The literature of the Russians polarizes a situation endemic in their society—a situation found in other societies too no doubt, but far more dramatic and clear-cut in Russia, and richly and variously symbolized in one work of art after another. In Russian consciousness the craving for order, certainty, propriety, satisfaction, pravda is perpetually at war with the enormous natural leverage of inertia, indifference, absurdity, incongruity—and hilarity at the spectacle of all these disheveled and joyous things. Nowhere has reality more naturally declared itself as an immense bad joke. Very well then, in the name of God, the people, the tsar, the party, the solidarity of the proletariat—away with reality! If it won’t do, we must have something better: truth must be restructured in correct form. In Gorky’s peculiar A Confession, the confrontation is cast as the need to replace bogoiskatelstvo (the quest after God) with bogostroitelstvo (the building of God).

Since Peter the Great’s day it has been the same. What more Russian enterprise than to erect a gigantic classical city in a featureless swamp? It is the same impulse as that which keeps the inmates of Gulag in Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich toiling away on the construction of a Workers’ Palace of Socialism. In the same tradition are Catherine’s Potemkin villages and her liberal “constitution.” The genius of the great nineteenth-century Russian literature feeds on the paradox, grows from it, adapts itself to it. In Pushkin’s greatest poem, The Bronze Horseman, the central symbol is Falconet’s vast statue of the tsar crushing the swamp serpent under the hooves of his horse: meantime the floods rise and drown or ruin the lives of the poor people who actually have to inhabit the place. War and Peace is an artificial construction wonderful in its transparency and cunning, wholly removed from the norms of Russian life while at the same time suggesting a panoramic illusion of it true to the last detail.

By substituting a positive for a negative censorship the revolution destroyed this balance of inspiration entirely. It is difficult to overestimate the impoverishment involved. The writer now has to be wholly on the side of “order”—which has assumed a comprehensively ideological and tyrannic form—or of “disorder,” which has no choice but to appear in the form of a negative or counterideology. The art of being on both sides, practiced to such magical effect, and perhaps consciously, by Pushkin in The Bronze Horseman, is now an impossibility. Tolstoy had this double vision too, for while everything he wrote is haunted by his unending search for a rational and moral justification of life, his art gives us at the same time the life that exists for its own sake. The one has no power without the other: the body needs the head, and the two have been separated by the revolution, with its claim to have ended the search and found the correct solution. All the great Russian writers were searchers in the most radical sense; their art depends on it—as also on the impossibility of finding what they sought.

The paradox drove Gogol mad, for with him it was particularly painful: his art luxuriated in the world of dead souls but aspired passionately toward the world of living souls which should succeed it, and crown his oeuvre. In spite of Nabokov’s arguments for a wholly aesthetic Gogol, most of Gogol’s readers realize how much his power depends on spiritual unhappiness, the terrible unhappiness for something other than the skuchni svet, the grotesque, absurd, boring, comic, and contingent limbo which he so brilliantly sets before us.

Oblomov would not be a great novel if its author were wholly, so to speak, on the side of Oblomov. Of course Goncharov is not—he knows Oblomov won’t do—but then, Oblomov is Oblomov. Like the hopeless couple at the end of Chekhov’s “Lady with the Dog,” all these great works of art depend on the idea of a solution, somewhere, that will, that must, be found. Perhaps Dostoevsky’s Alyosha would have found it? Perhaps. But the authors of the great Russian classics are all “Enchanted Wanderers,” like the hero of the story that is Leskov’s masterpiece. Their art depends upon it, and when the revolution required their successors to hail the solution that had been found and to celebrate its achievements, there was no precedent, no way in which the genius of traditional Russian art could respond.

And so it fell apart. Artists who by temperament were of the middle, in the old classical sense, had to commit themselves one way or another. Andrei Platonov, born Andrei Klimentov in 1899 in the provincial town of Voronezh, was one of the few who attempted at least not to do so. As a result he remains a curiously insubstantial figure, as shadowy to Russian readers as to ourselves, for not much of his work is available in the Soviet Union. His facility, his large and varied output, his encyclopedic curiosity and curious imagination—these remind one of Leskov, the nineteenth-century writer with whom he has the nearest affinity. His prose is indeterminate, richly crumpled, a haze of words, whose quality is suggested by the title of his early book of poems—The Blue Depth. And even more than with Leskov translation can only be a kind of paraphrase. My Russian is barely up to him, but I take in enough to grasp that the highly original texture of his stories and his one “novel”—Chevengur—is almost bound to appear merely sloppy and formless in a conscientious translation. In his rendering of Chevengur Anthony Olcott has done manfully, and comes closest of any of the Platonov translators to an equivalent of the author’s atmosphere and personality. The first and best section of the work, a vision of childhood and old age in the industrial suburbs of Voronezh, is particularly well done.


