“Our Own Madness, Our Own Absurd” (Andrei Platonov, Vladimir Sharov, and George Bernard Shaw)

Caryl Emerson ponders "Fourteen Little Red Huts" and the moral visions of Andrei Platonov, Vladimir Sharov, and George Bernard Shaw.

“Our Own Madness, Our Own Absurd” (Andrei Platonov, Vladimir Sharov, and George Bernard Shaw)

Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays by Andrey Platonov. Columbia University Press. 248 pages.

PATHWAYS INTO THE WORLD of Andrei Platonov (1899–1951) are many and horrific, but one dazzling route has been offered recently by the Russian novelist Vladimir Sharov. Between 2000 and his death in 2018, Sharov wrote three essays on Platonov, a writer of formative importance for him, “without whom and outside of whom we will never understand our 20th century.” [1] Sharov is no routine literary critic. Trained as a historian of Russia’s late medieval period, Sharov conceives Platonov’s human material as premodern and apocalyptic in its mindset; the workers, peasants, and sectarians who embraced the 1917 Revolution did so to further the Second Coming and the divinely ordained end of a sinful world. Sharov insists that the New Order triumphant by 1922 was an event deeply desired by a large and diverse part of the Russian population. It was not an accident, coup, proletarian uprising, or evil conspiracy among elites. And what impresses him about Platonov’s fiction is not its exposé of Stalinist-era horrors (Sharov, who was born in 1952, had sufficient knowledge of repressions in his immediate family), but rather the integrity and tenacity of its revolutionary faith.

Platonov was a fervent believer in communism who, in Sharov’s opinion, authored the most damning anti-Soviet works of the century. Equipped not only with slogans but with engineering skills — he was trained as an electro-technologist specializing in railways — Platonov wrote about events he had personally witnessed in the Central Volga region, north Caucasus, and Soviet Central Asia. Sharov marvels at the ideologically laden language that Platonov devises to reflect his heroes’ yearning for salvation, their patience and utter selflessness that alternate with acts of silent, anaesthetized violence. “This is clearly a country of people who have already wholly prepared themselves for death and who do not fear it in the least,” he writes. “Reading him [Platonov], I always have the purely physical sensation that he’s afraid to pick [his heroes] up, to touch them […] their flesh is so thin, so decrepit and they are so weak that in picking them up he might accidentally harm them or wound them.” It’s as if the souls of these creatures lie right on the surface, and thus “a person’s soul, which in ordinary times is concealed under a firm fat layer of flesh, is almost fully exposed; you are embarrassed to look at it.”

That Platonov could so unflinchingly depict these most devoted participants in the immense Soviet faith project — and that his own faith in the truth of that project was relinquished only very slowly and painfully — prompts Sharov to another “sensation”: that “Platonov was a sort of sanction, something that gave the entire Soviet structure the resources and right to life.” The Bolsheviks had inherited a “huge reserve of inner truth,” the hopes and dreams of those popular movements that had overturned the monarchy in 1917. “Then, under the Bolsheviks, this reserve began to be squandered, and in a headlong and merciless manner. When Platonov and Soviet power finally parted ways — that, in my opinion, was the moment when the last truth of Soviet power came to an end.”

Several aspects of Sharov’s commentary are relevant to the volume under review, which contains expertly annotated, updated translations of three of Platonov’s 10 plays. Two of them, The Hurdy-Gurdy and Fourteen Little Red Huts, are full-scale works; the other, Grandmother’s Little Hut, is an unfinished one-act sketch. All date from the 1930s, when Platonov’s firsthand experience with the Terror Famine — a direct result of the collectivization of agriculture that claimed seven million peasant lives — so undermined his faith that a parting of the ways would become inevitable. First is their fragile subject matter. The sketch is about abandoned orphans; the finished plays are about starvation. The degree of absolute famine varies, of course. In Hurdy-Gurdy (1930), a comedy, technology steps in to distract and assist the starving peasants: a mechanical man, Kuzma, is programmed with Party slogans, and a clanking conveyor belt delivers the new “radiant nourishment” gathered from raw nature: nettle soup, mud cutlets, kasha from locusts and ants’ eggs, a dessert of kvass and glue. Echoes of Nikolai Gogol and Jonathan Swift are everywhere (peasants swaying in a mesmerized dance, drunk or poisoned; hints of the Grand Academy of Lagado from Gulliver’s Travels, with its mad scientists who extract sunbeams from cucumbers or uncover political conspiracy by analyzing human excrement). However, by the end of Fourteen Little Red Huts (1933), characters have lost the energy to seek out food, and appetite is replaced by a craving for warmth. Apparently Little Red Huts also began as satire. But it ended up a tragedy, the only one of Platonov’s plays so labeled. As Chandler notes in his wise and chilling introduction, Platonov differed from most Soviet writers in that he told the truth about what he saw — and wrote up his stories as they happened, not waiting to hear the Party line. Little wonder that the most famous remark about Platonov was made by Stalin, scribbled in the margins of a story published in 1931: “Talented, but a son-of-a-bitch.”

In addition to the dynamic — or stasis — of starvation, there is the religious texture of Platonov’s plays, the premodern fabric of faith that Sharov presumes as fundamental to the success of Soviet power. Religious themes are woven in both as shared common ground and for comedic effect. When the mechanical man Kuzma, given to spouting Party truths, mutters “Roman Catholic Pope…”, the director reprimands him: “The Pope, Kuzma, will not do. […] A vile simplifier of the Party line of Jesus Christ and nothing more.” When hunger reduces all members of the Fourteen Little Red Huts Kolkhoz to writhing and groans, nursing mothers offer their milk and distribute communion wafers. Chandler notes the abundance of biblical symbolism in the plays, from lost shepherds to Last Suppers, bread and fish, and a miraculous visitation of locusts. But it is part of the confusion of times that the weary characters, burdened with materialist slogans and class-consciousness, have no idea what to make of these signs. Under such conditions, it does not matter to their fate inside the story space whether their author was a closet Christian or a devout Marxist.

