Andrey Platonov - Everybody dies of life, with their own pitiful dream, some beloved insignificant feeling, that separates them from everyone else

Andrey Platonov, The Foundation Pit, trans. Robert & Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson (NYRB Classics, 2009)

"I didn't want to get born - I was afraid my mother would be bourgeois."

«In Andrey Platonov's The Foundation Pit, a team of workers has been given the job of digging the foundation of an immense edifice, a palatial home for the perfect future that, they are convinced, is at hand. But the harder the team works, the deeper they dig, the more things go wrong, and it becomes clear that what is being dug is not a foundation but an immense grave.
The Foundation Pit is Platonov’s most overtly political book, written in direct response to the staggering brutalities of Stalin’s collectivization of Russian agriculture. It is also a literary masterpiece. Seeking to evoke unspeakable realities, Platonov deforms and transforms language in pages that echo both with the alienating doublespeak of power and the stark simplicity of prayer.»

«Soul is a bizarre miracle, a story of life in one of the USSR's central Asian provinces that suggests psychoanalysis, documentary, and legend without sounding much like any of them. It is simultaneously timeless, reactionary, and radical. The Foundation Pit has a similarly supra-categorical feel, though this is somewhat muted by its greater political directness. Soul addressed Stalin's violence obliquely and therefore mysteriously. In The Foundation Pit, the critique of Stalinism is unmistakable. Indeed, it is hard to believe that Platonov believed the book safe to show others, let alone that he would try to see it published. (Yet apparently he did—and failed. The novel did not appear publicly in Russia until 1987, long after his death in 1951 in one of Stalin's final purges.)
That critique is front-and-center in the first pages of The Foundation Pit when the novel's big titular symbol is laid before us. The novel opens with the excavation somewhere in the Russian countryside of the foundation pit for a massive complex in which the collectivized farm laborers of tomorrow will reside. The hole is gigantic, near-mythic, and little detective work is needed in a novel about tyranny to deduce that the dreamt-of paradise structure will never be completed. That obviousness may be a problem, in fact, in the early pages. The symbol of the pit is perhaps too easily read. But risking obviousness can deliver power. A pit so unfillably vast makes manifest its preening, idiot ambition, its cynicism, its needless destruction of the old world, its replacement of what was there not with achievement but with a scar on the land. There is value in Platonov's speaking clearly about despair.
And what astonishing language he uses to articulate that despair. It is easy to see what a massive challenge The Foundation Pit presents for translation. The prose is a wild combination of the degraded bureaucratic and the weirdly personal. On the one hand, almost everyone in The Foundation Pit speaks in mad cliché. Here are two quotations selected at random:
"Comrades, our task is to mobilize the stinging nettle onto the Front of Socialist Construction! Beyond our frontiers the stinging nettle is nothing other than an object of crying need!"
"Anyone in whose trousers lies the Party's card must ceaselessly take care that there should be enthusiasm in his body. So I challenge you, comrade Voschev, to join in socialist competition for the highest happiness of mood!"
These bromides are so rigid and so bizarre that they pass beyond cliché. George Saunders and Austrian Elfriede Jelinek are two other, very divergent but likewise successful latter-day practitioners of this strategy of making the monstrous Caliban-language of the mass culture sing its own inadequacy.
Amid the shouted cliché—and potentially producing too rich a blend—Platonov has also inserted an idiosyncratic language of deeply felt emotion.
