Great Books: Boris Pilnyak’s The Bare Year

  • Themes: Great Books, Russia

Boris Pilnyak's lyrical and surreal account of life in post-Revolutionary Russia brings vividly to life the all-pervading turbulence of war and its harrowing impact on the individual.

Portrait of the author Boris Pilnyak (1894-1938)
Portrait of the author Boris Pilnyak (1894-1938). Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

‘The cold wind blows from the steppe, rain is falling, the earth is crying. Men are drinking moonshine in the tavern.’ Boris Pilnyak’s The Bare Year (1922) tells the harrowing story of Russia’s Civil War in an impressionistic way, devoid of pathos. As one character, a former noblewoman turned revolutionary, affirms: ‘Life is not in the sentimental fiddlesticks of romanticism.’

Following the February Revolution and the Bolshevik coup of 1917, political instability bled into multi-party conflict across the breadth of the Russian Empire. Primarily fought between pro-monarchist Whites and pro-communist Reds, the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) sparked further conflicts and wars of independence, leaving millions dead and the country in ruins.

While he strongly disliked the Whites, Boris Pilnyak was no Communist either. He belonged to the so-called fellow-travellers, writers who were ideologically undecided but open-minded towards revolution. Pilnyak spent 1918 touring the Russian countryside by train, searching for food and forming impressions of the chaos around him. That summer, he joined an anarchist commune that was dispersed following a gun battle over the distribution of confiscated property. Pilnyak’s autobiographical experiences heavily influenced his writings and a near-identical argument occurs in a fictionalised commune in The Bare Year.

The novel is set in the provincial town of Ordynin, which resembles the region where Pilnyak spent his childhood. It foregrounds the still-neglected stories of Civil War and Revolution as experienced on Russia’s periphery and details the war’s quotidian effects on various characters swept along by the chaos. Pilnyak prefers the raw matter of human experience to intellectual reflection, and privileges the portrayal of groups of Ordynin inhabitants over well-defined individual characters. In a memorable passage set on the crammed trains that crisscrossed Russia full of people in desperate search of food, passengers are metonymically reduced to body parts: ‘legs, hands, heads, stomachs, backs, human waste’. While the lack of psychological insight into characters can be unnerving, the result is not to dehumanise, but to stress the physical impact and reality of existence during wartime.

The language is experimental, at times entirely free of the constraints of grammar, as reflected in the recurrent use of aposiopesis and non-derivative sounds. For example, the whistling of the snowstorm, expressed as ‘hoooo whoooo’, reappears throughout the novel without introduction or context. Pilnyak’s contemporaries would have immediately understood the snowstorm as a commonplace metaphor for the Revolution and its uprooting of everything and anything in its path. The founder of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, wrote that in these unusual temporary words Pilnyak reflected the spirit of his times. Indeed, in the structure and form of the novel, he recreated his disorientated reality, with symbols and repetition the only guide to help the bewildered reader manoeuvre through dense, ornamentalist prose. The fragmentation of form is a deliberate attempt to reflect the all-pervading turbulence of war, and convey what Pilnyak considers to be the essence of the Revolution.

To describe Pilnyak as definitively supporting or opposing the Revolution would be facile. He certainly supported a revolution, albeit in the hope it would destroy the artificial Western heritage forced on Russia by Tsar Peter I. Although he was a Volga German, Pilnyak saw Russians as a half-Asiatic people for whom contact with Europe inhibited progress. During his travels abroad — he went twice to Japan and once to China — the writer came to believe that Russia must embrace the East as the antidote to Western enlightenment, and as the only means to re-establish relations with the country’s half-forgotten historical identity. There are numerous references to this history, from Church Slavonicisms to pagan rites. The pungent smell of wormwood, traditionally used by Russian peasant women to cleanse abodes of evil spirits, recurs throughout, invoked to symbolise the purifying fires of the Revolution.

Pilnyak admired the Bolsheviks insofar as they represented this purifying force. Clean and strong, the Bolshevik characters are almost entirely depersonalised, with their leather clothes functioning as a synecdoche in place of individual fighters or functionaries. Pilnyak contrasts this ‘crème de la crème of Russian nationhood’ directly with the decrepit, syphilitic nobility. But the elite characteristics of the Bolsheviks also speak to their perceived unrepresentativeness.

There is an explicit distinction between the peasants who represent the essence of revolution, and the party members who are installing Marxism. His character of Yegor’ka, the sorcerer behind whom Trotsky accused Pilnyak of hiding his real views about the Revolution, cannot pronounce neologisms, saying ‘Communests’ and ‘Internatyonale’. These unnatural words also contain the author’s disappointment as the natural force of the Revolution is subsumed within Marxism, depicted as yet another alien Western custom that tries to impose artificial rationality on the instinctual Russian masses. Fittingly, there is no celebration of the end of the war and violence, just a clipped phrase: ‘The Whites left in March’, and a brief description of a factory visit.

Pilnyak’s disillusionment with the Russian Revolution, and the Soviet Union under Stalin, grew in inverse proportion to his ability to express such views. It is against this backdrop of dictatorship, sweeping grand histories, and the persecution and murder of millions that The Bare Year’s significance is revealed. When many others were blinded by the snowstorm of revolution, Pilnyak managed to keep his gaze centred on the human; on what living in such times and conditions entailed. There are no elevated categories of love, honour, honesty, or allegiance — just vignettes of survival and existence.

I have yet to read another work of fiction (or non-fiction) that conveys the tumult, terror and timelessness of war with such force. A favourite for over thirteen years, I return to this book ever more frequently as I try to make sense of a different war in the present. But The Bare Year warns against trying to discern too much meaning in war, or forcing events into a nice logical exposition. Instead, it compels the reader to reckon with the complexities of human beings, the futility of trying to overcome nature, the unpredictability of history, and the realisation that theory perverts humans, not the other way around.

It also emits a profoundly tragic note — one inferred extra-textually —  concerning the waste of human lives, dreams, hopes and talents. To read The Bare Year is to be excited by the scale of the author’s talent, and to mourn the major contributions, even shifts, he could have made within world literature. In 1938 Boris Pilnyak was shot in the back of the head by a Soviet secret police executioner on the outskirts of Moscow. His corpse was flung into a mass grave at the Kommunarka shooting range, unceremoniously wedged in a sea of legs, hands, heads, stomachs, and backs. And so, for years protected by friends in high places, the Great Terror devoured Boris Pilnyak. Just like his treasured revolutionary essence, the courageous writer was overpowered by those who sought to systematise existence, his life sacrificed in the name of ideology and to the march of men who think in terms of history, not humanity.


Jade McGlynn