Art as the Cognition of Life

Literary Silhouettes: Boris Pilniak

Voronsky opened his series of literary silhouettes with this portrait of Boris Pilniak. Pilniak was arrested on 1937.10.28 and, after six months of imprisonment, executed on 1938.04.21.

He is a favourite author of mine, and this essay by Voronsky is what introduced me to him. Though I question some of the colouring lent by translator Alexander R. Tulloch of his novel Naked Year (see below), it remains one of my favourite books in my library.


Pilnyak is a “physiological” writer. His people resemble animals, and his animals resemble people. Oftentimes both receive the same colouring, words, images, and approach. Pilnyak consequently tells with such knowledge and mastery about wolves, bears, and owl.

Pilnyak is very sensitive to mother nature. He loves and knows her. He is able to underscore nuances and small, characteristic details which usually escape our attention. For the forest, sky, winter, autumn, and snowstorms—he has many words and similes. “During the Indian summer, when the hardening earth smells like spirits, Dobrynia-Zlatopoyas-Nikitich rides throughout the fields. During the daytime his armour shines with the vermillion colour of aspens, the gold of the birch trees, and the deep blue of the skies (the blue is as strong as spirits). At night, however, his armour becomes as tarnished as burnished steel, which is covered with the rust of the forests, and has turned grey with the mists, but is still hardened, clear, full of noise of the first small pieces of ice, and shining with the stars of its joints.” “In human consciousness, spring, summer, fall, and winter somehow arrive at once,” and so forth.


“…The sky is low, the moon is red. …a wolf began to howl.” That’s how it was when the “Lay of Igor’s Host” was written. And that’s how Russia has remained—the Russia of forest spirits, tree demons, house goblins, mermaids, water sprites, wolves, bears, and incantations. This is not life, but biology. And this life must be shown by a man of great height, with sweeping movements and forest-like, somewhat drowsy eyes, much like a bear’s. And the new people in leather jackets would have to work a lot more, and go through many experiences before the iron railways could traverse these forests where the forest demons noisily pass by, and before nature could change its wild, prehistoric face for a more modern one.


Others sense the truthfulness of the new world and revolution… Others are building the new life. The leather jackets. The Bolsheviks.

The following is an excerpt from The Naked Year, as translated by Choate:

In the Ordynins’ house, the Executive Committee gathered upstairs: people in leather jackets, Bolsheviks. These men in leather jackets, each the same size, a leather-jacketed handsome fellow, each strong, with locks in ringlets beneath caps pushed back, each with sharply protruding cheekbones, lines by their lips, each with iron movements. This was a selection of the best from the shabby Russian people. In leather jackets—you can’t say a bad word about them. This is what we know, this is what we want, that’s what we’ll do, and that’s it!


Surrounded by those who have “lost their laws”, in the historical dust of the people the “leather jackets” look particularly fresh, new, bold, necessary, and vigorous. Yet these new people appear very strange; they are iron-willed and joyful, and seem to have descended from another planet to old, quiet, sluggish Russian Asia, along with peasant-hutted, pre-Petrine Rus’, which is resurrected by Pilniak and extolled as the herald of a new and free life. By the end of the novel [Naked Year] the author has done everything… in order to attract the reader’s sympathy to peasant-hutted, canonical Rus’. But… the Kononovs remain people of prehistoric times. Here the author is neither convincing nor successful, despite his mastery. Leather jackets and Rus’ of the seventeenth’s centure… are from two different epochs.


The author seeks the organic and biologically simple in life. With the same needs he turned to the Russian Revolution and even tried to find in the leather jackets what is “lumbering”, Pugachevian, “strong”, “nocturnal”, and “owl-like”.