Chiklin gazed for a long time into the exultant thick of the people and felt, in his own breast, the peace of goodness; from the height of the porch he could see the lunar purity of the distant scale of things, the sadness of light that had gone still, and the submissive sleep of the entire world—a world that had cost so much labor and pain to organize that this had been forgotten by everyone, so that they would not know the terror of living on further.
This quieter language is as delirious as the sloganeering it abuts, as if we can hear the author insisting This too is in the world. "Sadness" and "boredom" occur countless time in The Foundation Pit, and though these may be overfamiliar, limp terms in present-day American writing, they were dangerous in the context of the narrow circumscriptions of acceptable Soviet emotion of their time. With the repetition of these terms—which often jut up at unlikely points in sentences—Platonov asserted private realities that were being officially denied.
Private realities are a difficult matter indeed for the citizens manqués of The Foundation Pit. Out of a large cast, no main character emerges; the novel passes through the minds of various workers, engineers, peasants, and overseers as they puzzle over their boredom with life and the gulf that separates it from their incoherent hopes for socialism. An officer gestures to proletarian empowerment while his concerns are strictly bourgeois: prestige, comfort, satisfying his wife's consumerism. A vagrant threatens to denounce as counterrevolutionary anyone who fails to meet his extortionate demands. The architect of the complex, when not designing utopia, longs for suicide. In each case, there is no awareness of contradiction. Their world is a failure. It has thoroughly displaced the old order, yet exists at such an extreme distance from actual socialism that its members lack any sense that life could or should be anything more than this. Their spoken language is too devolved and impoverished to accommodate the questions that might lead to a larger life.
The Foundation Pit is a demonstration of the infinite possibility (always in the negative sense) of life under dictatorship. The way in which it emerges is unexpected. For the entire first half of the book, the plot centers on the pit's excavation. Then, while we follow a pair of workmen on a seeming errand into town, one of them mentions in passing that the pit is fully dug. Lightly, a new action is taken up: state-sponsored violence. With no mention of any change in priorities or any sense that this work differs in a meaningful way from pit excavation, the workmen set about persecuting kulaks. They round up rich peasants, seize private land, murder recalcitrants, ship whole populations down the river into slavery—all with the same combination of boredom and confused hope that animates their every other activity. They see the annihilation of a society as another unpleasant duty, like ditch-digging, which must be undertaken to enact socialism. Platonov's treatment of character here is fascinating. At no point in the narrative do his socialists possess depth; they never depart from their revolutionary rhetoric and simplistic self-concern. But through an expansion of their flatness, terrifying potential is revealed in these single-note existences.
The novel is not perfect. Sometimes Platonov's satire is too easy. His portrayal of social climbers and informants feels weakly imagined and unconvincing. For such a moral writer delivering a text that amounts to a book-length shriek, he can appear naïve. As discussed above, the book has a self-defeating intricacy, in which the emotive strangeness of the one tone continually breaks the depersonalizing, mindless spell of the other, and vice versa.
In the end, The Foundation Pit overwhelms its flaws. There is too much vision here, too much strength in the poetry, too much strangeness. It is one of those rare books that grows steadily better as it progresses, and it improves all the way to a memorable last page in which the true purpose of the great pit is fulfilled. The Foundation Pit is a lamentation on all that was inhumed by Stalin's decades. That this novel survived those terrors does not make up for the murder of its author and countless others, but we can be grateful to have it now all the same.» - Alex Wenger

