JANUARY 11, 2013
ONE OF THE GREAT EXPLOSIONS of modern literary creativity happened in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, with the emergence of writers like Vladimir Mayakovsky, Viktor Shklovsky, Isaak Babel, and Boris Pilnyak. There’s no knowing what the Soviet writing of the subsequent decades might have been if Stalin hadn’t killed, jailed, exiled or silenced everyone. Some of the best writing from that period only surfaced after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and is just now starting to filter out into the international arena. One of the most remarkable discoveries is the work of Andrey Platonov.
Platonov was that rare thing, a proletarian writer. The son of a railway worker, he enthusiastically joined the revolution in 1917, seduced as many were by Lenin’s leap of faith. But disillusionment set in quickly. Stunned by the effects of the drought and famine of 1921, he studied engineering and for most of the 1920s worked on electrification and irrigation projects, only becoming a full-time writer at the end of the decade. While many of his stories saw print, his important cycle of novellas of Soviet life from the revolution through to the rise of Stalin went unpublished in his lifetime. Today, his most ambitious book, Chevengur — an allegorical history of the revolution and civil war — is, regrettably, still out of print, but New York Review Books Classics have issued three of his other works in beautifully produced editions.
Platonov is best known in the West for his compact masterpiece, TheFoundation Pit, a sly reworking of the Stalinist genre of “Five Year Plan novels” in which heroic party activists inspire the workers to overcome obstacles and raise productivity It is a great work on the intimacy of violence and spectacle. At the beginning of the novel, the factory worker Voschev, the novel’s central character, stands still in the middle of production and thinks about a plan for the shared and general life — and is fired. Soon after, Voschev chances upon a building site where a small band of workers are digging an enormous foundation pit for a future House of the Proletariat. The pit keeps getting dug deeper and wider.
The novel’s central image, of course, plays on the basic Marxist trope of base and superstructure: it is clear that no base could ever support the extravagant superstructure promised by the reigning ideology. Platonov’s working class characters all speak in the approved slogans and jargon of the time, but they make mincemeat of this official language, denaturing it and recomposing its ideological force. For instance, the engineer Prushevsky, oberving “how the topsoil rested on a layer of clay and did not originate from it,” wonders: “Could a superstructure develop from any base? Was soul within man an inevitable by-product of the manufacture of vital material? And if production could be improved to the point of precise economy, would it give rise to other oblique by-products?” Platonov is not so much satirizing the official jargon of base and superstructure, production and by-product, as putting it to a quite different use. Prushevsky, and through him Platonov, advances a critique of the Soviet project in its own rhetorical terms.
As work proceeds on the foundation pit, Voschev alone seems alert to the coming crisis. Dead matter supports the living, and life supports the soul, each a meager surplus won from the layer below. But if the soul can’t expand itself to the point of immersion in the whole world, then the world cannot be organized “under one roof,” as it were. All efforts to erect a communist utopia on a grand scale remain partial and futile, and meanwhile everyday life slips back into the boring emptiness of dead matter.
Platonov is a great critic of communist time, whether imagined as the end of history or as the magical event which suspends everyday life, as would-be philosophers of “the communist idea” of our own time like Slavoj Žižek or Alain Badiou would have it. Time in Platonov’s work is relentlessly entropic, and does not even permit the passing on into the future of temporary hoardings against decay: “Endurance dragged on wearily in the world,” he writes, “as if everything living found itself in the middle of time and its own movement; its beginning had been forgotten by everyone, its end was unknown, and nothing remained but a direction to all sides.” Another world is possible, but it is exactly the same as this one — just a variation among variations.
In The Foundation Pit a futile, destructive laboring is a witness to the absence of truth. Truth cannot call itself into existence by tugging on its own bootstraps. When it tries, the result is an unsupportable structure that destroys the clay on which it stands. And yet there’s nobody left to mourn the passing of truth from this world.
If The Foundation Pit is about the endless labor to excavate a base, then Happy Moscow (first published in Russian in 1991, 40 years after Platonov’s death) is about mostly “superstructural” people, living high up in city apartments. Most of the characters are technical intellectuals, successful and renowned. This is the era of Stalin’s second five-year plan (1933-1937). If the first was all about heavy industry, the second pays at least some attention to leisure and consumer goods, produced in quantities sufficient to reward those faithful to the regime.
