
* * * * * * *
The other two Buninesque stories, _The Belokonsky Estate_ and _The
Heirs_, are stories (again, can the word "story" be applied to this
rampantly "imperfective" style?) of the Revolution. They display the
same qualities of sober measure and solid texture which are not
usually associated with the name of Pilniak. These two stories ought
to be read side by side, for they are correlative. In _The Belokonsky
Estate_ the representative of "the old order," Prince Constantine, is
drawn to an almost heroical scale and the "new man" cuts a poor and
contemptible figure by his side. In the other story the old order is
represented by a studied selection of all its worst types. I do not
think that the stories were meant as a deliberate contrast, they are
just the outcome of the natural lack of preconceived idea which is
typical of Pilniak and of his passive, receptive, plastical mind. As
long as he does not go out of his way to give expression to vague and
incoherent ideas, the outcome of his muddle-headed meditations on
Russian History, this very shortcoming (if shortcoming it be) becomes
something of a virtue, and Pilniak - an honest membrana vibrating with
unbiassed indifference to every sound from the outer world.
* * * * * * *
The reader may miss the more elaborate and sensational stories of
Soviet life. But I have a word of consolation for him - they are
eminently unreadable, and for myself I would never have read them had
it not been for the hard duties of a literary critic. In this case as
in others I prefer to go direct to the fountain-source and read
Bely's _Petersburg_ and the books of Remizov, which for all the
difficulties they put in the way of the reader and of the translator
will at least amply repay their efforts. But Pilniak has also
substantial virtues: the power to make things live; an openness to
life and an acute vision. If he throws away the borrowed methods that
suit him as little as a peacock's feathers may suit a crow, he will
no doubt develop rather along the lines of the better stories
included in this volume, than in the direction of his more ambitious
novels. And I imagine that his _opus magnum_, if, in some distant
future he ever comes to write one, will be more like the good old
realism of the nineteenth century than like the intense and troubled
art of his present masters; I venture to prophesy that he will
finally turn out something like a Soviet (or post-Soviet) Trollope,
rather than a vulgarised Andrey Bely.
D. S. MIRSKY.
TALES OF THE WILDERNESS
The tinkling of postillion-bells broke the stillness of the crisp
winter night - a coachman driving from the station perhaps. They rang
out near the farm, were heard descending into a hollow; then, as the
horses commenced to trot, they jingled briskly into the country,
their echoes at last dying away beyond the common.
Polunin and his guest, Arkhipov, were playing chess in his study.
Vera Lvovna was minding the infant; she talked with Alena for a
while; then went into the drawing-room, and rummaged among the books
Polunin's study was large, candles burnt on the desk, books were
scattered about here and there; an antique firearm dimly shone above
a wide, leather-covered sofa. The silent, moonlit night peered in
through the blindless windows, through one of which was passed a
wire. The telegraph-post stood close beside it, and its wires hummed
ceaselessly in the room somewhere in a corner of the ceiling - a
monotonous, barely audible sound, like a snow-storm.
The two men sat in silence, Polunin broad-shouldered and bearded,
Arkhipov lean, wiry, and bald.
Alena entered bringing in curdled milk and cheese-cakes. She was a
modest young woman with quiet eyes, and wore a white kerchief.
"Won't you please partake of our simple fare?" she asked shyly,
inclining her head and folding her hands across her bosom.
Silent and absent-minded, the chess-players sat down to table and
supped. Alena was about to join them, but just then her child began
to cry, and she hurriedly left the room. The tea-urn softly simmered
and seethed, emitting a low, hissing sound in unison with that of the
wires. The men took up their tea and returned to their chess. Vera
Lvovna returned from the drawing-room; and, taking a seat on the sofa
beside her husband, sat there without stirring, with the fixed,
motionless eyes of a nocturnal bird.
"Have you examined the Goya, Vera Lvovna?" Polunin asked suddenly.
"I just glanced through the _History of Art_; then I sat down with
"He has the most wonderful devilry!" Polunin declared, "and, do you
know, there is another painter - Bosch. _He_ has something more than
devilry in _him_. You should see his Temptation of St. Anthony!"
They began to discuss Goya, Bosch, and St. Anthony, and as Polunin
spoke he imperceptibly led the conversation to the subject of St.
