How an Enthusiast of Soviet Socialism Fell Afoul of the Authorities

The Roman god Janus was possessed of two faces, one pointing toward the future and one looking backward into the past, and it is tempting to imagine that these faces must also have worn contrasting expressions, one brighter and hopeful, the other rueful or even aghast. Supposing you knew such a person, how would you go about introducing him? Which of the two faces—enthusiastic or downcast—should be presented first? The problem poses itself immediately when it comes to “Chevengur,” Andrei Platonov’s strange tale of a Communist peasant utopia. Written in 1927 and 1928, when Platonov was in his late twenties, it both represents his high-spirited début as a socialist novelist and reads like a dissident’s political suicide note. And, in the split perspective afforded by the book’s contradictory point of view, it’s possible to see both the initial construction and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet project as overlapping features of the same landscape, in “the deserted shelterlessness of the steppe.”

The novel’s (very few) first readers were understandably perplexed. On the one hand, here was “an honest attempt to portray the beginning of a communist society,” as Platonov described his efforts in a letter to his powerful colleague Maxim Gorky, in 1929, in a bid to secure official approval for the book’s publication. Platonov seems to have sincerely thought that his novel depicted the advent of Soviet socialism in a favorable enough light. What authority could take offense at his depiction of a group of peasant citizens invoking collectivization as their salvation from the hunger and toil that constitute the only life they or their forebears have known? On the other hand, here was a work in which the regime’s newfangled jargon (“communism,” “the proletariat”), however gamely deployed by the unlettered tenants of the open steppe, betrays a welter of confusion, privation, and violence that rivals anything in the bad old pre-Bolshevik days. “Whatever you may have wished,” Gorky replied to Platonov, “you have portrayed reality in a lyrico-satirical light that is, of course, unacceptable to our censorship.” Gorky was right. Platonov’s novel was set up in type, but, at the last minute, the publisher scuttled the project.

Illustration by Rose Wong

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Gorky’s neologism “lyrico-satirical” is a fair characterization of Platonov’s style in “Chevengur” and elsewhere, but it also comes across like one of those references to apparent impossibilities which one encounters in reading about quantum physics: How can light be both particle and wave? In literature, anyway, the lyrical suggests a wave of praise and celebration, whereas the satirical indicates particles of jeering condemnation. The authorities, unable to get a fix on Platonov’s attitude, declined to publish “Chevengur” during his lifetime. In fact, this black herald of the dawn of the Soviet experiment didn’t appear in Russia until 1988, in the fading dusk of the U.S.S.R. Now, in the third decade of the twenty-first century, a new English-language translation of the novel, by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler (NYRB Classics), gives us another chance to trap the mercury of a prose style that seems intended both (lyrically) to stir one’s heart and (satirically) to freeze one’s blood, in the same escaping moment of history. Like “lyrico-satirical,” the term “history” is a word that can paper over unsolvable ambiguities.

Platonov’s career was a victim of his times, but, had he lived a generation earlier, he would probably never have become a writer. Born in 1899, in Voronezh, three hundred miles south of Moscow, he was the son of a watchmaker’s daughter and a metalworker employed on the railways. The eldest of eleven children, he was put to work at the age of thirteen and became an insatiable autodidact, reading deeply in philosophy. For working-class young men like Platonov, the Bolshevik Revolution opened up huge vistas of opportunity, not merely for self-betterment but for the creation of a new society. By the time he turned twenty, he was studying engineering and publishing articles and idealistic poems in the local press, at one point as a journalist embedded with the Red Army. When drought brought famine to the region, in 1921, he decided that his engineering skills were needed more than his literary ones and set writing aside to work on the digging of wells and on land-reclamation projects. It was not until 1927 that he began publishing again, drawing his preoccupations and even his style from his close contact with the Russian hinterland.

“Old provincial towns have tumbledown outskirts, and people come straight from nature to live there,” Platonov writes at the start of “Chevengur. ” Already apparent is the studied and graceful clumsiness for which his prose is renowned. How can twentieth-century subjects of the tsar, historical rather than natural beings, come “straight from nature” to live anywhere? Evoking the naïveté of what Marx called “rural idiocy,” the phrase summons up a condition of ignorance and illiteracy so deep and unchanging as to encourage hardscrabble people to accept their pinched conditions as natural, in much the same way that a nonhuman animal might take for granted the horns on its head or the spots of its coat. In the next sentence, “A man appears, with a keen-eyed face that has been worn to an extreme of sadness, a man who can fix up or equip anything but who has himself lived through life unequipped.”

The man is one Zahkar Pavlovich, the focus of the first (more or less pre-revolutionary) section of “Chevengur.” Based in part on Platonov’s father, he is a barely literate handyman who, in his love of neat and dry machinery, as opposed to the moist and messy operations of mere nature, has unwittingly been dreaming of socialism throughout his five decades of life, and is therefore delighted to get a job stoking train engines: “Zakhar Pavlovich respected coal, wrought iron, sleeping raw materials, and half-manufactured items of all kinds, but he truly loved and sensed only the finished artifacts into which man had been transformed through labor and that would live on further with a life of their own.”

In “Chevengur,” the great revolutionary events of the late teens and early nineteen-twenties—the various ephemeral triumphs of history over nature—typically take place in the misty background of the cascading story. For us, as for the book’s characters, it’s often difficult to tell when, exactly, things shift from the end of tsarism to the eruption of the Russian civil war to the advent of war communism under Lenin. At any rate, Zakhar soon takes under his wing, as a fellow railway worker, our true protagonist, Sasha Dvanov, a young man who, with the heroic simplicity characteristic of Platonov’s people, seems to have taken literally Marx’s dictum that revolutions are “the locomotives of history.” As post-revolutionary factions multiply, Sasha, an orphan of the hungry land, decides that he should assign himself to one political movement or another. He and Zakhar set about “looking for the most serious party, in order to join it at once,” ideally one “that had no incomprehensible program and where everything they said was clear and true.”