After the great push to modernize, life has become happier, Stalin has declared, but not for Platonov. Happy Moscow is a critique of Soviet commodity fetishism, written right from the heart of the socialist second world. The revolution has amounted to a manic repetition of production and consumption, where the common project of labor yields only solitary consumer satisfactions.
Like so many Platonov characters, Moscow Chestnova is an orphan. She was raised by the state and trained as a parachutist, because she likes wind and sun. One of Platonov’s most striking images is of Moscow plummeting to earth while testing a new parachute technology and lighting a cigarette as she falls. The webbing catches alight and she has to pull the reserve ‘chute to make it. “So world, this is what you are really like!” she exclaims, surfing the boundary between technology and catastrophe. “You are only soft so long as we don’t touch you!” Descending from an aeronautical superstructure toward the earth, a solipsistic pleasure distracts her. For Platonov, all our landings are hard ones.
Moscow tries not to repeat that selfish turn in her wanderings on the ground, looking for a way to share life that is neither too airy nor too earthy, neither too merry nor too sad. She embodies the spirit of the commons: “She belonged to nobody.” Her solution to the riddle of the shared life is just to keep trying to live it: “She wanted to take part in everything and she was filled by that indeterminacy of life which is just as happy as its definitive resolution.” All of her wanderings and serial trysts are attempts to find both the uses and the limits of love. Marriage is not the answer. She “began to love just one sly man who kept a tight hold on her, as if she were some inalienable asset.” Sartorius the engineer wants to marry her, but she is always exceeding what can be an “inalienable asset.” When they fuck it only gets worse; sex does not dissipate his possessive desire. As Moscow insists, “It is impossible to unite through love”; “Love cannot be communism.” Here Platonov pursues the death of God into what is still its last holdout: romantic-cum-sexual love.
There is an ascetic side to Platonov, an austere sense of calling that many Bolshevik intellectuals took over from Nicolai Chernyshevsky and his populist followers. But, in Happy Moscow, he is onto something that still speaks to us today: our obsession with the couple, and the sexual love mixed in with romance that legitimates it, are at best stand-ins for and at worst obstacles to a truly shared life.
Moscow is not on a journey with a destination. There is no Hegelian overcoming and uplifting to be had. As one of her admirers says: “Mother history’s made monsters of the lot of us!” Her life is more a dérive, a drift, outside of the division of labor and its partial results, but one that touches on the fragments of what might have to be brought together in a shared life, the only life that generates possibilities beyond death.
In 1934, just before the beginning of Stalin’s Great Purges, Platonov managed to escape to Turkmenistan in the Far East, where Soviet power was still somewhat notional. Soul, composed during this period, is his perverse take on Stalinist rescue narratives. It follows its protagonist Chagataev from Moscow to the East, where he was born, and back again. He is, of course, an orphan, whose journey is to the country of his mother, and who finds a father in Stalin. Soul is, most astonishingly, an imagining of a kind of counter-Stalin in the figure of Chagataev.
Chagataev is from a homeless, wandering people called the Dzhan, made up of exiles and deserters of all nations. Their name means “soul,” and this is their only possession. And yet they outlive empires. Cruelly oppressed by the Khan of Khiva, who tortures and terrorizes his subjects, the Dzhan walk right into his city and demand to be killed all at once. The Khan only manages to kill those Dzhan who fear death; the others walk about the bazaar unscathed, nonchalantly picking fruit from the stalls and eating freely without payment, before returning to the desert. It is rather like Platonov’s own strategy for surviving Stalinism: his writing often seems at once fearlessly critical of the state and yet totally devoted to his own private version of the project of socialist construction.As the child Chagataev says to his mother, of living in the desert: “We can live without thinking anything and pretend we’re not us.”
And yet though the Dzhan have survived physically, they have been spiritually defeated. “The class struggle begins with the victory of the oppressors over the ‘holy spirit’ confined within the slave,” Platonov writes, as if voicingChagataev’s own personal appropriation of Marxist categories; “Blasphemy against the master’s beliefs – against the master’s soul, the master’s god – goes unpardoned, while the slave’s own soul is ground down in falsehood and destructive labor.” And so the nation has chosen to forget it had a soul. It was not tempted by anything and could live on next to nothing.