«In April 1929, at the 16th Party Congress, the governing elite of the Soviet Union rubber-stamped the details of one of the most dramatic economic reform initiatives undertaken in the 20th century. The Five-Year Plan - deemed, in a fit of dubious strutting, to have been completed ahead of schedule, at the close of 1932 - mutated the USSR. from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Under the auspices of the plan, Total Collectivization was actualized, and once-privately held farms were seized by the state. Written during this period, which heralded the arrival of full-blown Stalinism, Andrey Platonov's The Foundation Pit critiques the forces that were set in motion to billow patriotic sentiment and corrode the nation's moral center.
Professionally, Platonov (1899–1951) was particularly well equipped to ascertain how this massive project affected communities outside of the metropolises. The eldest of 11 children born to a highly skilled railway laborer, Platonov (né Andrey Klimentov) worked as a land reclamation engineer after finishing his studies at the Voronezh Polytechnical Institute in 1924. Though he published a collection of poems, The Blue Depth, in 1922 and had begun establishing journalism contacts a couple of years before, his day job was of fundamental import; it brought him into contact with regions beset by drought and famine, and provided subject material for his writing. The hardships he witnessed abetted his conviction that, "In the era of socialist construction it is impossible to be a 'pure' writer."
As a young man, he was excited by the messianic pull of communism. In Soul - a collection of later writings that offers an extravagant introduction to this genius's work - there are a number of governmental do-gooders. "In the Motherland of Electricity," for example, the protagonist, whose background is redolent of his creator's, waxes:
We saw a light in the gloomy dark of a destitute and barren space... we saw wires hung on old wattle fencing; and our hope for the future world of communism, a hope essential to us in the difficult existence we led day after day, a hope which alone made us human - this hope of ours turned into electrical power, even if the only light it had lit so far was in some far-off little huts made of straw.
His attempt to supply electricity to a village is suspended by a boiler explosion - caused by the negligence of an inebriated attendant. As the ending of the story implies, Platonov is nothing if not heedful of the chasm between idealism and rude factuality. It's the distance between these posts that The Foundation Pit not only explores but consecrates.
Finished in 1930, Platonov's tale about a quixotic effort to build a housing complex for the proletariat inhabitants of a town, and the eradication of class foes in a neighboring village, was never published in his lifetime (an unexpurgated version of the text did not appear in the Russia until 1994). Read so far as the concluding sentence of the first paragraph - where it's mentioned that the book's central character, Voshchev, was fired for "thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labor" - and you'll intuit why. When Voshchev confronts his superior, the wormhole the author detects in the government's ploy to remake the country is perceptible:
"What were you thinking about, comrade Voshchev?"
"About a plan of life."
"The factory works according to the prepared plan of the trust. If you mean a plan of your private life, you could have worked that out in the club..."
"I was thinking about a plan of shared, general life. I'm not afraid of my own life - my own life's no riddle to me."
"And what could you have achieved?"
"I could have thought up something like happiness, and inner meaning would have improved productivity."
The failure of those in authority to look upon their subordinates as anything other than pack mules is the key, universal concern of this book. Such obliviousness is distilled in a rebuke, which amounts to an ontological supposition, directed at Voshchev by a commissar known as "the activist": "Who exists in the world - the Party or you? Who is it that is?" The asininity of that rhetoric suffuses a text seeded with humor, irony, and oddities: a workaholic bear, a priest with a "foxtrot hairdo," and villagers whose most beloved possessions are their coffins.
Remarkably, this quirkiness extends beyond the scope of plot and characters. In contrast to cushiony prose of the later stories, the syntax of many of the sentences in The Foundation Pit is experimental. At times, it brushes against one's linguistic receptors like twigs, as when, by way of illustration, a man dotes on his wife, "Oh Olya, Olly, you darling dolly, your feel for the masses is simply gigantic! For that, let me organize myself close to you!" Obviously, language like this parodies the more unwieldy aspects of Soviet-style, Marxist lingo; but it also emblematizes the obscurantism at the heart of the ruling apparatus - which the author would have reason to cogitate on throughout his life. (In 1938, his son Platon was arrested and sent to the Gulag for improbable reasons.) Curiously, Platonov seems to have placed a wish that might annul the need for knotty language at the end of a vision beheld by the engineer of the building operation. "Once more he looked intently at this new city, not wanting to forget it or to be mistaken, but the buildings stood clear as before, as if around them lay not the murk of Russian air but a cool transparency."
Though Platonov was unquestionably disturbed by the horrific consequences of the Five-Year Plan (which led to mass starvation that resulted in at least six or seven million deaths in the Ukraine and southern Russia by 1934), he was not, understandably, an implacable dissident. Burdened by external pressures - like the need to secure work and non-temporary lodgings -- he repudiated his earlier writings in a 1931 letter to Pravda, but remained persona non grata in a number of literary circles. As the Platonov scholar Thomas Seifrid notes, the author's subsequent dramatic scripts (which went unstaged while he was alive) "combine fervent support for socialism as a remedy for the physical sufferings of the proletariat with scenes bordering the surreal and scarcely veiled irony toward the bureaucracy and propaganda filling the everyday life of Soviet citizens." With respect to the first part of Seifrid's observation, there are a variety of occasions in The Foundation Pit where characters display an aptitude for self-sacrifice and a passion for bettering the lot of future generations.
But what one is likely to recall from this bizarre and challenging book are not the passages involving laborers volunteering to work longer hours, or the unexpected tears of a misanthrope for his fallen acquaintances, but something like this:
Only Voshchev stood weak and joyless, mechanically observing the distance. As before, he did not know whether there really was anything special about existence in general; no one could recite to him from memory a codex of universal laws, and events on the earth's surface were not charming him... Voshchev quietly disappeared into a field and, unseen by anyone, lay down there for a lie, content that he was no longer a participant in insane circumstances. Later he found the trail of the coffins that the two peasants had dragged away beyond the horizon... Voshchev set off with the gait of a man who has been defaulted out... In spite of an adequately bright sun, his soul felt unrequited...
Confronting iniquity, Platonov does not merely replicate the atrocities on the page, but encompasses them in a setting where the yearnings of humanity - for love, knowledge, prosperity, and congenial society - are never wholly occluded by the dark canopy of history. I'll conclude with a quote from the title story in Soul, which shows the writer, yet again, tackling the downside of dreams, "The song told how every human being has their own pitiful dream, some beloved insignificant feeling, that separates them from everyone else - and this is how the life inside us closes our eyes to the world, to other people, and to the beauty of the flowers that live in the sands in spring."» - Christopher Byrd

