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Stalin-era Russian writer penned part of his own death sentence in Japan

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

“I don’t think there is another nation of people in the world like the Japanese. In Britain there is coal in Wales, but Japan makes up for the lack of such a place with an abundance of national will and national sensitivity … a people’s most hard-to-come-by resources. (These are) the country’s biggest assets.”

Those words were written by one of the most remarkable foreign writers to visit prewar Japan. He published two articles in the Asahi Shimbun, on March 31 and April 1, 1926, that were to form one chapter, titled “The Sound of Geta,” in a subsequent book whose publication led to his murder 12 years later.

The writer was Boris Pilnyak, a Soviet novelist and adventurer who was wildly popular in his day. His visit to Japan caused a voluble stir, prompting the police, wary of this “communist” interloper, to follow him around the country. The left-leaning magazine Kaizo offered him its pages to write about Japan; the progressive feminist journal Josei carried four articles about him and his work in its May 1926 issue; and even the mainstream monthly Bungei Shunju took up the visit of this eminent envoy from the world’s only socialist state.

The book that resulted from his visit, “Roots of the Japanese Sun,” was published in Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg) in 1927. Its portrait of Japan is similar to that in many other travelogues of the time, covering aspects of cultural life such as the tea ceremony, kimonos, the traditional theater and “something I have seen only in Japan: a transparency of light-blue air, such a light-blue transparency that destroys perspective.”

But there is a contemporary perspective to his observations as he contemplates Tokyo, “a huge city, densely built and hard at work … (and Japanese people’s) organizational abilities and industriousness.” It is these abilities, and those people’s dedication to human ingenuity in the face of a poverty of natural resources, that Pilnyak most genuinely envies. Organizational abilities and ingenuity among its citizens were two things most sought after — and, tragically, most abusively exploited — in the Soviet Union of his day.

The impact of Russian literature on Japan in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) had been immense and was still being felt at the time of Pilnyak’s visit. The Japan-Russian Art Society stated in March 1925: “Cultural intimacy between our two peoples, we are profoundly convinced, will bring enormous good not only to both our countries but also to the whole world.” The society dedicated an entire issue of its journal to Pilnyak’s visit.

Born on Oct. 11, 1894, Pilnyak spent his childhood in provincial towns before moving to the capital to attend the Moscow Commercial Institute, from where he graduated in 1920. He had been writing prose since age 9, and had his first story published six years later. But it was with the publication of his novel “Naked Year” in 1922 that he was thrust into the upper ranks of Soviet authors.

His prose is stylistically experimental. His themes are the city versus the countryside, the erotic sensibilities of men and women, and the world of the spirit — all of which mitigated trouble with the practitioners of so-called socialist realism.

In addition, Pilnyak was a wanderer and an iconoclast. He had traveled around Europe prior to his trip to Japan. He went to Kazakhstan on assignment for the daily newspaper Izvestia; he journeyed up to the Kola Peninsula in the far northwest of Russia; he boated around the Mediterranean; he spent three weeks flying through central and northern Russia, producing a book, “Russia in Flight”; and he lived and drove around the United States for six months, even tossing in a stint in Hollywood where he was hired, temporarily, by MGM as a scriptwriter.

The trip to the U.S. resulted in a book about that country that he titled “Okay.” His impressions of the U.S. are not okay. He depicts Americans as “crassly materialistic.” Not surprisingly, “Okay” became one of several of Pilnyak’s books translated into Japanese, appearing — with its negative slant on the U.S. — in 1941.

One story, however, was to have grave repercussions in his own country. It was “Tale of an Unextinguished Moon,” published in the year of his visit to Japan, 1926. This work takes up the story of the death of the Bolshevik military hero, Gen. Mikhail Frunze.

Frunze, an outspoken critic of Stalin, was urged by him to undergo an operation for stomach ulcers. In 1925, after reluctantly agreeing to have the operation, he died on the operating table from a massive overdose of chloroform. In “Tale of an Unextinguished Moon,” Pilnyak implies what was suspected — but never openly expressed by most Soviet citizens: that Frunze was murdered by an extremely ambitious and callous Stalin.

Pilnyak must have known he was courting retribution with his avowals of independence from the communist literary line. The issue of the prestigious literary magazine Novy Mir in which his story about Frunze appeared was confiscated and later reissued with another story in its place.

But Pilnyak didn’t relent. In 1929 he published a work overseas, an act of incredible defiance of the rules of conduct in the USSR. “My duty,” he had written in a letter to a friend in 1924, “is to be a Russian writer and be honest with myself and with Russia.” The trouble was, this was becoming an impossibility as Stalin tightened his grip on every aspect of life in the country.

“Roots of the Japanese Sun” itself was vilified in Pravda, the daily newspaper of the Communist Party, for leaving out references to class struggle and for being too bourgeois and pro-Japanese. (When the “revised” edition of the book came out in 1934, his comments in the original about “the brothels of Moscow, Berlin, Constantinopole, Smyrna and Shanghai” appeared without the reference to Moscow.)

Pilnyak was a cosmopolitan who relished life on the edge. He was a dedicated Slavophile and admiring student of his country’s church architecture. In the Soviet Union of the 1920s, he was one of many literary experimenters. But as the vices around all creative people tightened in the 1930s, how could a writer with Pilnyak’s apolitical sensibilities avoid being crushed? He termed any attempt to dictate theme or style to a writer as akin to “castration.”

A defiant and independent soul, Pilnyak refused to recant or self-criticize right up to 1937, when even he began to realize that the writing on the wall included his name.

He was arrested on Oct. 28 of that year. Among the charges was “spying for Japan.” The Supreme Court sentenced him to death on April 21, 1938, and he was shot that very day in Moscow. He was officially rehabilitated on Dec. 6, 1956, soon after the leader of the Soviet Union and First Secretary of the Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, delivered his stunning watershed speech at the 20th Party Congress denouncing Stalin.

Even so, Pilnyak’s work was not republished in book form until 1975. Now there is some new interest in him in Russia and, in 2010, his letters written between 1906 and 1937 — 758 in all — were published in a two-volume edition.

Pilnyak saw both Russia and Japan as young countries that shared an Asian and European mentality. In “Roots of the Japanese Sun” he wrote: “These people, living over volcanoes, comprise an amazing nation. Our world is connected not only by ships plying the seas. … Ideas move over the world, ideas of friendship and the brotherhood of nations, of respect for humans and human industry.”

That such a free and extravagant soul existed and also created in a country and an era dominated by the darkest state ploys and designs, should give hope that the truth will out — even if the truth-teller does not always survive to witness it.