Andrei Platonov – The Good Stalinist

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Can Stalinism and good writing ever be compatible?

As a fan of Soviet literature, one of my great frustrations is the lack of good writing from a pro-Stalin perspective. There is no shortage of books about the evils of Stalin and the system he created- Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov and Bulgakov all spring to mind- but what about those writers who actually believed in his vision for the USSR?

After all, even today many Russians view Stalin with a mixture of awe and terror, or simply awe. As for me, I think he was a vile individual, yet I would still like to know what it feels like to believe in that living god. Of course many authors in the 30s and 40s wrote books praising Stalin but they were mostly if not all rotten: monotonous, simplistic, shallow and dishonest.

For a while I subscribed to an extraordinary little magazine, the Sovlit.com “Thin Journal” that provided summaries of these books, on the grounds that most people have neither the time nor the inclination to read them. Of course it wasn’t very popular and the magazine ceased to exist around issue # 11. Today even the website is gone, which is a pity as it contained some very fine, profoundly obscure information.

Even so, it was rare that I read one of those summaries and wanted to read the whole book. The question remains then- is there a great author, broadly pro-Stalin, who can convey to the reader honestly what it was like to be alive in that most terrible of epochs? In fact the answer is yes, and his name is Andrei Platonov- a devout communist with the unfortunate habit of telling the truth.

I first encountered his writing in his extraordinary novel The Foundation Pit, set during the period of collectivization. It is a mind-bendingly bleak work, filled with infinite suffering, profound compassion and written in luminous prose that is at once alien but suffused with human feeling. Reading it you would think Platonov loathed the regime, but he didn’t: he wanted to believe in the glorious future but could not deny the suffering he witnessed.

Next I read Soul, an account of a lost tribe on the verge of death in the wastes of Turkmenistan. In this book turtles have souls and a mythological Stalin shimmers like some remote beacon in the distance, providing hope to the lost. This faith seems pathetic to us now, but this is not a problem for the narrative- it only adds extra poignancy to the despairing undercurrent in Platonov’s weak hope.

Just before Christmas I read Happy Moscow, an unfinished novel from the 1930s, set in the soviet capital just as the city was assuming its modern form. As with all of Platonov’s novels the prose is weirdly alienating but also intimate, and the book teems with tropes from the “Golden Age of Stalinism” if you will permit me to use such a phrase. Moscow Chestnova, the titular heroine, is a beautiful girl who becomes a parachutist; she goes to work in the metro but loses a leg; then she moves in with a bizarre, shiftless character who has more or less given up on life.

Other men fall in love with Moscow. One of them is an Esperanto enthusiast while another is carrying out research into immortality and believes he may have located the soul in the lower intestine. Lurking in the background is the inspirational figure but sketchy figure of Stalin – remote, vague, an idea rather than a person. As is usual with Platonov everybody suffers horribly.

Of course, while Platonov considered himself a communist many of his peers were repelled by the honesty in his work, and most of his books were not published until long after his death. According to his English translator Robert Chandler, however, critics increasingly view him as Russia’s greatest prose writer of the 20th century.

I’m not keen on aesthetic ratings systems but I do agree that Platonov is an exceptional writer. This was confirmed for me not just by Happy Moscow but by an unexpected encounter with his retellings of old folk yarns in the new Penguin anthology Russian Magic Tales. These were the very last things he wrote, when he could no longer get his original stories past the censor: kid’s stuff, you might think.

In fact, here his gift is at least as evident as it is in his novels. With the exception of Pushkin’s folk tales, most of the other yarns in the book are fairly straightforward retellings. Platonov however enters deep into the world of folktale and myth, and while still operating within strict confines, reanimates them with the same poignant, sad wisdom as his novels. At his hands, these hoary old chestnuts become new and strange and startling again – and that, surely, is the mark of a genius.

A version of this post previously appeared at RIA Novosti.
Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com.

4 thoughts on “Andrei Platonov – The Good Stalinist

  1. Trusting that most here would reject the ideological claptrap about how great artistic talent is diminished by politics (think Pound), questions do remain. How does one explain how sublime literary craftmanship, an uncommonly empathetic emotional anguish and eyes-wide-open realism with siding with mass murder? It’s as if Beethoven’s 9th had been inspired by a visit to Dachau and was remembered because it successfully captured both the unspeakable horror and a respect for the good intentions.

  2. It’s a good point. I’m not sure how much Platonov would have known about the extent of Stalin’s crimes, given the lack of information available to Soviet citizens at the time. Meanwhile The Foundation Pit and Chevengur (his two greatest novels) were (I believe) written in the 1920s, before the Great Terror.

    At the same time, Platonov died of TB contracted from his son who had returned from the camps so at the end of his life he knew quite a bit.

    There’s no strident advocacy of direct Stalin policies in the texts, Stalin appears more as a remote, fatherly benign figure- much as he did in propaganda. Faith in Stalin is expressed naively by the characters, in almost peasant-religious terms.

    I’m reminded of the bizarre personal letters Bukharin wrote to Stalin when he was accused of many things he didn’t do. By the end of his imprisonment/trial he had more or less decided he had to die, even if the case against him was a monstrous lie, even if communism had gone astray, because ultimately it would all turn out alright. In that regard, what Bukharin and Platonov and others clung to was a religious/millenarian dream they had converted to in their youths.

    The alternative was to accept that everything they had suffered for was in vain- which was, of course, pretty much the case.

  3. This was a great read thank you Daniel, I find this territory fascinating – art relating to discredited doctrines. On the same topic, are there any truly decent books written by a German in support of uncle adolf? I’ve read a few soldiers accounts (guy sajer’s the forgotten soldier is a particularly good one) but these were all written after the event. A Woman in Berlin is also excellent but are there any more literary publications written in the 1930’s I wonder?

  4. I can think of two Nazi sympathizers who are held in high regard as writers if not as men – Celine and Knut Hamsun, the latter of whom won the Nobel prize. Neither man was German, however.