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Volga-German Traces in the Life and Work of the Author Boris Pil'nyak

Wolgadeutsche Spuren im Leben und Werk des Schriftstellers Boris Pil'njak

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 in 1923, shown with his father, Heinrich Wogau, and his son
Andrey, born in 1921.
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.

'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 time
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 interrelationships.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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