And lastly is the fact that these are plays. Those familiar with Platonov’s prose — his novels Chevengur (1929), The Foundation Pit (1930), Dzhan (1934; translated by Chandler as Soul), and the short story masterpieces — know that the narrator runs the show. Characters are endowed with interchangeably dreamy and disengaged personalities that resist communication with others (but can be eerily projected on the outer landscape); the reader depends on the storyteller to provide the consciousness necessary to construct a whole. But how can this happen in a play? Not through a stage direction. Can such ghostly figures, who are packed with thoughts and dreams but who move through voided spaces speaking words that often lack real-life referents, be endowed with anything like an actor’s body, dramatic dialogue, and a viable stage life? There may be analogues in Beckett, Ionesco, the avant-garde writers of OBERIU, perhaps the late Soviet-era playwright Andrei Amalrik — but Platonov is neither existentialist nor absurdist. His linguistic oddness is sadder and more radical: speech so swallowed up by an abstract worldview that the simplest conversations seem to emanate not from the speaker but from some distant impersonal source. One could say of him what Vladimir Sharov said of his own fantastical historical novels: that this was realism, even hyper-realism, only seen from the inside — that is, reality from the perspective of the passionate, exhausted, isolated believer. In his afterword, Chandler describes how he directed a production of Fourteen Little Red Huts with his university students as part of their Russian language course. Everything was so strange, untried, and awkwardly pronounced, it worked.

The Three Plays: Platonov in Lyric, Comic, and Tragic Mode

The simplest play in the collection, the unfinished Grandmother’s Little Hut (1938), is an example of the late lyrical Platonov, suffused with tenderness. Free of ideology and focused on children, it is as poignant as a folk tale, or perhaps as the final scene in a Charlie Chaplin classic. Two orphans, a girl and a boy, confronted with the indifference and abuse of adults, set out together for “Grandmother’s” — the light of a hut, blinking off-stage at some unmeasurable distance. The two full-length plays, which take place in train stations, rural administrative centers, and the wilderness of the Caspian Sea coast, ask more of us and make sense only in historical context.

The Hurdy-Gurdy is an appalling black comedy about a crisis familiar to the early stages of the First Five-Year Plan: a breakdown in the distribution of goods. At huge cost, government agents had managed to expropriate the wealth of prosperous peasants (“kulaks”), exterminate them, and classify the impoverished but uncooperative remaining peasants as “subkulaks” liable to deportation. But how was the stockpile of expropriated goods to be marketed to the people before it rotted (assuming any viable communities survived), and what centralized plan could possibly work over such vast distances? Private trade had been criminalized as exploitation. The new nation had no well-developed infrastructure. Indeed, as we learn in the play, there was a deficit even of containers for carrying and storage: no bags, sacks, barrels, or nets. It was illegal to hoard, impossible to ship, forbidden to barter, and people even lacked utensils for eating. The traveling cultural worker Alyosha, who in the opening scene wanders into the rural distribution center with his mechanical man Kuzma and a fellow female activist, eventually “bangs out a stack of wooden dishes” — spoons, cups — remarking to the director that “there are forests all around […] You could build a whole Wooden Age here.” The inedible feast of mud and locusts noted above, served up with much fanfare on those wooden plates, satirizes the research institutes in Moscow and Leningrad charged with finding new forms of food as the extent of the famine became manifest. The members of the cooperative chew it down in a celebratory spirit, vomit it up, and to the tune of old waltzes on the hurdy-gurdy dance nauseated throughout the first scene of Act II.

So far, The Hurdy-Gurdy bears comparison with other daring satires from the end of the 1920s by Mikhail Bulgakov, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Daniil Kharms, and Nikolai Erdman. In the pre-Stalinist years of the New Economic Policy, it was fully possible to stage such plays as works of self-criticism. Chandler notes that Platonov began writing a “light comedy” designed to root out corruption in the distribution system; Maxim Gorky, whose personal approval often meant official sanction, had encouraged him, and the Moscow Art Theatre was accepting such plays.

But it is the logic of the 1930s, not of the 1920s, that governs the world of The Hurdy-Gurdy. Since the State Plan had been declared scientific, and since it was impossible to fulfill its targets, all failures had to be blamed on sabotage. Act III unfolds as a miniature show trial (based on an actual trial of 1930). The accused, Alyosha, has dismantled his dysfunctional mechanical man for scrap iron; he is brought to trial for opportunism and treason. But on the impromptu dock he offers to incriminate himself further, admitting to being a “mechanistic materialist,” a “mask of the class enemy,” guilty of crimes-in-thought against the collective: “I thought […] you were a tribe of bureaucrats, shitheads, agents of kulakdom, of Fascism itself.” At the peak of these self-denunciations, power unexpectedly shifts: the female activist draws a gun on the prosecutor-chairman, who immediately collapses and recants. But an ending worthy of Gogol’s Inspector General reminds everyone on stage that ultimate reality is controlled from some other, more authoritative place: it turns out that according to government decree, the cooperative no longer exists.

The Chandler volume includes an Additional Scene, discovered among Platonov’s papers after the initial publication of the English-language version of Hurdy-Gurdy (1999). It is not clear where in the play it belongs, but it would fit almost anywhere. To resolve the hunger problem, the director decides to “liquidate appetite in principle.” The preferred means for this liquidation is to “arrange death closer toward the masses” — not to kill them, which would be counterrevolutionary, but to proceed in a principled way, to “issue a directive throughout our entire eating mass” to the effect that it (that is, the eating mass) would be dispersed into infinity. People will then feel horror, lose their appetite, and the center’s supplies will register a surplus. But the director worries that the masses can no longer be horrified by death.