Chagataev has to find a different way to lead the people, after the disenchantment with great men and their grand philosophies. But the Dzhan are not a malleable mass. They are people with the wisdom of their own everyday life. After he nourishes them, they wander away. The people don’t need intellectual leaders so much as those would-be leaders need a people.
The Dzhan go their separate ways. Dreams separate us, even when they are dreams of communism. Or rather “communisms” since, in Platonov, actually existing arrangements are never a stage in a great historical narrative to which one owes fidelity, but rather proliferating situations in which comradely love prevails, if only for a time. Like all people, the Dzhan can find how best to live for themselves. As one of the Dzhan says, “We want something different now, a different kind of grief, a more interesting grief.” The promise of communism, for Platonov, is that, by being comrades to each other, we might endure the indifference of the world.
Platonov was not a philosopher, but his novels provide, among many other things, a critique of thinkers like Žižek and Badiou who would revive the specter of communism as a kind of pure political leap out of the everyday, material constraints of necessity. Platonov shows only too vividly how the leap comes crashing down, how any truth that claims to be self-instantiating burns up on reentry from the heavens.
In our quest to find what is living and what is dead in the communist experience, Platonov steers us aright: in place of political fantasy, the struggle of labor against necessity. In place of Hegel, Lenin, and the Great Men of History, ordinary people and their reworkings of abstract language in concrete situations. In place of a romantic concept of romantic love, sexuality and comradely feelings as an aesthetics of a more interesting kind of grief — the only response proper to an enervating world.
As Platonov writes in an essay included in this edition of Happy Moscow:
The ancient life on the “surface” of nature could still obtain what it needed from the waste and excretions of elemental forces and substances. But we are making our way inside the world, and in response it is pressing down upon us with equivalent force.
As the world presses down on us, Platonov shows us how we can stick together, in and with and against the world.
Review by Karen Vanuska
Tags: fables, nyrb classics, Russian literature, translation
The Foundation Pit, Andrey Platonov (trans. Robert & Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson). NYRB Classics. 208pp, $14.95.
A good Sovietologist has shelves packed with books like Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism 1917-1923, Science and Industrialization in the USSR, and Soviet Economic Structure and Performance. However, Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit confronts us with the possibility that we have all the wrong books. We might have read the slogans spilled from Stalin’s mouth and splashed across Pravda’s pages, we might have analyzed the Soviet statistics on farm production and industrial output during the era of industrialization and collectivization, but we’ve been like children who know the alphabet but are unable to assemble words. Platonov’s The Foundation Pit is the primer we’ve been waiting for. And for those non-Sovietologists among us, prepare to be rewarded with a fable of modern humanity’s struggles to reconcile its imperfect soul with the science of industry.
Born in Vorenzh, 400 miles south of Moscow, in 1899, Andrey Platonov came of age during the chaotic years of the Russian Revolution. Though he pursued studies in electrical engineering, when 1921 brought drought and famine he went to work as a specialist in land reclamation, overseeing hundreds of well- and pond-digging projects, as well as the draining of thousands of acres of swampland.
As is the case with many Russians, his sensibilities were as poetic as they were scientific. Platonov increasingly turned to writing as he endeavored to reconcile his idealistic beliefs in the Communist movement with the brutal policies of the Bolshevik government, and after moving to Moscow in 1926 to work as an engineer he established himself on the Soviet literary scene. While his early stories were published and even praised by Maxim Gorky, one of Socialist Realism’s founders, many of his subsequent works drew harsh criticism and were labeled subversive and heavily edited by censors. Such is the case of his novel Soul; others, like Happy Moscow and The Foundation Pit, remained unpublished until the onset of the glasnost era in the late 1980s.
Although other novels from this era of Soviet history (such as Olesha’s Envy or Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita) tackle similar themes as those found in The Foundation Pit, Platonov’s work stands out for its portrayals of individuals trying to reconcile their Russian souls with their new Soviet identities. And whereas Olesha and Bulgakov write about Soviet themes with Russian prose, Platonov employees Sovietese to expose the disparity between Communism’s noble goals and its ruthless Bolshevik reality. The very Soviet narrative voice permeates even down to the smallest of moments and most minor of characters. (In one of many examples, village women on an evening walk find that “their feet stepped with a power of greed and corporeal torsos had broadened and rounded out, like reservoirs of the future.”)
