An author might start a novel this way: “On his thirtieth birthday, Voshchev was laid off from his factory job for weakness and woolgathering.” Or he might lay out a whole little scene, with the protagonist thinking about his birthday on his way to work, then being called into the personnel office and told the bad news, with persuasive descriptions of decor and tones of voice. But that’s not how Andrei Platonov does it. Here’s the first paragraph of Kotlovan, in the superb translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson, The Foundation Pit (the Russian is below the cut):
On the day of the thirtieth anniversary of his private life, Voshchev was made redundant from the small machine factory where he obtained the means for his own existence. His dismissal notice stated that he was being removed from production on account of weakening strength in him and thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labor.
There’s nothing attractive about those sentences. Their wordiness, their labored syntax, their odd and rebarbative jargon, everything about them seems to want to push you away rather than lure you in. And yet you are drawn in; there’s something about the narrative, some funhouse-mirror quality, that makes you want to see where it’s going. You follow Voshchev to “a beer room for workers from the villages and low-paid categories” where he hears “sincere human voices” and remains “until evening, until the noise of a wind of changing weather; he then went over to an open window, to take note of the beginning of night, and he caught sight of the tree on the clay mound—it was swaying from adversity, and its leaves were curling up with secret shame.” The next morning, Voshchev walks further down the road but is soon exhausted, and at this point comes a sudden irruption of intensity, the kind of thing we hope for from a Russian novel:
A dead, fallen leaf lay beside Voshchev’s head; the wind had brought it there from a distant tree, and now this leaf faced humility in the earth. Voshchev picked up the leaf that had withered and hid it away in a secret compartment of his bag, where he took care of all kinds of objects of unhappiness and obscurity. “You did not possess the meaning of life,” supposed Voshchev with the miserliness of compassion. “Stay here—and I’ll find out what you lived and perished for. Since no one needs you and you lie about amidst the whole world, then I shall store and remember you.
“Everything lives and endures in the world, without becoming conscious of anything,” said Voshchev beside the road. And he stood up, in order to go, surrounded by universal enduring existence. “It’s as if some one man, or some handful of men, had extracted from us our convinced feeling and taken it for themselves!”
Here the words “dead,” “earth,” “meaning,” “endure,” and especially “conscious” are signals of where the novel is going. Who is living and who and what is dead, and can we always tell the difference? Who is conscious, and of what? What meaning can we find, enduring on and in the earth? Soon Voshchev joins a crew of men digging the titular pit, intended for the foundation of a building to house proletarians. But there are many discussions of the novel’s political content (Chandler and Meerson’s Afterword does a good job of summarizing the history and politics involved, though I’ve added a short bibliography below for those particularly interested); what I want to focus on here is the amazing language.
And yet you can’t discuss the language without talking about politics, because politics is the soil it grows out of. Platonov has been called a natural Stalinist; what is meant by that is that he shared the Stalinist belief that life could be radically transformed, that nothing was impossible to truly conscious people who had thrown off the shackles of the bourgeois past. (Of course, in Platonov’s case this came as much from Nikolai Fedorov, with his loony insistence that mankind must become immortal and bring everyone who ever lived back to life, as from Marx and Lenin.) Like a good Soviet citizen, filled with optimism and enthusiasm, Platonov gave up his early career as a writer after the famine of 1921 and spent the next years going around Russia supervising the digging of ponds and wells, the draining of swampland, and the building of power stations. Chandler writes:
And then, between 1929 and 1932, he was sent on a number of journeys through central and southern Russia. Other writers who visited collective farms did so as members of Writers’ Brigades—and they, of course, were shown only a few model collective farms. Platonov, however, was sent by the People’s Commissariat of Agriculture, and he saw what was really happening.
That experience complicated his optimism. He seems still to have retained a belief that the shining communist future was a possibility, but having seen the stupidity, inefficiency, corruption, and brutality that were everywhere on the ground, no matter what the Kremlin planners might intend, he had to respond, to tell the truth as he saw it, and that response involved a complex and brilliant manipulation of the very language the Kremlin used to propagate its ideas. Characters are always talking about “directives” and “backwardness” and “tempo,” regurgitating the catchwords that ceaselessly bombard them from Party organizers, “plenipotentiaries,” and other emissaries from officialdom. One of them asks: “Is it really sorrow inside the whole world—and only in ourselves that there’s a five-year plan?” The five-year plan inside us is one of the things the novel is about; some of the characters are trying to fulfill it by constant work, others by denunciations and violence, and the main viewpoint character, Voshchev, by questioning and introspection, irritating pretty much everyone else (as Platonov irritated the Party, despite his professed devotion to its ideals). By the time the novel heads into increasingly surreal-seeming and deadly territory, you’re so accustomed to the strangeness of the telling that you can’t escape its spell.
Fedorov called modern writing “the work of men who have stopped being human and who have become typewriters.” It may be that the style of The Foundation Pit is, in its way, an attempt to revive the “sacred, resurrectional character” of language and thus restore fraternal relations to mankind. There’s never been anything else like it; even Platonov quickly retreated from it (he did, after all, want to be published), and his later works are written in a more “normal” style. But this will always be his masterpiece.
The first paragraph in Russian:
В день тридцатилетия личной жизни Вощеву дали расчет с небольшого механического завода, где он добывал средства для своего существования. В увольнительном документе ему написали, что он устраняется с производства вследствие роста слабосильности в нем и задумчивости среди общего темпа труда.
A few books to help the reader who wants more background:
A Companion to Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, by Thomas Seifrid. The Foundation Pit is such a complex novel, with so much going on below the surface, that it’s well worth reading this guide (not long, but longer than the novel!), of which its publisher, Academic Studies Press, says “In addition to an overview of the work’s key themes, it discusses their place within Platonov’s oeuvre as a whole, his troubled relations with literary officialdom, the work’s ideological and political background, and key critical responses since the work’s first publication in the West in 1973.” (Fortunately, the paperback is only $21; many of this publisher’s books, as you can see on the linked page, are several times that.)
The Best Sons of the Fatherland: Workers in the Vanguard of Soviet Collectivization, by Lynne Viola. You have to make allowances for her excessive enthusiasm for her subject, the “25,000ers” recruited from factories and other dens of trustworthy proletarians who fanned out across Russia to help impose collectivization (Mark Von Hagen’s review says she is “sympathetic to their struggle against all the other actors in this tragic story, who appear as villains, including … the backward Russian peasants” who were the victims), but she paints a detailed picture of the nitty-gritty of the process on the ground.
Above all, read Moshe Lewin’s classic The Making of the Soviet System: Essays in the Social History of Interwar Russia. Lewin explains the economic background and effects of Stalinism and collectivization in such a clear way that even I, an economic illiterate, could understand what happened. This will help you understand not only Platonov but the entire subsequent history of the Soviet Union.