It’s almost time to celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution, but there are few real celebrants left, in Russia at least. For most Russians, Stalin the nation-builder is part of the usable past, but Lenin cuts less ice, and the Bolshevik Revolution is an outright embarrassment. No doubt it won’t be possible to ignore the centenary altogether, as Putin might like. A few years ago he declared that 1917 remembrance should take the form of ‘deep, objective, professional evaluation’, noting that at the same time the event might be downgraded from a ‘revolution’ to a more pedestrian ‘overturn’ (perevorot). In Ukraine, Poroshenko thinks the occasion should be marked, but only for the ‘grim lesson’ to be learned from it.
A long, melancholy, withdrawing roar seems to be what’s left of it, which would have saddened Andrei Platonov, chronicler of the Revolution – not that he wasn’t sad enough already. Platonov was a communist, but his attempts to celebrate the arrival of utopia fell somewhere between tragedy and black humour. The revolutionary heroes of his novels and stories are generally pale and wan; the sheer effort of keeping on living, let alone making a revolution in Russia’s steppes, is almost too much for them. Typically, they trudge from one village to the next looking for communism. In the daylight hours, these Soviet Don Quixotes encounter local fantasists expounding a variety of hare-brained schemes in a wonderful mélange of the vernacular and Soviet ‘official’ language. At night, they like to sleep next to other down-and-outs in barracks and barns, taking solace in the silent communion of warm bodies. But often they find themselves lying alone in cold gullies under the stars, which offer no comfort. A character in Platonov’s unpublished 1930 novella The Foundation Pit (Kotlovan) spends the night in the open on a cart carrying a coffin. Looking up at the ‘dead sediment of the Milky Way’, and imagining that the stars, like revolutionaries, are constantly having meetings, he waits for them to bring some ‘resolution to end the infiniteness of time, as an atonement for life’s tedium’. Platonov, a provincial railway worker’s son, once said that for him the concepts of ‘locomotive’ and ‘revolution’ were inseparable, and indeed the hoot of distant trains is often heard in the cold, sleepless nights that recur in his work, though the image invoked has less to do with revolution than the vast emptiness of the steppe. The trains, like Platonov’s protagonists, always seem in danger of running out of steam before they reach their unknown or impossible destinations. Platonov is Russia’s great prose poet of revolutionary entropy.
I first read Platonov in Moscow in the 1960s at the behest of my Old Bolshevik mentor Igor Aleksandrovich Sats. Sats had been a great friend of Platonov’s, defending him from the near constant barrage of criticism he received from political and literary quarters, supporting him through his troubles and illness (he died of tuberculosis in his early fifties) and – not least important – drinking with him. Sats was a great taker-in of inconsequential waifs and strays like me, but there was also always some ‘big’ public figure who was the central object of his protective care. In the 1920s it was Anatoly Lunacharsky, first People’s Commissar of Education; in the 1960s, Aleksander Tvardovsky, editor of the orthodoxy-challenging journal Novy mir. In between, it was Platonov.
I remember sitting for hours at Igor’s place reading Platonov, while he ran around doing errands and taking telephone calls, periodically instructing me not to go away, he would be completely free in five minutes. I didn’t mind; I loved his old, still semi-communal apartment off the Arbat. Platonov’s major works, all written in the late 1920s and early 1930s, were exceedingly melancholy and very funny, which was more or less the way the Soviet Union struck me. In the picaresque novel Chevengur, a Don Quixote-like figure riding a horse called Proletarian Strength travels around with his Sancho Panza during the Civil War, observing the bizarre efforts of various isolated idealists to make a new revolutionary life. The novella Vprok (For Future Benefit) applied a similar approach to collectivisation. The Foundation Pit, never published in Platonov’s lifetime because of the furor Vprok had generated, is about building a wonderful new home for the proletariat – but digging the hole for its foundations is as far as it gets. One of the searchers in Chevengur is hopelessly in love with Rosa Luxemburg; the other rides Proletarian Strength into a lake and plunges to its depths to find death and his lost father. (The horse survives.)
