Platonov (1899-1951)

Platonov was one of the new Russian readers I’ve been really looking forward to.  I’d never heard of him until starting this project, but it didn’t take long for the recommendations to come pouring in.  Finding a set of NYRB translations of his novels was a highlight of my New York book buying over the summer and it’s taken quite unprecedented self-control on my part to then put off reading them until I got to this Stalinist-repressive phase of my Russian reading.

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My first Patonov read was ‘Happy Moscow’.  This book was unpublished during the author’s lifetime and, given the irony of the title, it’s not hard to see why.  Moscow is a character, not the city, and she starts life with hope, ambition and joy, reaching the pinnacle of Soviet success as a glamorous parachutist.  Such freedom and optimism cannot last however, and most of the novella evokes disillusionment and disappointment.  This may not be a cheerful read, but it is an important one, not least, because it seems to encapsulate the journey of revolutionary literature.  ‘Happy Moscow’ was written in the 1930s, two decades after Bely’s Modernist masterpiece, ‘Petersburg‘.   Possibly the most significant difference between the two books is that one could be read by the society it depicted; the other had to wait until the 1990s to be published.  The bleak tone of the title story, and the other wonderful tales in this short collection, seems utterly appropriate and very, very moving.

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If you want a less experimental and more overtly satirical portrait of life in Stalinist Russia, then I highly recommend ‘The Foundation Pit’.  The premise is simple enough, a team of workers are digging the foundations for an ideal, palatial, communist home.  It will be a model for the accommodation of the future Soviet utopia.  If you’ve read Ismail Kadare though (especially his wonderful novella, ‘The Pyramid’) you’ll know that communist building projects are not always as glorious as the sound-bites suggest.  Appropriately enough, as the plans for the building get more impressive and immense, the foundations must be laid deeper and deeper into the ground.  The characters descend, physically, morally and spiritually, into the depths of the earth as they must struggle with the increasingly depressing reality of Soviet society.  The whole enterprise will challenge their personal quests for meaning and hope while the novel itself challenges the optimism that Stalin insisted on, but that Platonov could not share.

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‘Soul’ has been my personal favourite Platonov read to date.  While the other two books deal with urban and industrial life, ‘Soul’ is set in the Russian wilderness as the protagonist, Chagataev, goes on a quest to first find and then save the tribe he deserted as a child. ‘He had kept going a long way, and now he was on his way back; he had found a father in Stalin, a stranger who had brought him up and broadened his heart and who was now sending him home again, so that he could find his mother and save her if she were alive, or bury her if she were lying abandoned and dead on the face of the earth.’  It is a redemptive journey, but one that entails unbelievable physical hardship.  Chagataev’s tribe live in a state of stagnation and starvation, surviving mostly on grass and damp sand.  The idea of bringing them into a glorious Soviet future is almost laughable and the allegorical novel becomes a poignant reflection on hope, despair and regeneration.  Unlike anything I have read before in this project, ‘Soul’ fixes Platonov as a favourite Russian author and one of my top new discoveries from this project.