The Foundation Pit is a singular literary manifestation of a people in the midst of a struggle to create new identities for themselves and their nation. American readers in search of the elusive “Great American Novel” will appreciate all that Platonov achieves in this sort of work. Additionally, The Foundation Pit is, at heart, Platonov’s very personal statement about disillusionment with one’s country and what that disillusionment means for one’s daily life. Contemporary readers of all nationalities will probably find such disillusionment achingly familiar.
During his futile attempts to publish The Foundation Pit, Platonov continued to revise the novel and no less than four texts have come to light since the opening of the literary archives: two from the manuscript department of Pushkinsky Dom in Petersburg (one manuscript and one typescript); one typescript from the personal archive of Platonov’s daughter Maria in the Russian Academy of Sciences; and one typescript in the Russian State Archive in Moscow. All editions prior to this new release by NYRB Classics were based on the edition from Russian Academy of Sciences.
However, experts agree that it is the typescript in Pushkinsky Dom that best reflects Platonov’s final intentions, and it is on that manuscript that Robert & Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson have based their new translation. Even those who have read the previous English translation from Harvill Press should find much that is noteworthy to this NYRB edition. Included are two handwritten pages reproduced from the Pushkinsky Dom manuscript (complete with Platonov’s cross-outs, marginal notes, and insertions), and the chief differences between the two editions, primarily deletions from the first thirty pages, are explained in detail in an appendix.
Most importantly, Chandler and Meerson have taken into account Russian scholarship in the ten years since the publication of Harvill’s edition and have made significant changes in word choice based on that scholarship and their own deeper understanding of the text. For example, in the afterword Chandler explains the challenges faced when they translated the voice of The Foundation Pit’s Zhachev’s, a cripple and resentful outcast from Soviet society. In Russian, Zhachev’s speech is quite threatening, yet he uses words that translate innocuously in English to mean, “earn” and “receive.” While in the previous translation, Chandler opted to make Zhachev’s speech sound less stilted and render the meanings of “earn” and “receive” idiomatically, in this edition, the translators have returned to the literal meaning. What in the previous edition had read,
Or do you fancy a lathering from the whole of the working class? Come here then—let me do this job!
in this edition reads,
Or do you fancy earning from the whole of the proletariat? Come over here then! You’ll receive as if from the class!
While the latest translation reads more awkwardly, the Soviet-speak of that era shines through in a brutal way all-too-consistent with the collectivization policies that concern Platonov.
Indeed, brutal language is the cornerstone of The Foundation Pit. Unlike the romantically inclined omniscient narration of Tolstoy, Platonov managed to poise his omniscient narrative voice between the spiritual and the Soviet. In English Platonov’s voice can be jarring and awkward; readers might even wonder over the translators’ English proficiency. For example, Pit opens with our hero, Voshchev, losing his job for being too much intelligentsia and not enough proletariat.
On the day of the thirtieth anniversary of his private life, Voshchev was made redundant from the small machine factory where he obtained the means for his own existence. His dismissal notice stated that he was being removed from production on account of weakening strength in him and thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labor.
Every nation has its public jargon. Where bailout, stimulus package, and Joe the Plumber may be read as code for anger, recession, and average American, in the jargon of early Soviet history, anniversaries zapped births of their privacy. “Obtained the means for his own existence” replaced the ownership of “had a job,” and “removed from production on account of weakening strength and thoughtfulness” was Soviet-speak for being too much of a thinker and too little of a productive worker. Within a few pages readers will acclimate themselves to the rhythm and nuances of this Bolshevikized Russian—its muscular “can-do” attitude, its bullying force—and find that it encapsulates the Stalinist era and adds a complexity to Platanov’s subtext that is difficult to achieve in a translation.
Voshchev ventures into the Soviet countryside to find a way in which he can fit his meager life into the greater societal machine. In the dead of night he finds a field being mowed, not for crops but to construct a tower that will house peasants from a nearby village. In spite of not having the right work papers, Voshchev is taken on as part of the work crew, and though he soon proves an inadequate ditch-digger he is assigned other tasks (such as watching over corpses in the nearby village). Not all are as fortunate as Voshchev: his fellow worker Kozlov continues to dig until he becomes ones of the pit’s victims.