Francis d'Assisi. He had just been reading the Saint's works, and was
much attracted by his ascetical attitude towards the world. Then the
It was late when the Arkhipovs left, and Polunin accompanied them
home. The last breath of an expiring wind softly stirred the pine-
branches, which swayed to and fro in a mystic shadow-dance against
the constellations. Orion, slanting and impressive, listed across a
boundless sky, his starry belt gleaming as he approached his midnight
post. In the widespread stillness the murmur of the pines sounded
like rolling surf as it beats on the rocks, and the frozen snow
crunched like broken glass underfoot: the frost was cruelly sharp.
On reaching home, Polunin looked up into the overarching sky,
searching the glittering expanse for his beloved Cassiopeian
Constellation, and gazed intently at the sturdy splendour of the
Polar Star; then he watered the horses, gave them their forage for
the night, and treated them to a special whistling performance.
It struck warm in the stables, and there was a smell of horses'
sweat. A lantern burned dimly on the wall; from the horses' nostrils
issued grey, steamy cloudlets; Podubny, the stallion, rolled a great
wondering eye round on his master, as though inquiring what he was
doing. Polunin locked the stable; then stood outside in the snow for
a while, examining the bolts.
In the study Alena had made herself up a bed on the sofa, sat down
next it in an armchair and began tending her baby, bending over it
humming a wordless lullaby. Polunin sat down by her when he came in
and discussed domestic affairs; then took the child from Alena and
rocked her. Pale green beams of moonlight flooded through the
Polunin thought of St. Francis d'Assisi, of the Arkhipovs who had
lost faith and yet were seeking the law, of Alena and their
household. The house was wrapped in utter silence, and he soon fell
into that sound, healthy sleep to which he was now accustomed, in
contrast to his former nights of insomnia.
The faint moon drifted over the silent fields, and the pines shone
tipped with silver. A new-born wind sighed, stirred, then rose gently
from the enchanted caverns of the night and soared up into the sky
with the swift flutter of many-plumed wings. Assuredly Kseniya
Ippolytovna Enisherlova was not asleep on such a night.
The day dawned cold, white, pellucid - breathing forth thin, misty
vapour, while a hoar-frost clothed the houses, trees, and hedges. The
smoke from the village chimneypots rose straight and blue. Outside
the windows was an overgrown garden, a snow-covered tree lay prone on
the earth; further off were snow-clad fields, the valley and the
forest. Sky and air were pale and transparent,
and the sun was hidden behind a drift of fleecy white clouds.
Alena came in, made some remark about the house, then went out to
singe the pig for Christmas.
The library-clock struck eleven; a clock in the hall answered. Then
there came a sudden ring on the telephone; it sounded strange and
piercing in the empty stillness.
"Is that you, Dmitri Vladimirovich? Dmitri Vladimirovich, is that
you?" cried a woman's muffled voice: it sounded a great way off
through the instrument.
"Yes, but who is speaking?"
"Kseniya Ippolytovna Enisherlova is speaking", the voice answered
quietly; then added in a higher key: "Is it you, my ascetic and
seeker? This is me, me, Kseniya."
"You, Kseniya Ippolytovna?" Polunin exclaimed joyfully.
"Yes, yes ... Oh yes!... I am tired of roaming about and being always
on the brink of a precipice, so I have come to you ... across the
fields, where there is snow, snow, snow and sky ... to you, the
seeker.... Will you take me? Have you forgiven me that July?"
Polunin's face was grave and attentive as he bent over the telephone:
"Yes, I have forgiven," he replied.
* * * * * * *
One long past summer, Polunin and Kseniya Ippolytovna used to greet
the glowing dawn together. At sundown, when the birch-trees exhaled a
pungent odour and the crystal sickle of the moon was sinking in the
west, they bade adieu until the morrow on the cool, dew-sprinkled
terrace, and Polunin passionately kissed - as he believed - the pure,
innocent lips of Kseniya Ippolytovna.
But she laughed at his ardour, and her avid lips callously drank in
his consuming, protesting passion, only to desert him afterwards,
abandoning him for Paris, and leaving behind her the shreds of his
pure and passionate love.
That June and July had brought joy and sorrow, good and ill. Polunin
was already disillusioned when he met Alena, and was living alone
with his books. He met her in the spring, and quickly and simply
became intimate with her, begetting a child, for he found that the
instinct of fatherhood had replaced that of passion within him.
Alena entered his house at evening, without any wedding-ceremony,
placed her trunk on a bench in the kitchen, and passing quickly
through into the study, said quietly:
"Here I am, I have come." She looked very beautiful and modest as she
stood there, wiping the corner of her mouth with her handkerchief.