It was the language, melding the colloquial with high-flown Bolshevik-speak, that made Platonov’s work so irresistible in Soviet times. In those days, when I wasn’t at Igor’s I was sitting in archives and libraries poring over documents written in that same Soviet jargon. Sometimes they were almost as absurd as Platonov. If Vprok showed all the black humour of collectivisation, so did archival accounts from the field in which ardent collectivisers closed churches and dressed themselves and their horses in priests’ vestments or dug up churchyards to dance with skeletons, while passively resistant peasants agreed to everything proposed to them at the village meeting – until at the last moment somebody shouted ‘Fire’, and the whole crowd vanished before signing. When I read Platonov again recently, the overwhelming sense of melancholy was unchanged, but it didn’t seem as funny as I remembered. I don’t live in that Soviet world anymore; nobody does. Sats and Platonov and their generation are long gone, and with them a particular rueful nostalgia for the absurdity, awfulness and grandeur of the revolutionary years. There are still Soviet nostalgics like Svetlana Alexievich around, but the world they have lost is a postwar one.
For Platonov and Sats, born respectively in 1899 and 1903, the Revolution was the touchstone of their lives. As a 15-year-old student of piano at the Kiev Conservatory, Sats ran away to fight for the Revolution, bidding farewell to his bourgeois parents. A few years later his old piano teacher, Professor Yavorsky, discovered him in Kiev; Yavorsky took him off to Moscow, where, as it happened, his sister Natalia had or was about to become Lunacharsky’s second wife. Still recovering from his wounds, Sats went to live with the People’s Commissar and Natalia on the Arbat, working until Lunacharsky’s death in 1933 as his literary secretary. This put him at the centre of Soviet high society, a situation that provided an excellent vantage point for observation while at the same time making him deeply uneasy. His response to having accidentally landed on an inside track for advancement was to decide that it was his moral obligation not to compete. Consequently, despite great intellectual gifts and a powerful personality, he embarked on a lifelong path of non-ambition and prickly refusal of the perks and privileges available to him.
Unlike Sats, Platonov came from the working class, and was therefore in Bolshevik eyes a ‘natural’ supporter of the Revolution. Perhaps this is why he didn’t feel compelled to volunteer to fight for the Reds in the Civil War, although apparently a sympathiser, but stayed at home in Voronezh, studying at technical school and working as a journalist on the side. He joined the Communist Party rather casually around 1920, but dropped out after barely a year, only rejoining later in the 1920s. After graduation, he went out and worked as an agricultural technician in land reclamation, but the bureaucracy drove him mad, and he ended up writing full-time. Literary satire was flourishing in the 1920s, both from a basically pro-Soviet position (like that of Zoshchenko, Koltsov and the Ilf and Petrov team) and an agnostic or anti-Soviet one (on the spectrum from Bulgakov to Zamiatin). Platonov belonged to the former group, except that he evidently didn’t regard what he was writing as satire. He wanted to be a political writer, as he rather implausibly claimed, whose observation-based reports from the countryside would be helpful in formulating the party line.
Sats made his own observations of the countryside when, as a student at a communist university, he was drafted for collectivisation work and found himself temporary chairman of a collective farm in the Moscow region. (His observations were written down in a series of letters to Lunacharsky, but somehow the letters, which were meant to go to the archives, have been lost, and I’m telling the story from memory of what he told me in the 1960s.) As a young Jewish intellectual from the city, he anticipated a less than enthusiastic reception in the village, so his first action was to hold a meeting with the elders and tell them that he knew nothing about farming and therefore would not presume to tell them their business, but he might possibly be able to use his urban connections to help them: what, concretely, did they need? Nails, the peasants told him. So he went up to Moscow to the building site of the new Communist Academy, stole some nails and brought them back to the village. After that, everything was fine.
It wasn’t so fine for Platonov. He made a big splash with some early works in the late 1920s, but the so-called ‘proletarians’ (young communist militants who were throwing their weight around in the literary world) were snapping at his heels from the beginning – and then in 1931 Stalin joined in with a huge slap-down of Vprok. Stalin, who had more of an appreciation of literary talent than is often thought, sometimes appreciated satire, but he didn’t think collectivisation was a laughing matter. Vprok’s author looked to him like ‘an agent of our enemies’ whose novella had been written ‘with the aim of discrediting collectivisation’, and he called for punishment both of the author and the editors of the journal that published him. This was to have a devastating impact on Platonov’s life. His work became more or less unpublishable, and what he did get into print – a few little stories in journals in the 1930s – appeared only in bowdlerised form. His largest major work of the 1930s, the bizarre novella Happy Moscow, was never published in his lifetime, though it now has a fine English translation by Robert Chandler. The eponymous Moscow is a woman, not the city, though she floats around it doing some characteristic 1930s-Moscow things like parachute jumping (insouciantly lighting a cigarette in mid-flight) as well as having various dead-end love affairs in a life which, if Platonov hadn’t explicitly labelled it as happy, the reader might have taken to be purposeless and dispiriting.