Can matters get darker than this? Perhaps. The main plot action of Fourteen Little Red Huts is something of a sequel to the distribution crisis, several years deeper into collectivization. The “Agricultural Pastoral Collective of the XIV Little Red Huts,” a clump of rickety structures near the Caspian Sea (“Mouths to feed, 34”), suffers a catastrophe while its chairman, Futilla Ivanovna, [2] is away on a trip to Moscow. A gang raids the kolkhoz, loads one of the huts (the nursery) onto a ship together with the sheep and reserves of grain and salted beef, and sails away “toward the far shore of imperialism.” The confused description of this raid, and the destination of its loot, recalls an attack by dispossessed kulaks as well as an expropriation by the government of the resources of its own starving collective farms to meet export quotas. Either way, both Futilla and her fellow worker Ksyusha have lost their infants, who were in the confiscated hut. Orphaned breast-milk, nourishing and painful to retain, becomes the sole remaining reliable source of food.

At the end of the second act, there is a flicker of hope. Platonov’s passion for technology surfaces and a Bolshevik slogan bears fruit. Futilla had ordered a hut set on fire to alert any aircraft in the area of their distress. A pilot en route to a rice kolkhoz notices the flare, touches down, offers to carry out reconnaissance over the sea, and aided by the state security organs recovers part of the stolen supplies and the babies — alive. Futilla vows to reeducate the criminal kulak who had ordered the raid. But the overall chaos of the play’s “administrative-command economy,” both economic and political, will claim its own. The famine does not abate.

The ship with the recovered supplies is detained in Astrakhan. Among the kolzhozniks a double-agent is uncovered — the man who tipped off the raid — and Futilla, in her capacity as chairman, stabs him on the spot. But energy is running out. The final Act devolves into a surreal duel between ideology and nature, forces equally arbitrary and vicious. Futilla has been locked up in a wattle-and-barbed-wire prison basket on the shores of the Caspian Sea and is arguing her rights with the guard Antosha. Neither side is intimidated, because what constitutes a “side” is utterly unclear and their slogans are indistinguishable; as Antosha notes, “The face is a mask for one’s ideological readiness to fight on either side of the front line of struggle.” Then Futilla’s Red Army husband turns up, disarms the guard, and Futilla is freed.

She has not eaten for 12 days. All her milk (and some lymph too) has been expressed to nourish the kolkhoz. Offstage, meanwhile, her baby has died of starvation and the adults, one after the other, begin to lie down and do not get up. Futilla would barter herself for grain to feed her workers — but again, there is no infrastructure for it, no markets in sight. Antosha, as befits a shock-worker, orders everyone to “breathe on without respite”; he even promises to credit them with a full workday if only they keep “breathing till evening.” One is struck, at this desperate point in the play, how far we have come in the half-century since Dostoevsky’s Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. There, we recall, the captive Christ is accused by the Inquisitor of overvaluing freedom and underestimating humanity’s need for security when he declares in the Wilderness that we live “not by bread alone.” Various coercive socialisms (which for Dostoevsky in the 1870s included the Roman Catholic Church) took away man’s freedom and in return provided bread. Could Dostoevsky have ever envisaged a faith system that took away both freedom and bread?

At last Futilla decides to lower the prison-cage into the Caspian Sea: perhaps it will work as a fish trap. But — she tells her husband — there is no bait. In a ghastly detail that appears only in recent authoritative reconstructions of the play, Futilla offers up their infant son for this purpose: “[H]e’s dead now, and science says that the dead don’t feel anything.” No hint of parody can be detected in this evocation of the Eucharist. But there is, at the final moment, an alternative to the dead child. The backstory to this “substitute bait” involves another, as yet unmentioned layer of plot in this play (and in The Hurdy-Gurdy as well), to which the final section of this essay is devoted.

The Sympathetic Outsider, 1: Capitalist Fools

One prominent feature of both full-length plays is the presence of the foreign observer, a sympathetic visitor from Western Europe to the Land of the Five-Year Plan. Between 1929 and 1933, a large number of such left-leaning intellectual tourists were given carefully choreographed exposure to the “Soviet experiment” (as it was frequently described), which gained in propaganda power as capitalist countries continued to flounder in the Great Depression. These visitors might be said to embody what Sharov called the “external view.” [3] For there are two ways to view a revolution, Sharov argued. He did not have in mind such emotional value judgments as “love” or “hatred,” but quite literally views — that is, what one can see from where one stands. One type of viewing is detached, “external, seen from the side.” This perspective is clear, full of strength and romanticism, able to sense the precise end of one epoch and the beginning of another. External viewers of the 1917 Revolution were many, Sharov notes, both pro and contra. Those against the revolution lamented what had been lost. Those for the revolution were articulate in theoretical explanations and usually naïve in practice. But often, even those who loved the defunct past would try to give the new its due, anxiously seeking to understand the system that had replaced the Old Order. By upbringing and education, however, all these friends and foes were equipped from the outside. “But Platonov, it seems to me, is one of those few writers who saw, and knew, and understood the revolution from the inside,” Sharov writes. “And from the inside everything was different.”

How are these perspectives embedded in the plays? Platonov, consummate insider, drops a European outsider (with the requisite young female companion) into each of his two full-length dramas, giving them pivotal roles. In The Hurdy-Gurdy, the context is still comedic. Eduard-Valkyriya-Hansen Stervetsen, Danish professor and food industry expert, is on an official visit to the distribution center with his daughter Serena. Both have obscure romantic connections with pre-revolutionary Russia and speak Russian (fractured for comic effect). Scurrying to absorb the new ideology, they earnestly try out all the current phrases. Serena falls in love with the cultural worker Alyosha; Stervetsen, being a capitalist, reacts to what he likes by wanting to buy it. And what Stervetsen wants to buy throughout the play is the Soviet superstructure. Hopeful to acquire Russia’s “shock-working psyche” to re-inspire a fading Europe, he is willing to pay in dollars for a single Party line. The co-op management catches on quickly to this “foreign bourgeois scientist.” They confiscate his suitcase full of cheese and sausage “for experimental purposes” and test it behind bolted doors. While Russian peasants are gagging and vomiting up the new “radiant” forms of food, Stervetsen is upbeat. He badly wants to belong. “Have you perhaps formed an opinion of our models of nourishment,” he is asked during the meal, “or are you still chewing it over?” Stervetsen gallantly replies, “The food did not exit but assimilated itself deep within.”

