The Critique of ‘Peasant Russia’ in Boris Pil’niak’s Machines and Wolves

James Goodwin, University of Florida

Boris Pil’niak occupies a prominent place in the canon of early Soviet writers, yet one of his longest and most complex works, the novel Machines and Wolves, has received less attention in scholarship than it merits. It is also arguably the most fundamental of Pil’niak’s writings ‘to my knowledge ‘that still lacks an English translation. First published in 1925, following fourteen months of work, Machines and Wolves appeared at a turning point in Pil’niak’s creative evolution. As he wrote in his interesting Fragments from a Diary (September 1923), in the wake of a recent trip to England, where for the first time he ‘heard...the communist, workers’ revolution,’ Pil’niak set out to dedicate a new novel to the ‘flowering of the machine.’ The result was a colorful landscape of scenes and portraits from post-revolutionary Russia in which proletarian voices, like that of Andrei Kuz’mich Kozaurov - Lebedukha, for example, resound with conviction and authority.

If in fact Machines and Wolves truly arrives at a more proletarian perspective, however, then it does so by way of a more searching analysis of Russia’s ‘peasant’ [muzhitskaia] revolution, as one character describes it. Notwithstanding Pil’niak’s creative intentions, the triumph of civilization and technological advancement over primitivism, barbarism and material backwardness in the novel derives less from a spirit of enthusiasm for proletarian ideology than from a sense of disenchantment and even horror at the plight and condition of the peasant far from the center of Soviet power. Through its many embedded memories of famine, savagery and bestiality in the countryside between 1920 and 1922, for which Pil’niak claimed to have gathered eyewitness accounts, to a large extent Machines and Wolves functions as a sobering sequel to his more romantic portrait of the ‘naked year’ 1919.

Nonetheless, as commentators often acknowledge, Machines and Wolves betrays a certain fascination with the free and chaotic Russia that lies beyond the walls of factories and state control, the world ‘without roads and paths.’ Thus while in some respects it echoes the pessimism of Gorky’s outspoken essay ‘On the Russian Peasantry’ of 1922, which in my view may well have served as a source for Pil’niak’s work, the novel Machines and Wolves also reflects the author’s interest in anarchist values, sentiments and tendencies as they developed in provincial Russia after 1917. With reference to at least one other text of the same period, Damp Mother Earth (1925), my discussion of Machines and Wolves seeks to shed light on the nature and trajectory of Pil’niak’s critique of the Russian ‘muzhik’ in revolution.