Kseniya Ippolytovna arrived late when dusk was already falling and
blue shadows crept over the snow. The sky had darkened, becoming
shrouded in a murky blue; bullfinches chirruped in the snow under the
windows. Kseniya Ippolytovna mounted the steps and rang, although
Polunin had already opened the door for her.
The hall was large, bright, and cold. As she entered, the sunrays
fell a moment on the windows and the light grew warm and waxy,
lending to her face - as Polunin thought - a greenish-yellow tint, like
the skin of a peach, and infinitely beautiful. But the rays died away
immediately, leaving a blue crepuscular gloom, in which Kseniya
Ippolytovna's figure grew dim, forlorn, and decrepit.
Alena curtseyed: Kseniya Ippolytovna hesitated a moment, wondering if
she should give her hand; then she went up to Alena and kissed her.
"Good evening", she cried gaily, "you know I am an old friend of your
But she did not offer her hand to Polunin.
Kseniya Ippolytovna had greatly changed since that far-off summer.
Her eyes, her wilful lips, her Grecian nose, and smooth brows were as
beautiful as ever, but now there was something reminiscent of late
August in her. Formerly she had worn bright costumes - now she wore
dark; and her soft auburn hair was fastened in a simple plait.
They entered the study and sat down on the sofa. Outside the windows
lay the snow, blue like the glow within. The walls and the furniture
grew dim in the twilight. Polunin - grave and attentive - hovered
solicitously round his guest. Alena withdrew, casting a long,
steadfast look at her husband.
"I have come here straight from Paris", Kseniya explained. "It is
rather queer - I was preparing to leave for Nice in the spring, and
was getting my things together, when I found a nest of mice in my
wardrobe. The mother-mouse ran off, leaving three little babes behind
her; they were raw-skinned and could only just crawl. I spent my
whole time with them, but on the third day the first died, and then
the same night the other two.... I packed up for Russia the next
morning, to come here, to you, where there is snow, snow.... Of
course there is no snow in Paris - and it will soon be Christmas, the
She became silent, folded her hands and laid them against her cheek;
for a moment she had a sorrowful, forlorn expression.
"Continue, Kseniya Ippolytovna", Polunin urged.
"I was driving by our fields and thinking how life here is as simple
and monotonous as the fields themselves, and that it is possible to
live here a serious life without trivialities. You know what it is to
live for trivialities. I am called - and I go. I am loved - and I let
myself be loved! Something in a showcase catches my eye and I buy it.
I should always remain stationary were it not for those that have the
will to move me....
"I was driving by our fields and thinking of the impossibility of
such a life: I was thinking too that I would come to you and tell you
of the mice.... Paris, Nice, Monaco, costumes, English perfumes,
wine, Leonardo da Vinci, neo-classicism, lovers, what are they? With
you everything is just as of old."
She rose and crossed to the window.
"The snow is blue-white here, as it is in Norway - I jilted Valpyanov
there. The Norwegian people are like trolls. There is no better place
than Russia! With you nothing changes. Have you forgiven me that
Polunin approached and stood beside her.
"Yes, I have forgiven", he said earnestly.
"But I have not forgiven you that June!" she flashed at him; then she
resumed: "The library, too, is the same as ever. Do you remember how
we used to read Maupassant together in there?"
Kseniya Ippolytovna approached the library-door, opened it, and went
in. Inside were book-cases behind whose glass frames stood even rows
of gilded volumes; there was also a sofa, and close to it a large,
round, polished table. The last yellow rays of the sun came in
through the windows. Unlike that in the study, the light in here was
not cold, but warm and waxy, so that again Kseniya Ippolytovna's face
seemed strangely green to Polunin, her hair a yellow-red; her large,
dark, deep-sunken eyes bore a stubborn look.
"God has endowed you with wonderful beauty, Kseniya, Ippolytovna,"
Polunin said gravely.
She gave him a keen glance; then smiled. "God has made me wonderfully
tempting! By the way, you used to dream of faith; have you found it?"
"Yes, I have found it."
"Faith in what?"
"But if there is nothing to believe in?"
"I don't know. I don't know." Kseniya Ippolytovna raised her hands to
her head. "The Japanese, Naburu Kotokami, is still looking for me in
Paris and Nice... I wonder if he knows about Russia.... I have not
had a smoke for a whole week, not since the last little mouse died; I
smoked Egyptians before .... Yes, you are right, it is impossible not
to have faith."
Polunin went to her quickly, took her hands, then dropped them; his