This is the gullible West of Leninist-Stalinist propaganda cartoons, and Platonov plays the premise out to its ludicrous end. As Stervetsen begs the cooperative to “gladden all of pan-Europe […] with your state superstructure,” the director proves a hard bargainer. Since spectral promises of hard currency carry little weight in a remote district devoid of any markets, best to strip the foreigners of what they have on the spot. By Act III, the upper administrators of the co-op — and even Kuzma the mechanical man — are dressed in fancy Western clothes, and Serena’s blouses and brassieres have been distributed to deserving kolkhoz wives. Kuzma now looks wholly human. Stervetsen and his daughter have donned local rags. Only at the end of Act IV does anything like a learning curve begin for these “outside observers” — and it works not entirely to their credit. Serena is baffled to see her beloved, Alyosha, confessing to incomprehensible crimes. Stervetsen gazes admiringly at the Party activist who has pulled a gun on the director, deciding that she, and no one else, is the superstructure; he desires to acquire her for the West, which, he assures her, “will fall in love with you.” When the activist declines, claiming to love only Comrade Stalin, Stervetsen falls into a rage. The deal is off. The two visitors strip the Russians “almost to the skin” of their Western clothes. Then, to the sound of axes, the back wall of the (officially nonexistent) cooperative begins to collapse. The play ends on the two foreign observers, clutching their recovered clothes and looking out astonished on a barren, empty landscape. This, Stervetsen explains to his daughter, is the “superstructure of the soul.” Again, as in the final scene of a play by Gogol, it is hard to find the primary, most responsible fool. Hurdy-Gurdy is of course a comedy. The natural order has been restored and everything is as it was in the beginning — which in this case means that again, there is nothing at all.

The Sympathetic Outsider, 2: GBS and “Bos”

The “outside observer” in Fourteen Little Red Huts, written three years later, is of an entirely other order of seriousness. He is Johann-Friedrich Bos, “world-renowned scholar, chairman of the League of Nations Commission for the Resolution of the Riddle of the World Economy, one hundred and one years old.” [4] The play’s Act I is entirely taken up with the arrival of this famous dignitary in Moscow, replete with a young female companion named Interhom who watches over his health and special diet. Party-approved writers are on hand, one modeled on Platonov’s rival, Boris Pilnyak. But Bos is impatient. “Where can I see socialism?” he demands of the official greeter. “Show it to me at once. Capitalism irritates me.” In his introduction, Chandler remarks on this second incarnation in Platonov’s plays of a “generic West European figure,” but then refines the subtext:

There is little doubt […] that Bos embodies something of George Bernard Shaw. Shaw had celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday in the Soviet Union in 1931 and had asserted afterward that the world’s only hope lay in the success of Stalin’s Five-Year Plan. He had ridiculed the idea that there might be famine in the Soviet Union, saying that he had never dined so well or so sumptuously as during his travels there. Bos is, among other things, a George Bernard Shaw who has chosen to discover the reality of the Terror Famine.

Bos as a Bernard Shaw who had “chosen to discover the reality” from the inside, not as it was constructed theatrically for the foreign observer: this is a huge topic and can be outlined here only in the most basic way. Given the extraordinary nature of that 10-day birthday visit to the USSR in July 1931 (which culminated in a two-hour audience with Stalin), [5] as well as Shaw’s two “political comedies” against parliamentary democracy that preceded and followed it (The Apple Cart in 1929, On the Rocks in 1932) and his highly publicized support of Stalinism throughout the decade, the Shaw connection in Fourteen Little Red Huts merits attention from both Shavians and Platonov scholars. For we are no longer dealing with the brilliant satirist of Pygmalion, Major Barbara, Man and Superman, nor with the inspired humanist of Saint Joan, the 1923 play that won Shaw a Nobel Prize. This is the Shaw of the 1930s, disgusted by interwar politics, corporate greed, the sellout of Western democracies to private enterprise, and the lunacy (as he put it in his preface to The Apple Cart) of “Votes for Everybody and Every Authority Elected by Vote.” In the bourgeois West, full adult suffrage combined with an irresponsible press had guaranteed incompetent leadership. Only a strong leader, Shaw repeatedly insisted, could restore social and economic justice.

Of course, Shaw’s disgust at capitalism, as well as his romantic idealization of the clear-thinking dictator who would break the stranglehold of parliamentary politics and “get the right thing done,” long predated his fascination with Stalin. Like Platonov’s 101-year-old Bos, Shaw was a very old, very experienced European mind, with personal contacts going back generations. He and Karl Marx were working in London at the same time. To well-read Russians, Shaw must have seemed legendary. Both Lenin and Trotsky had this rebellious Irish-English playwright sympathetically on their radar; each had commented wistfully on Shaw’s Fabian Socialism, so correct in what it resisted but never revolutionary enough in what it advocated as a cure. [6] The service Shaw did render radical Marxism — and it was enormous — was to provide Western outsiders with reasons for the Bolshevik victory, far more persuasively than Lenin ever could. In his unfinished typescript The Rationalization of Russia, begun the year after his Moscow visit, Shaw explains (very cogently) why communism had succeeded in backward Russia and not, as per Marx, in advanced industrial states. [7]

There were other services freely rendered. In his preface to On the Rocks, a play much publicized in the USSR, Shaw tackles head on the pieties of the bourgeois Christian state. He entreats us to drop our hypocrisy about “the unconditional sacredness of human life,” which is violated as a matter of course in all wars but in peacetime too, given the “divine right of landlords” and property-owners to dispose of their economic servitors. [8] In an eloquent defense of “Killing as a Political Function” in that same preface, he speaks unsentimentally of the options available to strongmen to exterminate harmful social groups. [9] Shaw comes out furiously against torture, however. Succumbing to the mob’s lust for public displays of cruelty is as unacceptable now as it was in the time of the extermination of Christ. [10] Thus Shaw endorsed what little he knew of the working methods of the OGPU, the Soviet secret police: harmful elements were simply and silently “liquidated” — a verb Shaw much admires — without negotiation, torture, expensive buy-outs, publicity, or personal rancor.

