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Boris Pilnyak: Мать сыра-земля (Mother Earth)

Firstly, this story isn’t even vaguely a novel, running to just over sixty pages. However, I am including it, as it such a fine story and incorporates many of the themes that distinguish Pilnyak and also sadly got him killed in Stalin’s camps. Nominally it is about the new style Communists fighting against the peasants who are, naturally, disinclined to change their ways. Pilnyak’s skill is not only to tell this story – in a manner that undoubtedly hastened his own demise – but to pack much more in and to show the firm (and, in his view, clearly correct) Soviet way, against the chaos, at first incipient and then rampant, all around.

The story is told from the point of view of Nekulyev, a forester appointed to manage a forest by the Volga, between Samara and Saratov. It starts brutally and ends even more brutally. Nekulyev, a good Communist, has just arrived. He learns that his predecessor was shot, the locals are breaking all the rules and many of the peasants interpret the fact that the forests are the people’s forests to mean that they can take what they want from them. Trying to stop the peasants from despoiling the forest is a running and, essentially, a losing battle. He is summoned to a meeting of the village soviet, where many of the participants decide that the best fate for him is the same as his predecessor’s. He only manages to escape with his life when a bunch of drunken men from the Union of Front-Line Fighters burst in and Nekulyev dives to safety through the window.

It isn’t all bad – he has an affair with another good communist, Irina from the tanning cooperative but her smell (from the tanning) and her job (he sees her killing horses) puts him off. But local superstitions, dealing with the Volga Germans who do not like the Russian peasants but nor do they like Nekulyev and unknown people taking pot-shots at him make his life difficult. This in itself is enough for a novel but it is all told against the background of the Russian Civil War which draws ever nearer to Nekulyev’s forest and ends with the incursion of the Cossacks and the death of several of the protagonists, brutally in the case of Irina. Indeed, you can see why the Soviets did not like this story as there are few Red heroics and the bad guys, at least in this novel, come out on top. But, for us, removed from the politics, this is a superb novel told in only sixty or so pages.

Publishing history

First published 1925 by Krug
First published 1968 in English by Praeger
Translated by Vera T. Reck and Michael Green