«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.
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.
...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

«In The Foundation Pit a character feels himself "hurtling forwards into the distance of history, towards the summit of universal and unprecedented times." Another remarks dolefully, "Everybody dies of life. In the end there's just bones."
Written in the early thirties, The Foundation Pit is Platonov's most direct reckoning with Revolutionary terror.
The story begins when Voshchev, a classic Chekhovian luftmensch, is fired from his job for excessive "thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labor." Voshchev wanders out into the country where he happens upon a group of workers engaged in constructing a grand new All-Proletarian Home, a title which is meant entirely literally. Among them is Zhachev, a bitter, irascible, scabrous, mutilated veteran, who hauls himself around on a little cart, a freak, in his own words. Also there is Chiklin, the hardworking single-minded earnest proletarian, determined to get things right, though not entirely sure what that means. Voshchev joins this oddly assorted group which soon adopts an orphan girl in whom they place all their hopes for the future. Nastya is a strange waif:
"Now who might you be, my little girl?" asked Safronov [a Revolutionary zealot]. "What did your dear mama and papa do?"
"I'm nobody," said the little girl.
"How can you be nobody? Some kind of principle of the female sex must have been pleased to oblige you, if you got yourself born under Soviet power?"
"But I didn't want to get myself born—I was afraid my mother would be a bourgeois.... When only bourgeoisie lived, I couldn't be born, because I didn't want to be born. But now that Stalin's become, I've become too!"
Soon it becomes clear that the task of digging the pit is unending—almost by definition, since it must accommodate the whole (no pun intended) of the future: the pit is a inverted tower of Babel or, as it eventually turns out, an immense grave. Because after the mysterious death of the zealot Safronov, digging the pit takes second place to making sure that construction will not be sabotaged by "counter-revolutionary elements." The peasantry in particular must be purified. But purification also turns out to be an unending task, and in an extraordinary scene, at once savagely satirical and disconcertingly moving, in the midst of a simultaneous blizzard of snow and flies, pro-revolutionary workers and condemned peasants, doomed to die, gather in the yard of a collective farm as in a church to kiss and forgive each other:
"All right now, comrades?" asked Chiklin.
"Yes," came the word from the whole of the OrgYard. "Now we feel nothing at all—only dust and ashes remain in us."
Voshchev was lying a little way apart and he was quite unable to fall asleep without the peace of truth inside his own life—he got up from the snow and entered into the midst of people.
"Greetings!" he said, rejoicing, to the collective farm. Now you've become like me. I'm nothing too."
"Greetings!" The entire collective farm rejoiced at this one man....
All that could be heard was a dog barking in some alien village—just as in olden times, as if it existed in a constant eternity.
I mentioned the Tower of Babel above, and as even these brief excerpts from The Foundation Pit must suggest, there is no discussing the book without considering its strange language, a mixture of political groupspeak, biblical allusion, slapstick, and bereft lyricism, a kind of language of unlikeness. It is a made-up language and a traumatized one—made dead, you could say. It is at once the babble of infancy, the lying cant of corruption, an outcry of desperation, and the voice, against all odds, of hope. Part of the fascination of the work is that the reader is perpetually unsure which register it is pitched in.
Platonov, as much as Beckett and Kafka, is a major writer of the twentieth century and, like them, he is a writer in extremis. Kafka's statement that "hope is infinite, but not for us" might come from Platonov. These are all writers who in different ways recognize the terror, tedium, and sheer contingency of the modern world. And yet in the later stories collected in Soul, Platonov shows us something else, something more in tune with Chekhov: people trying to rescue from the flux of life and the disaster of history some memorable and sustaining moment of true feeling. In "The Return," a story beloved by the wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald, a man returns from World War II to wife and family and—and almost leaves. The art of the story is to capture in that prolonged moment of hesitation the entirety of life. And in the nightmarish world of The Foundation Pit, too, a similar tenderness, however bare-knuckled, can be discerned. As Zhachev remarks, "It's best to love something small and living and do yourselves in with labor! Exist, you bastards, for now!"» -Edwin Frank

