History of Literature

Russian literature


Andrey Platonov


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Andrei Platonov (Russian: Андре́й Плато́нов) (August 28 [O.S. August 16] 1899 – January 5, 1951) was the pen name of Andrei Platonovich Klimentov (Russian: Андре́й Плато́нович Климе́нтов), a Soviet author whose works anticipate existentialism. Although Platonov was a Communist, his works were banned in his own lifetime for their skeptical attitude toward collectivization and other Stalinist policies. His famous works include the novels The Foundation Pit and Chevengur.

Andrei Platonov (the name he began to write under only in 1920, but by which he is best known) was born in the settlement of Yamskaia Sloboda on the outskirts of Voronezh in the central black earth region. His father was a metal fitter (and an amateur inventor) employed in the railroad workshops. His mother was the daughter of a watchmaker. Platonov attended a Church parish school and completed his primary education at a four-year city school. In 1914, at the age of thirteen and a half, he began work first as an office clerk at a local insurance company, then as smelter at a pipe factory, assistant machinist on a private estate, worker in a plant making artificial millstones, warehouseman, and at other jobs, including on the railroad. He began writing poems by the time he turned thirteen, sending some off to papers in Moscow and elsewhere, though none were yet accepted.

In the wake of the 1917 revolutions, Platonov became very active in a variety of pursuits. He sought to advance his technical education first with preparatory courses and then at the Voronezh Polytechnic Institute where he studied electrical technology. When the civil war broke out he assisted his father on a train delivering troops and supplies and clearing snow. At the same time, he wrote prolifically for a variety of local periodicals, especially the paper of the local railway workers' union, Zheleznyi put' (Railroad), the official papers of the Voronezh provincial committee of the Communist Party, Krasnaia derevnia (Red countryside) and Voronezhskaia kommuna (Voronezh commune), the national journal of the Smithy group of proletarian writers, Kuznitsa, and many others.

The range of his writings in these years was extraordinary. From 1918 through 1921, his most intensive as a writer, he published dozens of poems (and a collection of verses that appeared in 1922), several stories, and, most of all, hundreds of articles and essays. Platonov's productive energy and intellectual precocity is most visible in the remarkable range of topics he confidently wrote about: literature, art, cultural life, science, philosophy, religion, education, politics, the civil war, foreign relations, economics, technology, famine, land reclamation, and more. It was not unusually, especially in 1920, to see two or three pieces by him, on quite different subjects, appear in the press every day for several days running. He was also involved with the local Proletcult organization, joined the Union of Communist Journalists in March 1920, worked as an editor at Krasnaia derevnia, was elected in August 1920 to the provisional directing board of the newly formed Voronezh Union of Proletarian Writers, attended the First Congress of Proletarian Writers in Moscow in October 1920, which was organized by the Kuznitsa group, and regularly read his poetry and gave critical talks at various club meetings. He joined the Communist Party in the spring of 1920, and started attending the party school, but left the party at the end of 1921, for a "juvenile" reason, he later said. He may have quit the party in dismay over NEP, like a number of other worker writers (many of whom he had become acquainted with through Kuznitsa and at the 1920 congress). But we also know that Platonov was deeply troubled by the terrible famine of 1921, and he openly and controversially criticized the behavior (and privileges) of local communists at the time. There is also some evidence that he was expelled from the party when he refused to clean up other people's trash during an obligatory subbotnik (communist work Saturday). He was readmitted as a candidate member only in 1924.

In 1921 Platonov married Maria Aleksandrova Kashintseva (1903-1983); they had a son, Platon, in 1920, and a daughter, Maria, in 1944.

In 1922, in the wake of the devastating drought and famine of 1921 and after quitting the party[citation needed], Platonov abandoned journalistic and literary work entirely to work on electrification projects and conduct land reclamation work for the Voronezh Provincial Land Administration and later for agencies of the central government. "I could no longer be occupied with a contemplative activity like literature," he recalled a few years later. For the next few years, he worked as an engineer and administrator, organizing the digging of ponds and wells, the draining of swamp land, and the building of a hydroelectric plant.

In 1925 he published a book about the Black Sea Revolt of 1905. This was the same year that Sergei Eisenstein's film The Battleship Potemkin was made. Platonov's book was an official publication of the Bolshevik Party.

When he did return to writing in 1926, however, he began to create works that indicated to a number of critics and readers the appearance of a major and original literary voice. Moving to Moscow in 1927, he became, for the first time, a professional writer. He mainly wrote fiction but also worked in the editorial departments of a number of leading magazines. He produced his two major works, the novels Chevengur and The Foundation Pit, between 1926 and 1930, overlapping slightly with the beginning of the first Five-Year Plan in 1928. These works, with their implicit criticism of the system, drew much official criticism, and although a chapter of Chevengur appeared in a magazine, neither were published in full. Other short stories which did appear contributed even more to the decline of his reputation.

Stalin held deeply ambivalent views regarding Platonov's worth. According to archival evidence Stalin called Platonov "fool, idiot, scoundrel", then later in the same meeting said Platonov was "a prophet, a genius." For his part Platonov made hostile remarks about Trotsky, Rykov, and Bukharin but not about Stalin, to whom he wrote letters on several occasions. By 1931, his work came under sustained attack as anti-communist[citation needed]. Nevertheless, Platonov published no fewer than eight volumes of fiction and essays from 1937 until his death in 1951. In the Stalinist Great Purge of the 1930s, Platonov's son was arrested as a "terrorist" and "spy" at the age of fifteen, and exiled to a labor camp where he contracted tuberculosis. When he was finally returned, Platonov himself contracted the disease while nursing him. During the Great Patriotic War (World War II), Platonov served as a war correspondent, but his disease grew worse, and after the war, he ceased to write fiction, instead putting out two collections of folklore. He died in 1951.

Although he was relatively unknown at the time of his death, his influence on later Russian writers has been considerable. Some of his work was published or reprinted during the 1960s' Khrushchev Thaw. Because of his political writings, perceived anti-totalitarian stance, and early death of tuberculosis, some English-speaking commentators have called him "the Russian George Orwell".

In journalism, stories, and poetry written during the first postrevolutionary years (1918–1922), Platonov interwove ideas about human mastery over nature with skepticism about triumphant human consciousness and will, and a sentimental and even erotic love of physical things with a fear and attendant abhorrence of matter. Platonov viewed the world as embodying at the same time the opposing principles of spirit and matter, reason and emotion, nature and machine. He wrote of factories, machines, and technology as both enticing and dreadful. In complex way, Platonov's thinking was an anti-machine machinism. His aim was to turn industry over to machines, in order to "transfer man from the realm of material production to a higher sphere of life." Thus, in Platonov's vision of the coming "golden age" machines are both enemy and savior. Modern technologies, Platonov asserted paradoxically (though echoing a paradox characteristic of Marxism), would enable humanity to be "freed from the oppression of matter."

Platonov's writing, it has also been argued, has strong ties to the works of earlier Russian authors like Fyodor Dostoevsky. He also uses much Christian symbolism, including a prominent and discernible influence from a wide range of contemporary and ancient philosophers, including the Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov.

His 'Foundation Pit' uses a combination of peasant language with ideological and political terms to create a sense of meaninglessness, aided by the abrupt and sometimes fantastic events of the plot. Joseph Brodsky considers the work deeply suspicious of the meaning of language, especially political language. This exploration of meaninglessness is a hallmark of existentialism and absurdism.

Although his works generally take a materialist stance, denying the importance or existence of the soul, he is stylistically very distinct from Socialist Realism, which focused on simple language and straightforward plots.



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