Dead bodies and references to death accumulate faster than piles of dirt. In one of many twists of dark Platonovian humor, the local village peasants rise up to protest the confiscation of their coffins, one of the most valuable items they each own. The coffins are grudgingly returned, then Misha, the bear who labors in the local blacksmith shop, denounces a former master as a kulak—a wealthy peasant who resists collectivization—and sets in motion a purge of all kulaks. The digging crew is pulled from the pit to build rafts, upon which all the kulaks are set adrift down a Styx-like river toward the sea, and Misha falls into a deranged and furious pace of work that destroys the very iron he is supposed to mold.
These fable-like elements blend naturally into The Foundation Pit’s plot. For instance when a mother dies, her orphaned daughter, Nastya, is taken up by Chiklin, one of the pit’s managers. After Chiklin brings Nastya to the work camp, he brings another manager, Prushevsky, back to see the mother’s 32-year old dead body. He then entombs her Christ-style with stones and bricks in her home. When Prushevsky questions why Chiklin is doing such a thing, Chiklin replies,
“What do you mean—why? . . . The dead are people too.”
“But she doesn’t need anything.”
“True—but I need her. Let at least some worth be retained from a person. When I see the grief of the dead, or their bones—that’s when I sense why I live.”
Nastya spews slogans of the Communist regime of which even Stalin would be proud. She so endears herself to one of the pit’s more enthusiastic workers, Safronov (he too becomes a casualty of project), that he declares it is for children such as Nastya that they are working.
Here, however, rests the substance of creation and the aim and goal of every directive, a small person destined to become the universal element. That is why it is essential we finish the foundation pit as suddenly as we can, so that the home may originate more quickly and childhood personnel may be shielded from ill wind and ailment by a stone wall.
It is no coincidence that we are reminded of the stone wall that now entombs Nastya’s mother. And how does our hero and the novel’s spiritual guide, Voshchev, see Nastya?
Voshchev felt the little girl’s hand and looked all of her up and down, just as he had looked in childhood at an angle on the church wall; this weak body, abandoned without kin among people, would one day feel the warming current of the meaning of life, and her mind would see a time like the first primordial day.
Nastya’s death and final internment by Chiklin in the now abandoned foundation pit ends the novel, leaving no doubt of Platonov’s feelings towards Stalin and his mad rule. The reader is left to ponder, like Voshchev, how so much death could be warranted in the effort to build a better life.
Maria Platonova says of her father in her introduction to the 1996 Harvill Press edition of The Foundation Pit that “as a writer Platonov was above crude ideology” and, as such, his work should be read in a larger context than simply anti-Sovietism. The Foundation Pit would surely have sunk into literary obscurity if this were not case, although Robert Chandler replies in his afterword to the NYRB Classics edition that while “Platonov’s deepest concerns may always have been more philosophical than political . . . , The Foundation Pit is located in a very particular historical and political context—that of Stalin’s drive towards rapid industrialization and Total Collectivization.” Platanov might have been spurred to write by the horrors of collectivization, but ultimately it is both the universal theme of humanity’s quest for purpose and the very Soviet theme of class conflict that vibrate through every page. The Foundation Pit transcends the era in which it was written, a feat that makes it an invaluable work of literature.
In Platonov’s spare 150-pages every word counts, not only for the story and ideas that they cumulatively convey but because they give a voice to a brutal era of history, a voice that cannot be captured by dry, academic studies filled with names, dates, places, and statistics. From the mouths of his characters down to the very descriptions of an evening walk, Platonov twists Soviet jargon until naught but irony and dark humor surround the promise of national greatness. Little surprise that The Foundation Pit was kept buried in Russian archives. But what better time to celebrate its emergence than during what will hopefully be, in the face of recent economic and political upheavals, a time of worldwide national rebirths. Let us hope that our slogans will not prove as meaningless as the Soviets’.
Karen Vanuska is a freelance writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a regular contributor to Open Letters: A Monthly Arts and Literature Review. Her fiction has appeared in UC Irvine’s Faultline and her creative non-fiction in a recent issue of The Battered Suitcase.
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