Volga-German Traces in the Life and Work of the
Author Boris Pil'nyak
Wolgadeutsche Spuren im Leben und Werk des Schriftstellers
Kromm, Dr. Natalie. "Volga-German Traces in Life and Work of the Author Boris Pil’Nyak." Volk auf dem Weg, December 2006, 36-37.
Translation from the original German-language text
to American English by
Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
[Translator's Note: the letter "j" in German is pronounced
as the English letter "y," particularly ahead of a vowel,
hence the transliteration I have chosen here. Please note that the
following article never does explain why the author had the name
Pil'nyak while his own father's name was Wogau. AH]
Boris Pil'nyak (1894 - 1938), ever since his novel "The Naked
Year" was published in 1922, has been considered worldwide as
one of the best-known representatives of the Russian literary avant
garde. However, the exact circumstances surrounding his imprisonment
and execution by shooting during the time of the Great Terror were
-- just as other biographical aspects -- learned only after the opening
of certain archives. Still, largely ignored until today were his Volga-German
origins (on his father's side) and the lifelong contacts he maintained
with the Volga region.
Boris Pil'nyak in 1923, shown with
his father, Heinrich Wogau, and his son
Andrey, born in 1921.
'My real [last] name is Wogau," was a point made by the author
in an autobiographical annotation he made during the year 1928.
Asked about aspects of his life, he would point self-confidently
- even in other circumstances - to his Volga-German descent.: "I,
Boris Pil'nyak, have direct origins in the Volga area. My father,
a Volga-German colonist in the vicinity of Saratov, is a veterinarian."
Particularly in letters to friends and relatives one can find very
personal references to his origins and to his impressions of the
Volga region: "I come from a German family, and I was raised
in such a way that theft, for example, brings me close to vomiting."
Further, "Very close by there is a German colony, where, due
to the famine, sadly only three homes remain of the thirty-six original
ones; the rest of the population has died."
Still, focusing on these kinds of circumstances must not allow
one to categorize Pil'nyak's work - in which one can also find reminiscences
of Volga-German themes - as being part of German-Russian literature.
Without a doubt, his intellectual home was Russia, the Russian people,
Russian language and Russian literature. Nevertheless, ignoring
any and all Volga-German ties in the life and work of this author
would constitute an impermissible foreshortening that might leave
undiscovered many interesting and many aspects otherwise left undiscovered.
Boris Andreyevich Pil'nyak, at birth called Bernhard Wogau, was
born on October 12, 1894, the first child of Heinrich (Andrey) Ivanovich
Wogau (1867 - 1944) and of Olga Ivanovna Savinova (1872 - 1940).
His mother was part of the Russian old-faith community of merchants
in Saratov. His father was a descendant of a Volga-German family
from Katharinenstadt (Baronsk, Marxstadt). According to information
provided by Pil'nyak, his German grandparents were barely touched
by the effects of Russification, and they maintained their German
character far into the 20th Century. A sign of their holding onto
German tradition is the fact that Pil'nyak's grandmother, Anna Andreyevna
Wogau (1847 - 1931), could barely speak Russian. Grandfather Johann
(Ivan) Karlovich Wogau (1845 to the 1890s) was a farmer, merchant
and active in home industry in Katharinenstadt. Their prosperity
must have been considerable, since the family was able to send their
three sons to veterinary medicine studies in Dorpat (Tartu) and
Halle. And, in contrast to their parents, that generation, who grew
up during the epoch of the so-called Russification and the lifting
of special privileges *1871) that had originally been granted to
the colonists, increasingly identified itself with Russian culture.
Their biographies are representative of the inegration and assimilation
process experienced by the Volga-Germans during the remainder of
the 19th Century.