«There are over a dozen major characters and is mainly a novel of action and development, there are few soliloquies or psychological portraits of the characters. That is for good reason and is indicated right in the beginning of the novel.
The pace is set by the first paragraph of the novel where Voshchev is discharged from his job in a machine factory "because of his increasing loss of powers and tendency to stop and think amidst the general flow of work". Subsequently, no character in the novel makes that mistake again as the Party activist goes about forcing the poor and the small/ middle peasantry into the kholkoz, the collectivised farm.
He also gets them to dig the foundation pit for a massive building that would house the future socialist citizenry. The pit finally becomes the burial ground for the little girl Nastya, who is born of a "kulak" woman and therefore of "capitalist scum." But her dying mother ingrains in her daughter the noble virtues of socialism and the little girl imbibes all the right words and ideas.
She describes her own capitalist tainted origin to the loyal Party excavator Chiklin thus: "I didn't want to get born - I was afraid my mother would be bourgeois." Later, as she is taken to school and where she "learned to love the Soviet government and began collecting trash for reuse", she writes to Chiklin, the overseer of the foundation pit:
Liquidate the kulak as a class. Long live Lenin, Kozlov and Safranov.
Regards to the poor kolkhoz, but not to the kulaks.
At the end of the novel the Revolution finally devours its own child and she is buried in the pit by Chiklin.
...The Foundation Pit (as also his previous, longer novel Chevengur), follow up the themes that were previous treated by Dostoevesky in The Possessed and by Josef Conrad his near- prophetic Under Western Eyes. Post-revolution, the novel marks a continuity with Zamyatin's We that was published in 1920.
The universality of this work lies in the fact that similar mechanisms continue to be employed in the contemporary world, whether it is in attempts at exporting democracy or exporting globalization and IMF diktats to the Third World in Capital's thirst for markets. The vocabulary has changed, but the language remains the same- of violence against people en masse. The tragedy was more grotesque in the case of the Soviet Union of the 1920 and 1930s because socialism was supposed to have rescued the masses from the evils of exploitation.
Finally, a note on the length of the novel. Russian novels are generally long and run into hundreds of pages, with Tolstoy and Dostoevesky probably taking the cake. Only a Turgenev could write as concisely as Flaubert covering a whole gamut of human experiences in a novel of a hundred or so pages. In The Foundation Pit, Platonov follows Turgenev and achieves a veritable literary crescendo in a novel that is merely 140 pages long.» - readerswords

Andrey Platonov, Soul, Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, with Katie Grigoruk, Angela Livingstone, Olga Meerson, and Eric Naiman, NYRB Classic, 2007.

