Sheila Fitzpatrick

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 A character in Platonov’s unpublished 1930 novella The Foundation Pit (Kotlovan) spends the night in the open on a cart carrying a coffin.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.

Andrei Platonov
Andrei 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.)

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