Waldemar (Valdimir) Ivanovich Wogau (1870 - 1933), born in Katharinenstadt,
completed veterinary studies in Halle and subsequently worked intermittently
in Pomerania and Prussia, where he met his future wife, Luzia Langer
(1880 - 1969). From 1911 on, he worked as a government zoological
technician in Nizhny Novgorod. Although he was dispossessed of part
of his estate after the Revolution, he was able to continue teaching
at the university and remained a recognized agronomic expert in
the area of cattle breeding. During the course of collectivization
of 1929, however, he experienced a second wave of dispossession
and, between October 20, 1930 until November 17, 1931, was even
incarcerated. After he was released, on one of his frequent business
trips Waldemar Wogau became infected with typhus and die in 1933.
The youngest son, Alexander Ivanovich Wogau (1874 - ?) was also
born in Katharinenstadt. Following his own veterinarian studies
in Dorpat, he spent the 1920s with his wife Leontina in his hometown.
Alexander, too, experienced repression of various kinds during the
1930s. On March 13, 1931 he was arrested and, a month later, he
was sentenced to three year's banishment. The fact that Boris Pil'nyak
was able to maintain contact with his uncle even during
this difficult period is seen in his letter to his own wife Olga
Sherbinovskaya of April 25, 1932, in which he reports of ordering
a veterinary text for his uncle.
Of particular interest, of course, is the life story of the father
of this author. Heinrich Wogau broke even more strongly from the
colonist traditions than his brothers by entering into a mixed [sic
- Tr.] marriage with the daughter of a Russian merchant. He was
born in Katharinenstadt on August 26, 1867. His schooling included
Wolsk and the gymnasium in Samara, which he followed with veterinary
studies in Dorpat. Following his marriage with Olga Savinovna he
converted, as the law required, to the Orthodox faith and worked
in several provincial towns as an agricultural expert. In September,
following certain revolutionary events, Pil'nyak's parents and his
sister Nina Wogau (1898 - 1969) returned to the Volga area. There
they lived in Saratov, Marsxstadt, and Pokrovsk (Engels). Contributing
to the professional development of
his father were his activities in the People's Commissariat for
Agriculture in the Pokrovskian "Bacon Factory," though
little else is known of his further life. Known as a fact is his
arrest on February 11, 1931 during his son's stay in the United
States. Currently available sources do not reveal his whereabouts
or activities thereafter. He likely visited his son for the last
during the summer of 1937. One year after his wife Olga's death,
Heinrich Wogau, along with all the other Volga-Germans, a single
old man of 74, was deported to the Akmolisnk region in Kazakhstan,
where he died on May 1, 1944.
But let us return to more carefree times, during which several
of his stays in the Volga region attest to Pil'nyak's close ties
to his parental home. It was a particular two-week journey to his
"roots" (among them, Saratov, Pokrovsk and Marxstadt)
during the summer of 1927 that provided him with interesting acquaintances
with Volga-German personalities. As we can see from Pil'nyak's June
4, 1927 letter to his wife, he entered into an especially close
acquaintance with the famous language and cultural researcher, Professor
Georg Dinges (1891 -1932). [Translator's note: The reader may recall
that Dinges would become an important victim of Stalinist repression.
AH] The two had become acquainted during a literary evening in Pokrovsk
that had been arranged especially for Pil'nyak, and they would develop
a mutual interest in each
other's work. Along with the Volga-German archeologist Paul Rau
(1897 - 1930) and the Austrian journalist Lotte Schwarz, they undertook
an expeditionary sojourn to German settlements along the Volga River
(Balzer, Doenhof, etc.).
Boris Pil'nyak was no stranger to the Volga-German settlers of
the time. As early as 1925, the Volga-German periodical "Unsere
Wirtschaft [Our Economy]" had dedicated several issues to the
"famous countryman." And during the 1930s Pil'nyak maintained
contacts with his Volga-German home, for example, by working as
a correspondent for the newspaper "Izvestya" during the
festivities for the 15th anniversary of the Volga-Republic.
