The son of a metal worker with patents to his name, Andrei Platonov was born near Voronezh in 1899. He was an early supporter of the Bolshevik cause, coming of age with the October Revolution, and embraced the aspiration towards radical change that fuelled the many political and artistic movements of the period. In his twenties, he worked as a land-reclamation engineer draining swamps, and as a journalist. Thanks to the chaos and devastation of this period — the years of Civil War in the aftermath of the First World War — drought and famine were as formative for his politics as collectivist utopia and techno-optimism.
Contradictions between the modernist desire to engineer the human soul, and the horrors that transformative projects inflict on the people they seek to change, are at the heart of Platonov’s fiction. In his world, most characters have a chimera-like quality: they are part-individual, part-archetype or social role, studies in how everyone is part of a common world, relying on the same words, caught up in the same plots. They are secular creatures inhabiting feeble, machine-like bodies, speaking a language that fuses vernacular with official jargon, making their way in a half-undone, alien world.
What makes reading Platonov an experience unlike pretty much anything else lies in his politics, and the words he uses to accommodate them. Odd phrasings, twisted idioms push language off its convenient, beaten track. The result is dizzying, funny, and unpredictable. It suits the frontlines he describes, where new, urbanised, industrialised lives are made from formerly rural, destitute millions. Platonov’s world is grotesque and ironic, but in a way that resists attempts to separate satire from genuine ideological dedication. Harsh critiques of Stalinism and bureaucracy abound, but always crosshatched with communist commitment. He remains an insider of the Revolution.
From the early 1930s, when Stalinist purges destroyed the revolutionary generation, putting an end to much of the Soviet avant-garde and the possibility of aesthetic and political criticism, Platonov could hardly publish. Doubts about technocratic solutions intensified in his work. He sought compromise with the literary establishment, to little avail. In 1943, his son, who had been arrested and sent to a labour camp, and whom he had cared for since his return, died from tuberculosis, infecting Platonov. He succumbed to the same disease in 1951.
Here is a selection to explore.
In the chaos of the Civil War, Sasha Dvanov, an orphan from a drought-stricken town, joins Kopenkin, a quixotic figure in love with Rosa Luxemburg, riding a horse called Proletarian Strength. Their quest is to find true communism, following the many-headed revolution to the steppes. After a series of bizarre adventures, they end up in the town of Chevengur, where a band of self-made leaders announce the end of history. They take figurative meaning as literal, puzzled when the promised communism proves as distant as the second coming. Chevengur is a tale of storming social change told from the margins. It is a distorted but insightful mirror into a revolution petrified by state-building enterprise.
Chevengur is one of Platonov’s earliest and most ambitious long-form works. He wrote it during the first Five-Year Plan, at a time when he gave up his quest to meaningfully contribute to building a new world. He was growing disillusioned with the expanding Soviet bureaucracy, and produced a story that celebrates, yet laughs off the anarchistic tendencies of small-town utopia. Labelled counterrevolutionary, it was not published in Platonov’s lifetime.
Happy Moscow is an unfinished novel Platonov wrote in the early 1930s, when Stalin announced a new era of communist consumerism. Upon the triumph of the first Five-Year Plan, Soviet society was invited to rejoice: “life has become better, life has become merrier”. Happy Moscow investigates the gaps between lives enhanced by this new world, and the human desires that fail to adapt to its conditions. It’s a story of the new elite, a reckoning of engineers and inventors with the world they helped to build.
The novel follows an abandoned orphan found in the chaos of the Revolution, literally raised by the state, given the name Moscow Chestnova. Moscow is beautiful, ambitious, a parachutist whose career ends when she sets her equipment on fire while lighting a cigarette during a jump. She is quick to love, with little patience for individualist commitment. She is the Revolution embodied, belonging to everyone who claims her, drifting, elusive. The real protagonists, to my mind, are men marked by their love for her: the surgeon who reasons himself out of it, the engineer who abandons his career and assumes a new identity. Happy Moscow impresses regardless of being unfinished, and is on par with Platonov’s better-known works.
Socialist realism as an obligatory aesthetic paradigm was announced in 1934 by the Union of Soviet Writers. Platonov, a member of the Union, sought inclusion and rehabilitation, to some extent, publicly denouncing his earlier works and his indulging in the grotesque. He managed to go to Turkmenia with a writers’ brigade, assigned to prepare works for the 10th anniversary of the Turkmen SSR, and spent months travelling in the region.
In Soul, the novella published upon his return, he sought to follow principles of socialist realism, but the result reads like an inner journey in a hallucinatory world. It has been read as a Sufi text. Soul starts off with Nazar Chagataev (yet another orphan) being dispatched to bring socialism to his native nomadic people. The dzhan are an anti-nation, dispossessed fugitives, orphans, people reduced to hunger and bare soul — the Russian title comes from the Persian word for soul. Chagataev wanders in the vast desert, supporting his people, and gradually understands he cannot help them. He eventually returns to Moscow bringing with him a young girl, Aidym, a solitary newcomer to Soviet life. Although not free from orientalist elements, Soul is a fascinating, enigmatic book, a critique of enforced modernism and development.
Although Platonov’s chances to publish his work were still slim, he went on an assignment to Karelia in 1936, to meet with a train switchman who had got a state award. Among Animals and Plants is a short story that shows the new world of industrialised cities and proletarian culture from a distance. Set in a tiny hamlet in the middle of the forest, the protagonist is Fyodorov, a switchman, who spends lonely days in the forest, and catches glimpses of far-off metropoles through trains that pass by, and through the radio.
Among Animals and Plants is partly about the frustrations produced by illusory inclusion, the false proximity of Moscow broadcasted to village huts. But Medvezh’ya Gora, the setting of the story, is not as tranquil and remote as it seems: it was one of the centres of the Gulag, where imprisoned workers had constructed Stalin’s White Sea Canal. Platonov does not name the camp, but tells how Fyodorov dreams about working there. The story describes the forest and its animals in the same terms as humans, and through misplaced, odd words, it hints at the presence of something more sinister. Among Animals and Plants is a balancing act of telling two stories at once.
Platonov’s last publication was a short story about the return of a war veteran, Ivanov, after the Second World War. Published in 1946, The Return met harsh criticism for its pessimism that was contrary to the triumphant mood expected from writers. The story traces the difficulties of coming home from war, readjusting to domestic life, and to other people. In fact, Ivanov does not immediately go home, but instead has an affair on the way. When he eventually arrives, his wife confesses to an infidelity of her own, which prompts him to leave her for his lover. But in the end he jumps off the train, and decides to stay.
The Return is a delicate, nuanced examination of domestic attachments, its simple plot complicated by stories family members tell one another. It is about the effort it takes to stay and accept a confined world, and to move in that world with care. It is a rare story for Platonov, restlessness replaced by acceptance, even if with a hint of surrender.