Every new government, Shaw insists, has an obligation to redefine punishment in keeping with its revised sense of what constitutes a crime. Anything less would be socially irresponsible. In his section on “Present Exterminations,” Shaw notes the extermination of the peasant currently underway in the Soviet Union. A later section titled “The Russian Experiment” praises the USSR as the “only country […] awakened to this extension of social responsibility”: “The notion that a civilized state can be made out of any sort of human material is one of our old Radical delusions.” The Russian peasant proprietor was retrograde, land-hungry, and “fiercely individualist […] [l]eft to themselves the moujiks would have reproduced Capitalist civilization at its American worst in ten years.” Their extermination was thus a matter of extreme urgency to the communist government. And “yet the moujik, being still the goose that laid the golden eggs, could not be exterminated summarily without incidentally exterminating the whole Russian nation.”

It cannot be said, then, that Shaw didn’t know. He not only knew, but applauded, and even produced a theory. Shaw’s Moscow Speech of July 26, translated and published the next day in Pravda, is a hymn of praise to the Russian revolutionary experiment and a slap in the face of the doubting West. “I have seen all the ‘terrors’ [of Soviet Russia],” he announced to the cheering hall, “and I was terribly pleased by them.” [11]

After 1931, Shaw was lionized in the USSR and his utterances immediately translated in the Soviet press. How an insider to the revolution like Andrei Platonov must have reacted to his fellow playwright “from the outside” we can only speculate. The remainder of this essay takes up Chandler’s prompt that the Bos of Fourteen Little Red Huts is, at least in part, a thought experiment enacted on the Stalinist Shaw. [12] It is tempting to think that Platonov conceived this figure for the benefit of other insiders: his Soviet audience, exposed to a wave of Shavian adulation and wholly unfree to contest it.

Several markers (in addition to advanced age) suggest that Shaw was a prototype for Bos. Against Shaw’s wishes, when his train drew in to the capital’s Belorus Station (then the Aleksandrovsky) on July 18, 1931, it was met by a brass band, military guard of honor, and a crowd of thousands (employees of the publishing house Gosizdat, released from work for the event) shouting, “Hail Shaw!” In the play, Bos and Interhom also arrive in Moscow to flowers, banners celebrating the “Healthy Soviet Old Man,” a fanfare, and a phalanx of writers. The official greeter welcomes Bos as the “great philosopher of weakening capitalism.”

Bos’s female companion, Interhom, is not his wife (Bos has outlived four wives), although she is charged with caring for him on this strenuous trip. The Interhom-Bos relationship is eroticized in the play, but this caretaking detail too has biographical resonance. The initiative for Shaw’s Soviet trip began with Lady Nancy Astor, the first woman member of Parliament, a Tory, and a close friend of the Shaws. When Shaw decided to join their traveling party (which included her husband and son), the trip became a world media event. [13] But that summer, Shaw’s wife Charlotte was recovering from illness, so Nancy Astor assumed the necessary caretaking duties. As a teetotaling vegetarian and septuagenarian in a Slavic country with little refrigeration technology, there was reason for Shaw to be concerned. But he was (as we know) delighted by the healthy, tasty, abundant fare prepared for him in the USSR, taking it as evidence of the country’s material plenty. Platonov’s Bos — although cast into a far more ascetic landscape — is also on a special diet of canned milk and chemical powders, which Interhom lovingly supplies on request. Even in the starving kolkhoz, the nursing mothers Futilla and Ksyusha try to satisfy Bos’s continual requests for milk, a gesture he appreciates. “In this country I feel the warmth of humanity,” he remarks, after advising Ksyusha to “go and milk yourself.” In Platonov’s play infancy and senility — one’s first and second childhoods — are subtly interwoven.

There is a final parallel between the real-life and fictive celebrity. In the USSR, Shaw did not pursue an artist’s agenda. Although he was introduced to Konstantin Stanislavsky and attended an adaptation of the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera at the Moscow Chamber Theater, overall he was indifferent to literary or theatrical developments under the new regime, whether state-approved or officially banned. His USSR trip was to be a demonstration of political solidarity against the capitalist order. It appears that the constant flattery and stage-managing of his hosts never struck Shaw as dishonest; on the contrary, he insisted that no country can hide its faults from the alert visitor. But he wanted to see what the Soviets wanted to show him, and to believe it. He had no scruples generalizing from his packaged tour to the reality of the country as a whole. “I saw no underfed people there,” he would write in his preface to On the Rocks, defending Soviet economic policy, “and the children were remarkably plump.” Arguments like these, naïve to the point of obscenity, found ready detractors. [14] From the start, Platonov’s Bos is more skeptical about Russian reality, more irritated and dour. He dismisses the Soviet cultural emissaries as sycophants — “I need reality, not literature” — but he does so with a Shavian caveat that makes his priorities clear. His focus, like Shaw’s, is not the USSR but what he hates at home. “I know that to a certain extent you are […] boasters,” Bos remarks to the official greeter, “whereas we, on the other hand, are scoundrels all the way through.”

“Reality” becomes available to Bos unexpectedly on the train platform in the person of Futilla Ivanovna, chairman of the Fourteen Little Red Huts Kolkhoz, who had traveled to Moscow to claim a library she had won for her model leadership. At the first opportunity, Bos palms his companion and caregiver Interhom off on the opportunistic writer Comrade Latrinov (the Pilnyak stand-in, whose name in Russian, Ubornyak, comes from “ubornaya,” the word for “toilet”) and decides to follow Futilla. At this point, Bos departs from his prototype in the historical Bernard Shaw, who never left — indeed, who would never have been allowed to leave — the magic circle of his pre-programmed, politically correct tour. Dismissing his official motorcar, Bos announces his itinerary: “Into the anonymity of history, into Asia, into the emptiness of the East. We want to gauge the candlepower of the dawn you claim to have lit.”