«Andrey Platonov brings out grand claims in others. Most excellent writers do this, but Platonov perhaps belongs in a special league. His chief translator Robert Chandler, in the introduction to the new Platonov collection Soul announces: "All Russians consider Pushkin their greatest poet; in time, I believe, it will become equally clear that Platonov is their greatest prose writer." The writer Penelope Fitzgerald is on record calling his short story "The Return" one of the "three great works of Russian literature of the millennium." Let us be clear right off: these claims are absurd. Platonov is far too weird to ever worry Count Tolstoy's descendants overmuch, and while most any millennium would be happy to claim a story as beautiful as "The Return," I can quickly think of three stories by Gogol that I prefer. Yet some force must be at work to persuade otherwise intelligent Englishmen to make crazy statements about a writer of whom most educated Westerners have never even heard.
This force will reveal itself no later than ten pages into the title novella of the collection. Soul reads like the kind of Soviet myth that an American student might be forgiven for thinking impossible. We have a tendency to assume that art produced under an oppressive regime will either capitulate into risible official acceptability or take that oppression for its principal subject. Soul avoids this false dualism. Platonov wrote beneath the stainless steel yoke of socialist realism, a demand that all useful art concretely situate itself in history and celebrate the inexorable advance of the proletariat. In the most leanly technical sense, Soul satisfies these criteria. It describes the efforts of a young engineer returning to the Central Asian homeland of his youth and attempting to lift his tribe out of squalor and into communism. Agricultural reform is trumpeted, and a past exploitation of slaves is reviled. But here all resemblance ceases; a novel by Maxim Gorky and Soul have perhaps as much in common as do a Dodge Stratus and a cloud.
While the action of Soul maintains a close adherence to physical existence, there is always a second, symbolic register as suggested by its title. Near the beginning of his adventure, the hero Nazar Chagataev sets off into the desert. He soon encounters a blind man and his child. Nazar takes up the blind man's child, and together they venture deeper into the scrubland. One night while they sleep, an old woman finds them. She fondles their clothes and goods and bodies. She kisses Nazar's neck and begins also to kiss his face. Nazar wakes: "Don't," says Chagataev. "You're my mother." And so she is. Remarkable here is that after this sudden and mystical entry, Nazar’s mother plays a relatively quotidian part in the narrative. Her strangeness evaporates—which only furthers the story’s strangeness. Soul is a dream allegory, one in which the reader can readily identify symbols without having equal success assessing what they signify. Socialist realism and polemical allegory tell us that which we already know or at least ought to know. This novella functions in the opposite manner. Its symbols are not familiar or easily interpreted, and their effect is to make the world larger and weirder. In a blasted Asian landscape where man crawls on the very lip of survival, we are made aware of a vastness that we do not know, that we fail to know, that we sense it is crucial to know. This sense of crucial knowledge and our inability to access it will instill in the reader a personal tension that might more commonly occur in religious texts.
Just as it overthrows the daylit Soviet expectations of its period, so Soul also ignores the underground themes of that time. Platonov critiques Stalin, but not in the expected way. The police state is not mentioned, much less raged against. The question is rather of the possibilities and limits of revolution. Nazar’s tribe, the Dzhan, is utterly ignorant of socialism, and the hero is repeatedly stymied in his attempts to bring them along. But Platonov is not conservative or liberal. The vision of Soul is not of a retreat from revolution but of a deeper, even more fundamentally revolutionized state. This state is polymorphous and supple. It has a host of different communities, and the socialist answer for each people is different, as it must be. Platonov's socialism is made of peoples; it cannot be imposed upon them.
Soul feels sui generis. Like another masterpiece unpublished during the Stalin decades, Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, it feels both motherless and childless. One wonders how it ever came into being. The other stories in the collection are less bracing, though all are accomplished.» - Alex Wenger

«In the 1930s, following the footsteps of Pushkin and Tolstoy, Platonov went to Central Asia. He found inspiration in its dramatic landscapes, strewn with the debris of ancient civilisations. The result was Dzhan – the Persian word for "soul" and for life as vital force.
The protagonist, Nazar Chagataev, is born in Central Asia but goes to Russia to study. He can pursue a career in engineering, but chooses to return to help his people: Dzhan, a nomadic tribe of outcast Turkmen-Uzbeks lost in a vast desert in the dry bed of the Oxus river's old course, between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. He finds them starving, decimated by disease and hunger, their flocks dead from thirst.
In a few deft brushstrokes Platonov sketches the memorable characters: the old mother who sent Nazar away for a better future; the mullah who has lost his sight through starvation and wants to sell his 11-year-old daughter for a donkey. Nazar takes her on, and she becomes his capable ally. He almost perishes in the desert on his way to the nearest town to find rescue. After much tribulation, he leads Dzhan to the high plateau, where they breed animals, till the land and build a new life. Nazar could stay, but again chooses to leave.
Before leaving Moscow, Nazar had married Vera – a woman pregnant with another man's child – to give her baby a father. He had fallen in love with Vera's older daughter, Ksenia. Vera and her infant die, but he returns to Moscow and reunion with the woman he loves.
Platonov is lucky in his English translators, who convey his unique voice, and his fresh, astonishing use of language. Although only 150 pages long, Soul is a novel of epic grandeur and mythic depth. It has elicited comparisons with Dante's Inferno and Attar's Sufi poem Conference of the Birds. More evidently, it is the odyssey of modern man, "a soul that searches for happiness" and finds it in the understanding and acceptance of life and love.» - Shusha Guppy

