Wresting Freedom from Necessity

Wresting Freedom from Necessity

The Fierce and Beautiful World
by Andrei Platonov, translated by Joseph Barnes, introduction by Tatyana Tolstaya
New York Review Books, 2000, 288 pp., $12.95

In Andrei Platonov’s novel The Foundation Pit, Nastya—a beautiful and precociously ideological, kulak-baiting little girl on whose especial behalf socialism is being constructed in Russia—boasts of having delayed her birth until the revolution: “As soon as Lenin came, I came too.”

Nastya’s creator—whom Joseph Brodsky and others have considered the greatest twentieth-century writer of Russian prose—knew the perils of an opportune birth. Born in 1899 in a small settlement on the open steppe near Voronezh, Platonov lived in lockstep with his times, turning eighteen just as revolution arrived and identifying his hopes with those of the new Soviet state. Few if any other modern novelists were able to so thoroughly assimilate history to art. Platonov made “lyrico-satirical” fables—to use Gorky’s disapproving term—of Lenin’s electrification campaign, the first Five Year Plan, the sovietization of Turkmenistan, and the demobilization of soldiers from the Second World War—even as these upheavals were taking place.

As a teenager, Platonov attempted to construct a perpetuum mobile; later on in his great utopian fantasy, Chevengur, he imagined a new earth producing crops by itself, without any touch of a peasant’s hand. But self-sufficiency was not his psychological model. All of his fictional people ask in some form the question of his title character in “Makar the Doubtful”: “What am I to do in life in order to be needed by myself and others?” In 1921, Platonov answered by giving up literature in favor of zhiznestroenie or “life-building.” He worked for several years as a land-reclamation engineer—the effort to wrest life from dead nature is one of his fiction’s preoccupying themes—and in 1926 he received a government certificate crediting him with having dug in the course of three years an astonishingly Stakhanovite 763 ponds and 331 wells. It is impossible not to think of this enormous labor of digging while reading The Foundation Pit, the story of a peasant village’s efforts to construct a huge apartment building in which to house the local “proletariat.” In the end, the workers dig—instead of a foundation pit—their own mass grave.

It is no surprise that The Foundation Pit, completed in 1931, could not be published in the Soviet Union before glasnost. But it seems genuinely to have surprised and pained Platonov that his work could be accused of being “counterrevolutionary.” Platonov first fell afoul of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) in 1929. He had been publishing for only two years, and if there was no disguising the satirical element in his stories of collectivization, he seems neverthe...

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