For any serious Soviet sympathizer, this would have been an honest tour — and its geographical emptiness is Platonov country. It is also the signature terrain of Sharov: empty spaces spreading out eastward in an “anonymous history.” Relocation to desolate regions is a key cognitive move for Sharov as Russian historian, and one reason why, in his 2004 essay “Between Two Revolutions (Andrei Platonov and Russian History),” he places Platonov at the catastrophic pinnacle of 20th-century revolutionary consciousness. [15] In the final pages of his essay, Sharov treats Platonov’s literary style as a vehicle for that consciousness. One of its goals, Sharov suggests, is to wean the reader away from the idea that novelistic prose need be the inner province of private persons. Platonov’s utterances are grounded not inside but outside the speaker. In part, such authoritative “outsideness” marks all religious belief: reality can be postponed because it is revealed, scriptural rather than empirical. But in Platonov “between two revolutions” (a product of the Bolshevik, a victim of the Stalinist), precisely how faith enables politics is crucial. Like all elites, the Bolsheviks were at pains to secure their rights and privileges. This was not only a matter of seizing bridges, banks, and telegraph offices, Sharov notes, but also of creating a separate language, “the first external boundary between [that victorious elite] and the rest of the world.” This language, one of naked, unassimilated ideological speech, would in turn come to erase all boundaries between existence and nonexistence, person and beast, living and nonliving. There were no interlocutors for such speech in the present, for “a phrase consists entirely of hopes and aspirations,” lodged in a future utterly distant and opposed to the here-and-now. A starving kolkhoznik admits in Act III of Little Red Huts that he is kept alive only by consciousness, for “you can’t stay alive here from food, can you?” As Platonov scholar Eric Naiman has put it, this is “the mutilating magic of words” at work inside an “ideological picaresque.” [16]

Sharov is a good reader of Platonov because he does not merely lament the lies that this Newspeak makes necessary. He also feels its eerie instructive potential. Unlike the farcical Stervetsen in Hurdy-Gurdy, Johann-Friedrich Bos is conceived in a tragic mode. To the extent that he is modeled on Bernard Shaw — who for half a century had been the English-speaking world’s most nimble wordsmith in politically astute protest art — Bos too is a theoretician, an idealist as regards the results of “socialism in practice.” But he is more curious, more insistent on entering the wilderness, than was the gullible Shaw. Bos wants to understand the new Soviet reality and contribute his own labor to it. We will now see how Platonov’s language, and the thought-patterns it makes available to participants (not to tourists), first enables Bos in this task and then shames him out of it.

Shaw-Bos comes on the scene in Moscow already knowing Russian (“Of course I know Russian! What don’t I know? I no longer remember how much I know…”) When he arrives with Futilla at the desolate pastoral kolkhoz, he takes up the language of the new society from the inside. The kolkhoz is affectionate and supportive of his seniority. He becomes a mascot. Futilla is grateful and allows herself to be embraced. At her request, Bos learns bookkeeping so he can help with the registration of workdays; in her absence, he even does a stint of managing himself. In his transition to Soviet worker and bureaucrat, he passes through a lyrical phase — lamenting to Futilla that nature is indifferent, that “the wind doesn’t feel boredom, the sea doesn’t call anyone anywhere,” that all these hopes of progress and the harnessing of nature are all fraud, “worldwide, historically organized fraud.” But obliged to deal with written records and file reports, Bos the dreamily disillusioned poet adapts to the language of the present.

By the beginning of Act III, Bos can speak like a native. He is now on a learning curve quite different from his burlesqued predecessor Stervetson in Hurdy-Gurdy. Futilla is away in Astrakhan, fetching the recovered babies. Before her departure, she delegated her power to Bos. His name has been Russified and furnished with a patronymic. He is doing his job, and with the right vocabulary. He asks Ksyusha whether she has overfulfilled her quota, and he accuses the elderly kolkhoz worker Filipp Vershkov of being a class enemy, liar, and saboteur. Both reply to these administrative pronouncements matter-of-factly, without dismay or panic. Here, Platonov allows Vershkov to interrogate that part of Bos that is Bernard Shaw.

Children’s crying is heard beyond the window, mixed with the cursing of women. “I’m astonished at worldwide humanity,” Vershkov sighs. “How come the imperialists — by no means the most stupid of people — chose you to unravel the riddle of their lives? […] You can’t even organize a pastoral kolkhoz!” But part of Bos is still the world-famous public intellectual, ready with the theoretical overview and the outsider’s formula. Ever since his disappearance from the Moscow train station, capitalist Europe has been pestering him to send a new principle, a “solution to the world politico-economic riddle.” Vershkov offers to help. Without even reading the letter from Europe, he jots down the solution — four words — and then returns to the reality at hand. “We need to give the people something, Ivan Fyodorovich,” he says to Bos. “They haven’t eaten anything, they’re lying on the ground and weeping.” Accusations of sabotage are no solution. “And how are you going to feed the people? With politics! With slogans from off the top of your head!”

When Futilla returns, she is so thin that she is certain her heart will beat its way right through her skin. The recalcitrant Vershkov is led away, but Futilla promptly takes over his request. “Grampa Bos, you’re a great world-wide sage,” she pleads. “Feed the kolkhoz! […] Think up some food for us quickly.” Then a stage direction: “Bos tosses and turns on the ground in the anguish of vain thought.” “How can I think up bread for the kolkhoz?” he mutters to himself. “Nobody ever thinks anything in the world! There’s no thought anywhere…” At just that moment, the beginning and end of the play come together. A bit of Shaw’s celebratory faked official Moscow of July 1931 encounters the Fourteen Little Red Huts Kolkhoz. Interhom finds her way back to her Bos. She had been sent by Comrade Latrinov on a literary mission “to search for the ancient and terrible forces that counter the Revolution” — only there aren’t any. She had heard that Bos was out here in these huts, and “living well.” Full of Marxist slogans and carrying a suitcase with sausage, butter, and milk, she tells Bos that she has “collaborated on three sketches and a play” and wants to join the Party. Bos listens, allows her to cuddle him inside the wattle prison-basket, and kills her. “I’ve just strangled a class enemy,” he tells Futilla, who comes on stage carrying her motionless infant. Now Interhom’s well-fed body can become the fish-bait to feed the kolkhoz, rather than Futilla’s dead child.

