Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Dzhan (Soul) of Russian Folk

If it weren't for Orlando Figes' review of Andrey Platonov's works in a recent New York Review of Books article my copy of Platonov's book of short stories, Soul and other Stories, might have remained unmolested for years to come. But Figes' authorative review, "A Great Russian Writer in the Communist Cauldron," assures me that Platonov easily makes the short list for the title of greatest Soviet era author.

Platonov, an early enthusiast for the great Soviet experiment, Civil War railway engineer working to keep the Red Army supplied, and probable participant in the forced grain levys that led to the starvation of so many Russian peasants, believed in communism, movement, machines, and the future. However, his enthusiasm faded and his unpublished novels such as Chevenguv (1929) and the Foundation Pit (1930), are an indictment of Stalinism. Even his early work, Epifan Locks (1927), which was warmly received by Gorky, seemed to suggest a critical analogy between Peter the Great and the rising socialist leader.

According to Figes, Chevenguv portrayed a dystopic world in which communists kill bourgeois inhabitants and then live without direction in obscurantism before Cossacks invade an invite suicide. Plotonov's biography reflects the stresses of the Soviet interwar years: in two decades, the writer went from being a true believe, to skeptic, to critic, to social realist (publically, in order to continue writing), and then finally, inevitably, to grief. In 1938 Platonov's son was sent to the gulag as a terrorist; Platonov contracted tuberculosis and died in 1943. Fortunately, a soul (a Russian one at least) can outlive its corporal shell, and many of Platonov's unpublished works have been uncovered since the fall of communism.

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