Sarcasm and fairy tales

In our series dedicated to famous Russian authors from the 20th century who remain largely unknown in the West, we present Andrei Platonov. It is difficult to imagine a better novelist who embodied the ambitions and ambiguities, energies and tensions of the young Soviet state and life in the 1920s and 1930s.

When Perestroika made Andrei Platonov's celebrated novels, Chevengur (a village name) and Kotlovan (The Foundation Pit), accessible to Soviet readers, they were perceived as a revelation, and he himself was seen as a visionary, prophet and debunker who at the turn of the 1930s was preparing to embrace democracy and the free market.

Indeed, the Chevengur village, where a handful of Bolsheviks denounced labour and intelligence as elements of a harmful bourgeois ideology laying the groundwork for oppression, appeared to be a sharp parody of the communist ideal.

Chevengur is set in the early 1920s, the time of transition from the period of "Military Communism" to the New Economic Policy (NEP), which implied elements of free trade. And Kotlovan mirrored Soviet realities, showing the communist ideal allegorically as a joint effort to dig the foundation pit for a huge building where workers would find their happiness, moving into the Palace of the Future from their ramshackle huts.

Not hoping to survive such a great happiness, the sagacious peasants also prepared plenty of coffins...

Indeed, the diggers did not get to the palace construction, instead devoting their energies to eradicating "prosperity" in the village (in reality, 25,000 ideological missionaries workers were sent to villages all over the country to oversee the so-called collectivisation - the forced consolidation of individual farms into collective farms).

However, the fate of kulaks (wealthy peasants), unworthy of making it into the Promise Land of collective farms, is decided by "Bear the Hammerer". Only the hyper realistic accuracy in the depiction of his fantasy keeps Platonov from being seen as a direct heir to Jonathan Swift.

In the end, all the "impure" ones are dumped into the river, but one of them diresees that, even if all private property is destroyed throughout the entire country, the country itself will remain a private property: you kill us, but then others will come to kill you, and so on, until a single head person remains to meet communism.

This is Platonov's trademark: putting on the mask of a simple villager, full of citations from Soviet leaflets, he drops incoherent remarks of profound depth. It is due to this high concentration of "wisdom playing the fool", this mix of formal and low-class language, which makes Platonov's works almost impossible to translate into other languages.

In his 1922 autobiography, the 23-year genius wrote: "I was born in the Yamskaya village outside Voronezh... I worked in many places, for many masters. At some point we were ten in the family, with me as the elder son, the only worker except my father. He, a locksmith, was unable to feed us all. Along with fields, the village and my mother, I also loved railway engines, cars, the singing horn and sweaty work. Already at that point I realised that everything was done, and not born by itself."

Even after Chevengur and Kotlovan were rejected for publication, Platonov still believed that a writer must be a practical worker for Socialist construction.

However, the publication of his relatively innocent novel Vprok, or Bednyatskaya Khronika (For Future's Sake, or A Poor Man's Chronicle) in the Krasnaya Nov magazine put an end to his literary career in the Soviet Union. There is much less cruelty in Platonov's novels compared to Mikhail Sholokhov's Podnyataya Tselina (Virgin Soil Upturned) for which the author was awarded the Stalin Prize, but Platonov's collective farm undertakings look like the weird ideas of eccentric dreamers.

Soviet leader Josef Stalin was smart enough to crack it: better blood than imbecility. The margins of his copy of Vprok are dotted with his comments: booby, vulgar man, blockhead, villain, scoundrel. In May 1931, Stalin wrote a more coherent summary: "This is a story by an agent of our enemies, written with the purpose of debunking the collective farm campaign."

Admitting his mistakes in front of his fellow writers, Platonov confided that since 1927 his work had been driven by the ideology of a non-party, backward worker soaked in bourgeois anarchism and nihilism, but in fact it was people's humour and common sense, which could not be subdued by any ideology.

Yet, doomed to silence as a prose writer, Platonov in his serious critical reviews of contemporary Western writers invariably accused them of not leading mankind to communism. And those were not empty words. However, following a report by his fellow critic Vladimir Ermilov to party boss Andrei Zhdanov, Platonov was also excommunicated from professional criticism. Though, to everyone's surprise, he was not arrested. But his beloved son Platon was. As a result of Mikhail Sholokhov's solicitation, Platon was released, though he was fatally ill. Andrei Platonov contracted tuberculosis from his son and died in 1951.

For some time, Platonov has been portrayed as a blessed man and as a malcontent, but the true scale of his talent remains unclear even today.

Alexander Melikhov, writer and columnist

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