Sats and Platonov met in 1928, when Platonov was riding high, but their friendship was probably cemented in the early 1930s, since it was trouble rather than success that drew Igor to people. Sats had become a literary critic in the orbit of the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács, a Hungarian émigré then associated with Literary Critic (Literaturnyi kritik), the only ‘thick’ journal left in Stalinist Moscow that was able to maintain a distinctive and more or less independent line. Despite the fact that it was a journal of criticism, not belles-lettres, Literary Critic managed to publish some stories of Platonov’s, as well as some appreciative commentary on his work by Sats and others. It was, of course, difficult to find a pretext to write criticism of work that was either unpublished or heavily censured, but the Literary Critic people did their best for Platonov. In fact, one of the accusations made against Lukács, a prominent but controversial figure in the Soviet intellectual world, was that his critical works tended to ignore contemporary Soviet writing completely, except for Platonov and the canonical Gorky. The journal even commissioned literary criticism from Platonov, providing what was probably his only source of real income in these years.
Literary Critic and its staffers and writers, including Platonov and Sats, made it through the Great Purges more or less intact, but in the spring of 1938 Platonov’s only child, 15-year-old Platon, was arrested on the charge of leading an ‘anti-Soviet youth terrorist and spy-saboteur organisation’. The procedure in such cases was for the family to write petitions to Stalin and other leaders asking for release of their blameless and upstanding relative, and to mobilise whatever patrons they could get to in the higher strata to intercede in person. It was against the informal rules for friends to petition along with family, since that would suggest to the ever vigilant secret police the possibility of conspiracy. Sats broke this rule for Platonov, taking him to see Evgenia Ezhova, a journalist with many contacts in the intelligentsia, who was the wife of Stalin’s security chief, Nikolai Ezhov. Evgenia promised to pass on a letter of appeal to her husband.
This is a story that I personally will never forget because Sats told it to me very early in our acquaintance, when I was just a young foreign exchange student consulting a distinguished elderly man for my dissertation on Lunacharsky. Soviet citizens were careful about what they said around foreigners in those days, and I was completely taken aback by his raising such a dangerous topic gratuitously with a near stranger. I recorded the conversation in my diary, but then got so worried about KGB snooping in the dormitory that I felt obliged to carry the diary around on my person for the rest of my stay. The entry for 26 February 1967 summarised what Igor told me as follows:
Platonov’s 15-year-old son arrested in 1938: Platonov and Sats went to see Evgenia Solomonovna to give appeal to [Ezhov]. Her face covered with abscesses (нарывы), almost at end of her tether. She promised to give the letter to E, but promised nothing else. Young P not released, sentenced to 10 years in Far North. Sholokhov went to Stalin for Platonov: Stalin rang Ezhov, E said guilt quite clearly proved. Sholokhov later went again to Stalin who rang Beria (after Ezhov’s removal); Beria brought dossier: there was nothing there but анкета [the son’s basic biodata], no proof at all …
(This is a slightly corrected version: in 1967, I was still apparently so green and ignorant of Soviet history beyond my dissertation topic that I misspelled Ezhov.)
While the Great Purges were generally winding down by the beginning of 1939, that year turned out to be one of peak danger for the Literary Critic crowd, assaulted ever more vehemently by their opponents in the literary world, who now held key positions in the Soviet literary bureaucracy. The journal was finally closed down at the end of 1940 for being isolated from the literary and Soviet mainstream; having championed Platonov’s work didn’t help. Lukács was arrested for a few months in 1941. A collection of Platonov’s literary criticism was taken out of publication as an ‘anti-Soviet book’.
