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saw print, his important cycle of novellas of Soviet life from the revolution through to the rise of Stalin went unpublished in his lifetime.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, The Foundation 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 voicing Chagataev’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.