Andrey Platonov, Happy Moscow (Random House, 2010)

«Happy Moscow is a novel begun in 1933 that, for unclear reasons, was never finished. It shows Platonov as a master of language, weaving out of official names, political speeches, ideological exhortations and popular philosophical hopes a reality equal to the gut feel of Soviet life in the 1930s. The team involved in his translation into English suggests that no one translator can do justice to a writer who, more than any other, captures the Russian Revolution as a phenomenon of language.
"Moscow" is a young woman, an orphan named after the city, whose character is also her surname: "honest". Strong, full-figured, toiling, she is like the incarnation of one of those heroic statues of the builders of socialism. Every Soviet man she meets falls in love with her and tries under her magic influence to mend his ways. But Dr Sambikin takes too technical an approach to life, while the similarly obsessed Sartorius want to build a perfect balance so food can be fairly distributed, leaving no scope for cheats. And he wants the personal happiness of having a wife. Then there is the pensioned-off soldier Komyagin, who has devoted himself to idleness and women. They all love "honest Moscow" but cannot live up to her.
The slender apology for a plot linking all these characters recalls the posters the old Soviet Union used to produce, exhorting its citizens to work harder, to believe in the task and not to drink. This novel represents Platonov at his least sceptical. But what saves it from sentimental socialist realism is the beauty of the language and the quality of the vision. In his other works Platonov's characters run into crisis when they detect that language is the only Soviet reality. Perhaps this plot too might have been resolved that way.
Moscow and her men are not really characters. They are examples of consciousness, filled with the ideas of the day. Platonov was particularly fascinated by a thinker who believed that the perfect life must include the resurrection of the dead and that the task lying ahead for a perfect humanity entailed giving up sexual love.
Stalin's second five-year plan had meanwhile encouraged a new hedonism. A boisterous Communist consumerism thus became the strange other face of the murderous 1930s, with half the population dancing all night and the other half being tortured. Moscow the woman rejects simple pleasure for this combination of reasons, mystical and puritan. It sounds comic to say she finds fulfilment helping to build the Metro, but what Platonov is trying to convey is the Marxist-Leninist idea that man has to tame nature for his own use.
Sartorius abandons his individuality, buying himself a different passport. Through him we have the sense of a heaving city that is strangely beautiful. Millions are seeking a new place to rest in the new order. Moscow the woman remains above this, a token of the pure vision of the revolution. She is the city she lives in, seen as perfect. The most impressive descriptions bring alive the human alliance with technology, with all the shimmering excitement of Constructivist art.
The English reader would undoubtedly be more comfortable with a novel with a plot and a text less dependent on notes. For that reason, Platonov's slightly earlier novel The Foundation Pit will stand out as his masterpiece. But Happy Moscow remains an extraordinary read, because politics doesn't get in the way. This is just what it felt like to be swept away by the Soviet ideal of a new humanity. - Lesley Chamberlain