His collective experiences would serve the author during his entire
lifetime as a basis for literary sketches and stories. In addition
to works such as "Muetterchen-feuchte-Erde [Mother-moist-Earth]"
(1924), "An der Oka [On the Oka]" (1927), and "Die
Wolga muendet ins Kaspische Mehr [The Volga flows into the Caspian
Sea]" (1930), four further texts should be considered. For
one, there is the sketch "Hier weilt kein russischer Gast -
Hier riecht es nicht nach Russland [No Russian guest lingers here
- here there is no small of Russia]" (1919), which Pil'nyak
published under the pseudonym of Ivan Ivanov. Subject of the description
is a ride on the river from Saratov to Katharinenstadt, including
the author's impression of German life in the latter colony. But
his presentation is not at all objective. Rather, it is characterized
more via distant observing and strange, cold imaging. The special
nature of the sketch is due to its function as material for subsequent
works, particularly as seen in his description of the colonist milieu:
"At quarter to seven, as the tower clock of the Ev. Lutheran
church is ringing, the entire colony is sitting down to coffee ...
At a quarter to noon, as the tower clock of the Ev.-Lutheran church
marks the time, the entire colony is eating its midday meal, and
afterwards, it sleeps, shutters closed just as at night."
In accordance with his characteristic process of citing himself,
the author uses these passages nearly without modification in the
tale "Die drei Brueder [The Three Brothers]" (1922). The
text, written in first person format, the title harkening back to
an equally-named chain of hills across from Katharinenstadt, still
differentiates itself from the sketch by the linking of Pil'nyak's
childhood memories of time spent there with his "dear grandmother,"
Anna. Numerous reminiscences of the topography of this Volga-German
colony, of relatives, of episodes from colonist history, pay witness
to the author's close ties with this place. For example, Pil'nyak,
within his enumeration of diverse names of the colony, he adds yet
a further name - one that arose during the time of famine: "Sterbstadt
[City of Dying]." All in all, however, what is "German"
appears, even in this text, if not as an estranging image, but still
as an element of irritation regarding his own identity.
Things are entirely different in the equally strongly autobiographical
story "Eine deutsche Geschichte [A German Story]" (1928),
which came into being from the impressions of a Volga trip in 1927.
Although themes such as orderliness, discipline, and cleanliness
become subject of his critical presentation, predominant in this
particular text are an objective presentation of the
Volga-German milieu as well as an indication of an interest in dealing
with the residents and their mentality. Detailed descriptions permit
a variety of ethnographic insights into Volga-German everyday life
and into the scientific activities of the two protagonists, Doctor
Paul Rau and Professor Georg Dinges. A large part of the story is
dedicated to the scientific work of the two researchers, particularly
their work in collecting funds for the Ethnographic Museum in Pokrovsk,
which he describes as a meeting place for Volga-German personalities
in public life. One chapter details a collective trip (during the
summer of 1927) within the Balzer Canton, replete with dialectological
studies, research into story telling and into objective culture.
Here the author presents us with multifaceted insights into the
lives of German settlers during the 1920s.
Still another work is connected with the above-mentioned reuse
of his own words. It is the novel with sketches, "O.K. Ein
amerikanischer Roman [OK. An American Novel] (1932), in which Pil'nyak
once again refers to his German grandmother Anna. This shows that
an interest in Volga-German topics did not desert the author even
into the 1930s.
The multiplicity of the demonstrated Volga-German ties in the life
and work of Boris Pil'nyak makes it clear that these kinds of references
deserve broader discussion. Beyond the stereotypical contraposition
of his Russian and his German sides, it might be just those aspects
of interethnic identity and cultural differences that could open
up a fruitful area for research. Before
our conclusion, it should be emphasized that hardly any other author
of Volga-German descent (on his father's side) made a more significant
contribution as did Boris Pil'nyak. On the other hand, there are
hardly better descriptions in Russian literature of Volga-German
life as those depicting the research work of Paul Rau and of Georg
Dinges. And finally, Pil'nyak's family history is exemplary of the
social development of the German liberal and academic intelligentsia
into a strongly assimilated force, without ceding entirely its Volga-German
identity. The Russian-German worlds existed not only side by side,
but also distinguished themselves through multifaceted and changing
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation
of this article.