The outbreak of war on 22 June 1941, when the Germans broke the 1939 Non-Aggression Pact and attacked the Soviet Union, marked the beginning of almost five years of frightful losses, suffering and disruption. Yet for some communists, Sats and Platonov among them, it seems to have come almost as a relief, after the uncertainty and moral confusion of the Purges, to be fighting against an identifiable enemy in a cause that could be seen as just. Sats volunteered immediately, despite being close to 40 and classified as a war invalid because of his Civil War injuries. He served in field intelligence; and, judging by his conversations with me, the war was one of the high points of his life. Danger did not deter him, and he loved the sense of comradeship; his affection for ‘his spies’, as he called the working-class and peasant lads who served with him, lasted for the rest of his life, and they still held periodic reunions when I knew him. He was declared missing in action at one point, and lost all his teeth after a sojourn in the Smolensk marshes, but he pulled through. After the war, he was reprimanded for giving his war medals to a neighbour’s children to play with in the courtyard.
Platonov took longer to get into the war, but when he did it was with the same positive effects on his psychological wellbeing. He spent the first year bored and edgy after being evacuated with his wife to the town of Ufa in Bashkiria. Sholokhov intervened, his son was finally released from Gulag and sent to join them, but he had picked up tuberculosis in prison and came back in bad shape. Platonov was still longing to get into the action, and in July 1942 he landed a job as war correspondent with the top military newspaper, Red Star. ‘I was so struck by the sight that I forgot to be frightened,’ he wrote to his wife after his first trip to the front.
Our aviation was performing powerful destruction. Imagine – thousands of people hidden on the ground, thousands of pairs of eyes looking upward, thousands of hearts beating, listening to the cannonade of fire, and a stream of feelings emerged in your breast and you didn’t even notice that tears of ecstasy and fury were suddenly running down your cheeks. I am used to being around machines, and machines are everywhere in contemporary war, which makes me feel that at war I am in an enormous workshop among my beloved machines.
Fighter planes and optimism seemed to have taken over from locomotives as Platonov’s favourite metaphor. The upbeat mood and recovering self-confidence remains dominant in his wartime letters, even in the face of his son’s death in Ufa in January 1943. Platonov had been rehabilitated as a writer, at least for the time being, publishing sketches of army life and planning larger-scale work when peace came. But in fact there was to be no productive postwar life for him. Savage attacks from the old literary enemies started again within 18 months of the end of the war, when he was already very ill with tuberculosis, caught from his son. He died in 1951. Sats, who had spent hours at his sickbed, lived on for another three decades.
Platonov was still alive for the 30th anniversary of the Revolution. I like to think he celebrated it with Sats, who, like Platonov’s other drinking buddies, was in the habit of circumventing his disapproving wife by knocking on the ground-floor window of his study. They drank in proletarian bars, disdaining the Writers’ Union’s exclusive and classy restaurant. For the 50th anniversary, a few months after my first visit to Moscow ended, Igor probably went out for a drink with Tvardovsky and his mates from Novy mir. Now it’s almost a hundred years, and almost all of them are dead. Although Platonov – and even, despite his lifelong striving for invisibility, Sats – have their admirers among the contemporary Russian intelligentsia, there’s probably no one to drink a revolutionary toast in their memory. Does it count, I wonder, if I drink one in Australia? But actually, I realise, I won’t be there. The Russian public may be indifferent to the centenary of their Revolution, but international scholars are off on the academic pilgrimage trail, giving the Revolution a ‘deep, objective, professional evaluation’ at conferences from Sundsvall to Santiago. The title of my as yet unwritten all-purpose talk is ‘Was the Russian Revolution a failure?’ Since the answer is surely some kind of yes, I’m glad Sats and Platonov can’t stream it from some distant planet.
But perhaps they can. There is an asteroid out there orbiting the sun, #3620, a bit under 13 kilometres in diameter, named in 1981 by its Soviet discoverer in honour of Andrei Platonov. The Platonov asteroid is very rarely visible from earth, but according to latest reports it’s still up there. The heavens never had much encouragement to offer for Platonov’s Soviet Don Quixotes, sleeping rough on the steppe and dreaming of Rosa Luxemburg, and now, if any of the old breed are left in Russia, the stars must be giving them even colder comfort. But there’s always hope for a new sighting of the Platonov asteroid – perhaps in time for the bicentenary, when who knows what our great-great-grandchildren will be making of the Russian Revolution.