Why Stalin Called Andrei Platonov "Scum" – with 8 Quirky Quotes
A man’s name is Incomplete; his sex: doubtful. A bear labors as a blacksmith, his hammer never stopping because socialist fervor runs deeper than humanity. A surgeon finds the precise location of the soul: just between where digestion ends, and the formation of excrement begins. People see with the eyes of their heads; beards grow from exhaustion; fowl can be pro-Kulak; the body of a chicken is made dead for morning breakfast; and good communists live thanks to birth, and die of life.
Andrei Platonov (1899-1951) spawned many an incongruous image and incomprehensible sentence in his time. The above are just a few examples. Compared by some scholars to James Joyce, he was critiqued by Stalin himself (a literary scholar in his own right) for the “double Dutch” of his linguistic style. Yet he avoided prosecution – almost a miracle in the 1930s – despite what is seen as his political ambivalence and his distortion, even annihilation, of the Russian language.
What exactly makes for a Platonovism? Certain strategies make his strangeness recognizable (if not comprehensible), and those include:
  • Endowing animals and plants with human emotions
  • Taking revolutionary jargon and Soviet bureaucratese to extremes
  • Redundancies (“eyes of their heads,” for example)
  • Words and thoughts about the traits of words and thoughts
  • Technical jargon (no wonder: he was an electrical engineer before succumbing to the “distraction” of writing)
  • Out-of-place (and constant) references to sadness, boredom, existence, construction, memory, and soul
And so, in honor of Platonov’s birthday on August 28, here are eight excerpts celebrating these and other authorial quirks. Try to pick them out, or just let your mind go blank and enjoy the poetry of his nonsense.
  1. “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.”The Foundation Pit
  1. “At the station, Dvanov felt the anxiety of space that was grown over and forgotten. Like everyone, he was attracted by earth's far distance, as if all distant and invisible things missed him and were calling to him.”Chevengur
  1. “Every morning, when she woke up, Moscow Chestnova looked for a long time at the sunlight in the window, said in her own mind, ‘It’s the future time setting in,’ and got up in a carefree happiness that probably depended less on consciousness than on health and the power of her heart.”Happy Moscow
  1. “He had had a terrible dream—that a small plump animal was suffocating him with its hot fur, some sort of field creature grown fat from eating pure wheat. Soaking with sweat from its effort and greed, this creature had got into the sleeper's mouth, into his throat, trying to burrow with its tenacious little paws into the very center of his soul, in order to burn up his breath.”—“The River Potudan”
  1. “But Kopenkin couldn’t speak fluidly for more than two minutes because unauthorized thoughts climbed into his head and disfigured each other into inexpressiveness, so he stopped his own words and listened with interest to the noise in his head.”Chevengur
  1. “’Every hen must be stockpiled, made dead—and eaten,’” declared a member of the activist body, after thinking a thought through.”—The Foundation Pit
  1. “In the evening, no doubt, the windows of the village huts shone triumphantly, defending the revolution from darkness.”—“The Motherland of Electricity”
  1. “During its spring floods, the river must have flung mountain stones at the very heart of the plane, but the tree had consumed these vast stones into its body, encircled them with patient bark, made them something it could live with, endured them into its own self, and gone on growing further, meekly lifting up as it grew taller from what should have destroyed it.”

This final passage is cited by Robert Chandler in his article on Platonov in Asymptote, in which he makes the argument that the description of that plane tree might well describe Platonov himself. And considering how the author consumed the trials of Soviet life, made them something he could create art from, and endured that writing into his own self, it seems a fair analogy.

A final line from Platonov, for good measure: “We speak in a language that is incomprehensible, but true.” It may be tough to tease out anything like truth amidst his mourning animals, triumphal machines, and exaltations of the future time of the revolution. And so perhaps Stalin’s epithet of “double Dutch” referred to that very doubleness: a dizzying clarity about the human condition, as glimpsed through the incomprehensibility of Soviet construction, destruction, and the broken language that lay in between.  - Alice E.M. Underwood


From the notebooks of ANDREI PLATONOV

The highest expression of the people’s drama is their battle with the foe for existence.
* * *
The dead remain at the same eternal age at which they died.
* * *
The truth is a mystery, always a mystery. There are no obvious truths.
* * *
Don’t confuse yourself with humanity!
* * *
Man learns nothing from pleasure.
* * *
The truth has a great failing: it regards itself as a blessing, and wants at all costs to become common property.
* * *
Good demands infinitely more energy and time than evil. That is why the good is difficult. The good man never has enough time, but the evil one achieves his ends with ease.
* * *
“When I see someone on the tram who looks like me, I get off.”
* * *
It’s easy to love a woman, for it means loving yourself.
* * *
A man doesn’t know himself, he must be discovered by the writer.

Comments