Of all the brilliant writers who flourished during the brief period of relative freedom between the Revolution and the time Stalin brought the hammer down, Boris Pilnyak is probably the least-known outside Russia (and maybe inside as well). There are reasons for this; he was not much interested in plot and character development, and his Russian is so full of dialectal expressions and recondite allusions that it’s hard to blame his translators for stumbling occasionally. His idiosyncratic emphasis on nature, instinct, and biology—his plots are interspersed with apparently irrelevant descriptions of wolves, forests, and clouds—combined with his indifference to historical accuracy and verisimilitude can cause problems for even a favorably disposed reader (Solzhenitsyn, in an otherwise admiring discussion of his most famous work, the novel Golyi god [The Naked Year], keeps pointing out irritatedly that the kombedy were dissolved before the novel’s 1919 setting, that there were no anarchists active in that part of Russia at the time, etc.). But his devotion to literature was total, and his courage in defending its rights against those who would subject it to politics was breathtaking (and virtually suicidal). His response to demands in the early ’20s that he declare support for Communism:

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.

And even in 1936, when it was apparent to all that Stalin would not allow even the slightest independence, he was defiant; from the first link above:

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.

I wonder if Pasternak remembered this later on, when he was the one in disgrace?

But it wasn’t just his political recalcitrance and personal stubbornness that got him in trouble, it was his language. I knew from my reading that many of the writers of the period, from Bely to Zoshchenko, delighted in the dialectal, “ungrammatical” speech of the peasants, the vast majority of the population, but I didn’t realize the political implications until I read “Mastering the Perverse: State Building and Language ‘Purification’ in Early Soviet Russia,” by Michael S. Gorham (Slavic Review 59 (2000): 133-153; JSTOR link). Gorham explains that Lenin and the rest of the Bolshevik leadership were concerned about the “spoiling” of the Russian language and draws out the implications:

Language “purism,” as it is commonly termed, more often than not indicates an underlying struggle for power and authority on the part of social and cultural representatives who see themselves as “guardians” of an established language tradition, defending it against forces whom they perceive to be alien, detrimental, and threatening to the integrity of the national tongue, and, by extension, the nation itself… The underlying power play is built into the notions themselves: a language norm or standard is declared such (not always overtly) by those in positions of linguistic authority (writers, linguists, grammarians, and pedagogues, among others). The standards, in turn, are most often recognized precisely when “violated.” Examining a broad range of attitudes toward the multiple voices vying for linguistic authority and recognition during the 1920s and early 1930s, the following discussion will trace the emergence of a dominant discourse of language purism and its role in both the homogenization of the Soviet-Russian literary language and the symbolic legitimation of the Soviet party-state. It will demonstrate, moreover, that the purification campaign targeted the voice of the peasantry most directly, generating a form of symbolic cultural cleansing that accompanied more direct methods of social extermination and control…

As for representations of the voice of “the people,” it was the regionally and socially marked language of the peasantry that dominated fiction, overshadowing the halting and largely unsuccessful attempts by the Proletkul’t and other groups to forge a “proletarian” literature.” Stories and even pseudo-ethnographic works by writers such as Isaak Babel’, Sof’ia Fedorchenko, Vsevolod Ivanov, Lidiia Seifullina, Artem Veselyi, and Mikhail Zoshchenko dominated the prose of the leading “thick journals” and prominently featured the voices of often poorly educated, nonreading, and politically unenlightened village dwellers, or recent migrants from countryside to city. The dominance of the rural voice in the prose of the so-called fellow travelers—by common recognition the best and most productive group of writers of the day—led even sympathetic critics such as Lev Trotskii and Aleksandr Voronskii to associate them as a group with the Russian muzhik, using phrases such as muzhikoustvuiushchie poputchik (peasantifying fellow travelers) and muzhitskii uklon (muzhik tendency) to characterize them and their work.

Gorky himself, the arbiter of literature for the young regime, “repeatedly implored beginning writers to read the ‘classics’ for the best models of the Russian literary language…. Young writers could either follow the ‘secrets’ of mastery already provided by Pushkin, Tolstoi, and others, or they could wallow in… ‘verbal chaos’ and ‘anarchical motion.'” His approach “defused once and for all the hopes of those who advocated that the spoken language of the people be raised to the status of a language of power. It framed the discussion over language in terms of state authority, party and class membership, and taste and located the speech practice of rural populations clearly outside that frame.” In Gorham’s conclusion, he sums up the close relation between language, literature, and politics:

But there can be no question that the purification—on the level of both style and rhetoric—was of a specifically Soviet sort, an amalgam of some faint notion of the Russian literary classic and a heavy dose of socialist ideas and terminology. To a large extent, the calls (after Gor’kii) for reconstituting the national literary language were little more than a means of legitimating the new official state discourse by linking it to these authoritative and well-established standards. It was a style in which the voice of the narrator transmitted more transparently and “masterfully” the language and symbols of the party. The voices of the cultural peripheries, meanwhile, were purged of their regional and dialectal identities and were linguistically “collectivized” into a reinvented and safely controlled image of a Soviet-Russian people, a rural proletariat. Those unable or unwilling to adapt to the new standards found their voices quickly and literally muted from the various spheres of public discourse.

I was going to talk about The Naked Year, which I recently finished, but this post is quite long enough already, so I’ll do that another time.


  1. I’ve just gotten Gorham’s book Speaking in Soviet Tongues: Language Culture and the Politics of Voice in Revolutionary Russia (thanks, Victor!), and am very much looking forward to reading it.

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