It’s possible to glimpse a good deal of Platonov’s singular tone and method in a scene in which Sasha and Zakhar, frustrated that no faction will disclose “precisely how and when earthly bliss would dawn,” hastily barter off their political allegiances with the representatives of various parties:

Some replied that happiness was a complex artifact and that man’s aim lay not in happiness but in the zealous fulfillment of historical laws. And others said that happiness was a matter of out-and-out struggle, which would last eternally. . . .

From the next party they heard that man was such a magnificent and greedy being that it was strange even to think about sating him with happiness—that would be the end of the world.

“Just what we need!” said Zakhar Pavlovich.

Behind the end door in the corridor was the very last party, with the very longest name. There was only one gloomy man sitting there; the others had gone off to exercise their power.

“What do you want?”

“We both want to join. Will it be the end of everything soon?”

“Socialism, you mean?” the man misunderstood. “A year from now. Today we’re merely occupying institutions.”

“Then put our names down,” said Zakhar Pavlovich joyfully.

The party with the very longest name is none other than the Russian Social-Democratic Party of Bolsheviks, or Lenin’s Communist Party. Sizing up its lone provincial representative, Zakhar thinks: “Probably he stood for the very cleverest of powers; within a year this power would either construct the whole world once and for all or else kick up a futility to exhaust even the heart of a child.” Like dozens of other passages in the austere but overspilling world of “Chevengur,” this one displays the way that Platonov’s fiction pulls in different directions at once. The earnestness with which the characters take revolutionary slogans at face value can quickly send their aspirations for earthly bliss sliding toward sarcasm, even as the general collapse or razing of language (“ ‘Socialism, you mean?’ the man misunderstood”) accompanies the raising of a new social structure. And, all the while, “the heart of a child” is perpetually preserved in the lyricism of the prose, as a sort of incorruptible judge of the antic, grim, and unrelenting proceedings of the story.

Before long, Sasha, in his forlorn wanderlust, has split up with Zakhar and fallen in with a fellow-Bolshevik named Stepan Kopionkin. Addressing each other as “Comrade,” they set out across the post-revolutionary landscape, surveying peasant life and ultimately reaching, by separate routes, a place named Chevengur, whose inhabitants are rumored to have swapped stark famine for the teeming abundance of Communism. Sasha “liked the word Chevengur. It sounded like the enticing hum of an unknown country.”

Sasha and Stepan embark on their quest with the civil war “evident all around them, in shards and splinters of the nation’s possessions: dead horses, carts, brigands’ coats and pillows.” If the first part of the novel might be described as a bildungsroman, the second is a kind of bloody picaresque, shot through with allusions to “Don Quixote,” though the Cervantine comedy is registered less in laughter than in grimaces. Stepan, a Quixote to Sasha’s Sancho Panza, rides a dreary cart horse named—whether lyrically or satirically on Platonov’s part—Strength of the Proletariat, and the tumbling incidents that ensue are hardly less absurd in Platonov’s narration than they are in the bare enumeration of them: a near-fatal run-in with anarchist raiders; a parley with a man who keeps a cockroach as a pet; an overnight stay with a peasant named Pashintsev, who has single-handedly defended the Revolution, so he says, against White, or tsarist, soldiers, using homemade armor and dud grenades.

Marx famously said that all world-historical events happen twice, first as tragedy and then as farce. But if you are short on time you can combine the two and stage a farce every bit as violent as the fifth act of a Jacobean tragedy: “Kopionkin saw brigands and members of the White Guard as enemies of minor importance, unworthy of his personal fury, and he killed with the same scrupulous everyday diligence with which a peasant woman weeds her millet. He fought accurately but without wasting time, without stopping or dismounting, unconsciously preserving his own feelings for further hope and movement.”

The bumptious and harrowing music of the novel’s first two sections is already enough to make “Chevengur” one of the more amazing works of twentieth-century fiction. In the third and final part, however, the work becomes less an ordinary novel, of whatever extraordinary kind, than a different genre of writing entirely. It evolves into a kind of utopia, not in the usual sense of a work depicting a world better than our own but in the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson’s sense of portraying a society undeniably and radically other than the one we know.

Once Sasha and Stepan have at last crossed the corpse-littered emptiness of southern Russia and reached Chevengur, they confront a society that simultaneously flouts and confirms the basic precepts of Marxism: one of hunger and leisure, where work is disowned in the name of the laboring masses. Nobody in Chevengur, whose residents proclaim that they are establishing Communism, appears to have so much as consulted “The Communist Manifesto.” “Does everyone here have to read Karl Marx?” asks Stepan of a Chevengurian by the name of Chepurny. Not at all, Chepurny answers: “I haven’t read him either, not in all my born days. I’ve just picked up a little at rallies and demonstrations—enough for agitation and propaganda. And there’s really no need to read anything at all. In the old days, people read and wrote, but they didn’t do any goddamn living.” Despite all this, life in Chevengur makes the reality of the proletariat—of the dispossessed as a collective entity with the power to make their passive abjection into the active subject of historical change—as palpable a phenomenon as it has ever been in modern literature. Here, Sasha, melding in his own way with the masses, trades his status as the novel’s main character for the point of view of Chepurny:

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