Getting a Grip on One’s Own Absurd

Platonov’s plays on the Terror Famine are a challenge. Viewing them through the lens of Vladimir Sharov and Bernard Shaw does not make them any simpler. However, there is one possible benefit to pursuing the Shaw connection, undertaken at such length here through the figure of Bos. To some extent, Bos’s odyssey (outsider to insider, but stalled and inarticulate) is the reverse of Platonov’s own, from insider and activist to increasingly silenced outsider. This movement was clear to Sharov. At the end of his 2004 essay, he writes:

Platonov, like so many others, was a participant in one revolution and a victim of another, but the transition between them was too stressful and, most important, it was concealed by faith and enthusiasm […]. His conflict with Stalinist Russia was deep and hopeless. Having been born of the first revolution, to the new embodied and simplified country he remained alien.

What might this mean in Shavian terms? By Act IV of Fourteen Little Red Huts, Bos has managed to carry out one “socially responsible extermination” — as Shaw develops the concept in his preface to On the Rocks. But murdering Interhom brings no one back to life, and Bos is not inspired by it. At the end, unable to live or to die, the world celebrity and failed thinker Johann-Friedrich Bos simply wanders out of the play. “I shall languish without motion amid the historical current,” he tells Futilla.

Inspiration and faith, such as they are, are embodied in Anton, kolkhoz ideologist, who has been lying on the ground next to Futilla’s dead baby. He leaps up at the final moment before curtain to shout, “Forward!” — and then vanishes instantly. His manic leap is the signature gesture of the “embodied and simplified country” of which Sharov spoke, an acting out of the four words that Vershkov had jotted down in response to the requests from Europe to solve the worldwide economic riddle. We learn at the end of Act III that these words are: “Long live Comrade Stalin.” They may or may not have reached Western Europe. They certainly made no difference on the ground: no food is thought up out of them for the Fourteen Little Red Huts Kolkhoz. Nevertheless, they are defended by Futilla, the only hero of the two full-length plays in Chandler’s volume. “We’re poor here, we have no one except Stalin,” she tells Bos. “You’re rich, you have many learned leaders, but we have only one.”

With this reminder of insiders and outsiders, it remains to address this essay’s title, which is again indebted to Vladimir Sharov. In an interview from 2002, Sharov defended his own creative work against the charge that it was absurdist, postmodernist, “parahistorical” — all those Western movements designed to make marketable art out of moral chaos. As noted at the beginning, Sharov insisted repeatedly that his own historical phantasmagoria was realistic. Or as he put the matter in what has since become one of his most quoted lines: his is “a real history of our intents and thoughts. This is the country that existed. This is our own madness, our own absurd.” [17]

To claim ownership (or insidership) in matters of worldview need not imply any calculations of good and evil, right or wrong. Sharov was horrified by the evils of the 1930s, but sees himself as a spiritual historian of them. This imposes a discipline on his narratives. To retain a generative point of view inside a faith system that has failed, and that incorporates its own failure in an ever-expanding mythology, requires resources far beyond the reach of the witty and cerebral Shaw. What Shaw could not explain logically to himself, he willfully ignored or denied. But Platonov possessed those more complex resources, and he deployed them on many levels. The Hurdy-Gurdy has many ingredients of good Shavian black comedy: all conventions are parodied; no one is taken too seriously; everyone, in the end, is a fool. Fourteen Little Red Huts is another matter. Futilla loses everything, and yet she remains an insider, since that is all she has. In a tragedy of this sort, her acts of faith — which, seen from the perspective of the present, are as deluded as the piety of the biblical Job — strike us as heroic. George Bernard Shaw and Johann-Friedrich Bos, for all their attraction to this belief and their respective efforts to serve it, remain compromised, impotent outsiders. Their theories bring about nothing useful. Stalin, and the sacrifice his system extracted, was at least Russia’s own absurd.


Caryl Emerson is A. Watson Armour III University Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. She is the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature (2008) and has written extensively on Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian critical tradition, and Russian music.


[1] The three essays on Platonov are included in the two volumes of Sharov’s nonfiction, published in 2009 and 2018. The quote here is from the headnote to “Ya prozhil zhizn’…” [“I have survived life…”], 2000 / reworked 2015, republished in Vladimir Sharov, Perekrestnoe opylenie (vremia, mesto, liudi) (Moscow: ArsisBooks, 2018): 246–276, p. 246. Subsequent quotes on pp. 250–251 and p. 275.

[2] Platonov, like Gogol, was fond of “speaking names.” In Russian, the kolkhoz chairman’s name is Suenita Ivanovna Garmalova; “Futilla” is the translators’ suggestive rendering of the unusual female first name Suenita, which recalls the Biblical phrase “vanity of vanities” (“sueta suet” in Old Church Slavonic and modern Russian) and perhaps also, in the context of Platonov’s picaresque, the Spanish “sueño” (“dream”).

[3] See Vladimir Sharov, “Ya prozhil zhizn’…,” pp. 248–249.

[4] In Russian his last name is “Khoz,” suggesting “khozyain” (“master, boss”) and related to the word khozyaistvo (“economy, household, or farm”). Kolkhoz, the term for a collective farm, is an abbreviation of “kollektivnoe khozyaistvo.”

