Boris Pilnyak was born in Mozhaisk, Russia, in 1894. He attended school in Nizhny Novgorod and studied in Moscow. While a student he published several short-stories in Russia's literary magazines.
During the First World War Pilnyak visited the Eastern Front on behalf of the Provisional Government. He later recalled: "Here in Kolomna we are having hunger riots. I have been put on the list of counter-revolutionaries by our faddish Bolsheviks, and I greeted the new year in prison. I was arrested, and they even posed the question about me: Should we shoot him? Others they did shoot." After the October Revolution Pilnyak was arrested by Bolshevik soldiers and for a time was in danger of being executed.
Anatoli Lunacharsky, the People's Commissar of Education, provided Pilnyak with government funds to enable him to write full-time. His first novel, The Naked Year (1922), dealt with the October Revolution and the Civil War. His story, The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon (1926), about the suspicious death of Mikhail Frunze, created a storm and the magazine it appeared in was immediately banned.
Pilnyak commented: "I am not a communist, and for that reason I do not agree that I should have to write in a communist manner. To the degree that the communists are with Russia, I am with them. I admit that the fate of the communist party is less interesting to me than the fate of Russia. The Communist Party to me is only a link in the history of Russia."
Pilnyak upset Joseph Stalin with his novel, Mahogany, that was published in Germany in 1929. The book, which provided a sympathetic portrait of a supporter of Leon Trotsky, was banned in the Soviet Union. The American journalist, Eugene Lyons, wrote in his autobiography, Assignment in Utopia (1937): "The novelist, Boris Pilnyak, was singled out for an organized attack on the literary front. He had been overtaken by the worst disaster that can befall a Soviet writer: he was being praised by the wrong people abroad. Accidentally the manuscript of his story Mahogany had gotten to Berlin and been published there before it was issued in Moscow. It was a too realistic description of the difficulties and desperations of life in a Soviet provincial town, and the Russian emigre press was moved to say nice things about it. No sooner had one Soviet paper given the signal, therefore, than the entire press and the whole writing fraternity converged on Pilnyak in a yelping pack."
When Pilnyak was writing The Volga Flows into the Caspian Sea (1931), a novel about the Five Year Plan, Nikolai Yezhov, of the GPU, was given the task of checking his manuscript. Pilnyak told his friend, Victor Serge: "I do believe, Victor, that one day I too will send a bullet into my head. Perhaps it would have been better if I had done that. I cannot emigrate like Zamyatin: I could not live apart from Russia. And I have the feeling that as I come and go, there is a gun in my back, with a pack of blackguards on the trigger."