[5] Shaw traveled with the Viscount and Lady Astor, the liberal Marquess of Lothian, and several journalists. Lady Astor was politically outspoken, petitioning Foreign Minister Maksim Litvinov in public on behalf of the Moscow wife and son of an émigré engineering professor at Yale University, Dmitri Krynine (in a letter to his wife, Shaw later ridiculed the “piteous volley of telegrams” from the bereft husband, considering such intervention rude to one’s hosts and harmful to all parties — as indeed it proved to be). The interview with Stalin on July 29 was among the longest ever granted to outsiders. For a detailed chronology of the Soviet trip (July 18–August 2, 1931), see A. M. Gibbs, A Bernard Shaw Chronology (London: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 281–282. A narrative account of their daily activities can be found in Harry M. Geduld, “Editor’s Introduction,” in The Rationalization of Russia by Bernard Shaw (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964), pp. 13–32.

[6] For a survey of Shaw as political thinker and artist from the perspective of the late 1930s, which integrates the late Shaw into the early as deftly as can be done, see the still unsurpassed essay from 1938 by Edmund Wilson, “Bernard Shaw at Eighty,” reprinted in his Eight Essays (New York: Doubleday, 1954), pp. 129–166. Lenin and Trotsky quoted on p. 140.

[7] See The Rationalization of Russia, pp. 54–57. What Shaw appreciated that many bookish Marxist revolutionaries (and indeed, Marx himself) did not was the intricate specialization and interwoven nature of modern industrial life.

A revolution in a highly developed industrial state is extremely difficult because of the absolute dependence of the people on a complicated machinery which they do not understand and cannot work except under specialized direction and management. […] This difficulty does not occur in a backward agricultural country cultivated by peasants. If they seize the land they can make something out of it. They may reduce big farms, ably managed and skillfully cultivated, to miserable strips which return a wretched living to incessant and brutalizing toil [but] the primitive peasant who has land has everything he is conscious of needing: the urban proletariat has nothing unless he has the co-operation of thousands of mates and a hierarchy of managers, mathematicians, chemical experts, designers, inventors, and technical specialists of all kinds, themselves cooperating […]. The townsman can live only as a fragment in a jig-saw puzzle, whereas the husbandman can support himself independently and be his own master and slave to nature only, like a beaver.

[8] On the Rocks (A Political Comedy) in Bernard Shaw, Complete Plays with Prefaces, vol. 5 (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963), pp. 479–524, esp. 479–488.

[9] One-third of the preface of On the Rocks is taken up with a defense of Soviet Russia. While acknowledging that the peasant had been essential for a Bolshevik victory, Shaw insists that a class of peasant proprietors is incompatible with the improved ethics of any modern (post-bourgeois) civilization. This “extermination defense” suggests irony or crude provocation, but given the consistency of Shaw’s position on Stalin up through 1948, both are unlikely. It is unfortunate that the commentary on Russia is so appalling, because the final dozen pages of this Preface (512–522) are remarkable. Shaw defends toleration through a dramatization of the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate, had the accused chosen to defend himself (as Joan of Arc did and Jesus did not) with all the wisdom and eloquence at his disposal. In this debate over What is Truth between an experienced Roman governor and a revolutionary Jew, Pilate, it turns out, was to blame for his inability to entertain a worldview radically different from his Roman one. This was a failure in toleration. Shaw’s subtext is that the West should not be so quick to desire the extermination of Bolsheviks. Then or later, he does not take up the track record of toleration in the USSR.

[10] Shaw justifies the killing of Jesus Christ — an outlaw by every standard of his time — but he deplores his torture; a person of Jesus’s gentleness and wisdom deserved “the painless death of Socrates,” the act of a highly civilized state, which Socrates appreciated as such. Shaw also deplores the subsequent Christian fetishization of the Roman torture instrument (“Crosstianity”), surely the wrong focus for any follower of Jesus, and finds it significant that current torturers often ply their trade under a Crucifix.

[11] For the text of this speech, as well as headnotes on Shaw’s correspondence with Charlotte during the Soviet trip, see Shaw, Collected Letters 1926-1950, ed. Dan H. Laurence (London: Max Reinhardt, 1988), pp. 256–258.

[12] Robert Chandler was the first in English, 20 years ago, to note the resemblance between Bos and Shaw (The Portable Platonov, compiled and introduced by Robert Chandler, translated by Chandler et al., Moscow: GLAS 20, 1999, p. 110). For this present volume, Chandler thanks especially Natalya Duzhina, of the Institute of World Literature of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, who is editing The Hurdy-Gurdy for the new Complete Works of Platonov and generously shared her draft commentary with him.

[13] Between 1931 and 1936, Shaw and his wife Charlotte became high-end world travelers (the Near East, South Africa, China, Japan, the United States). In their ports of call, they were often received “in the manner of a visiting head of state.” The Soviet trip can be said to have established the precedent. Charlotte became famous for her many trunks and medications to ensure their well-being on these cruises; and judging by Shaw’s letters to her from the USSR, Nancy Astor did not let her down. See chapter 23, “World Traveler and Village Squire,” in A. M. Gibbs, Bernard Shaw: A Life (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005), pp. 400–404.

[14] By 1931, there were Westerners, initially sympathetic to the Soviet Revolution, who saw the emerging truth of Stalinism, its (still contained) purge trials, and the horrors of collectivization. Winston Churchill, for one, looked aghast at Shaw’s “commedia dell’arte” act in Russia, calling him “the world’s most famous intellectual Clown and Pantaloon in one,” cited in Gibbs, Bernard Shaw, p. 404.

[15] See “Mezhdu dvukh revoliutsii (Andrei Platonov i russkaia istoriia),” in Vladimir Sharov, Iskushenie revoliutsiei (Russkaia verkhovnaia vlast’) [Temptation by revolution (Russian power at the top)] (Moscow: ArsisBooks, 2009), pp. 49–54.

[16] Eric Naiman, “Introduction” to Andrey Platonov, Happy Moscow, trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler et al. (London: The Harvell Press, 2001), xi.

[17] Vladimir Sharov, “Absurd nashei zhizni,” interview with Elena Ivanitskaia, published in Moskovskie novosti No. 39, 2002.

LARB Contributor

Caryl Emerson is A. Watson Armour III University Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. She is the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature (2008) and has written extensively on Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Bakhtin, the Russian critical tradition, and Russian music.


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