Platonov’s father was a railway worker; the young Platonov’s mind had a unique relation with the world of objects and artifacts, the onrush of industrialization in Russia which had begun and continued without reference to Bolshevism. He sees and records the last pastoral relation of men to machinery, and the intimate, almost holy terms on which simple men lived with locomotives, screw threads, switchgears. Such things were part of the currency of the spirit and its eccentricities—a leading character in Chevengur spends a long time making a wooden frying pan which actually works, if not heated too much. This attitude to technology as part of the general but somehow saving and human madness of life is as different from the standard Soviet line—in which writing is used to extol and catalogue its achievements—as it is from the purposeful romanticism about modern inventions of writers like Kipling.

Platonov had remarkable gifts; he could have become a scientist and technician himself. In 1921 he wrote a pamphlet on the virtues of electrification and by 1924 he was responsible for a highly successful program of land reclamation and irrigation in the Voronezh region. At that point he seems to have given up writing. His success led to his transfer as engineer in charge of similar projects in the Tambov region, where everything went wrong and he fell foul of the Soviet bureaucracy. He managed to get to Moscow with his family and took up writing again.

The title of one of his stories, “Makar the Doubtful,” shows not only just why Leopold Averbakh, the notorious head of RAPP, the Union of Proletarian Writers, denounced its author as a “petty anarchisticating metaphysician,” but—more importantly—why such stories are doomed to a nebulous condition, as if among the shades of Virgil or Dante, in the great perspective of Russian literature. In seeking to hesitate, to draw back, to find excuses, they forfeit the old spaciousness with which Russian writing had things both ways. As Brecht observed, to shun ideology in our time is not to escape it. Perhaps the worst service the Soviets have done to literature is not so much to produce a great many dreary conformist writers but to have compelled other and much more talented writers to be against them, in a manner that can be equally sterilizing and stunting to the growth of genius.

It is certainly true, and perhaps for this reason, that although Platonov’s talent was obviously very great indeed, he never produced anything that could be called a masterpiece. Chevengur, although his longest, most ambitious work and his only novel, is, as Anthony Olcott says, really no more than a series of sketches, linked by the same kind of ideological antisymbolism, though of a much less elaborate kind, that Pasternak used in Dr. Zhivago. Chevengur is a village or settlement in the midst of revolutionary turmoil, in which every kind of crazy Utopian impulse is acted out. The opportunities for satire are rather too limitless, and to call it, as the blurb does, “a novel of overwhelming power” is merely to fall back on the kind of cliché appropriate to lack of form mixed with odd goings-on. Sections of it were printed piecemeal in magazines of the Twenties, during lulls in the anti-Platonov campaign, but it cannot be said that its publication as a whole does more than add bits of the same on to the bits that were already around.

In a famous poem Mandelstam imagines his post-revolutionary age as a beast with a broken spine, dragging itself along and looking around at the crooked tracks made by its own paws. The image suggests something already maimed in what might have been the prose masterpieces of post-revolutionary society (there is nothing maimed about the poetic masterpieces of Mandelstam and Akhmatova). But it is true that Zamyatin and Bulgakov, even Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, exhibit in their work a fatal quality of attitudes preordained as well as prejudged: they know how they will be regarded and by whom, as they know what kind of protest they want to make. The more open and ambitious the work, the more predictable before it gets started: in some fatal way it is dead before it begins to live. There seems a realization of this undercover hopelessness in Platonov’s letter to Gorky about the possible publication of the whole of Chevengur. “They say that in the novel the revolution is incorrectly portrayed, that the entire work will even be understood as counterrevolutionary.”


In his brief introduction to the Collected Works (which omit Chevengur but include a play, The Barrel Organ, and a long story, “The Foundation Pit,” as well as all the shorter pieces), Joseph Brodsky takes the view that Platonov was systematically creating a language and philosophy of the absurd, comparable to that of Beckett and Kafka, as a kind of deliberate antidote to the “Newspeak” of the Soviets and their writer spokesmen.

Platonov speaks of a nation which in a sense has become a victim of its own language; or, more precisely, he speaks of this language itself—which turns out to be capable of generating a fictive world and then falling into grammatical dependency on it.

If Brodsky is right, the thoroughgoing logic of a “counter-language” seems all too typical of Russia today, and the final polarization of that order/disorder awareness on which the nineteenth-century writers balanced and throve. In Kafka and Beckett, after all, the absurd or reductive nature of experience is shown all the more effectively by a meticulous precision of language. Platonov shows signs of wanting to oppose to the jargon of the revolution, which bears no resemblance whatever to actual experience, a kind of counter-jargon, or “inverted language” as Brodsky calls it, which, just because it is the opposite of the official description of the socialist paradise, should logically give an accurate picture of it.

Brodsky praises Platonov here for a kind of absoluteness, where his fellow independents—Pilnyak, Olesha, Zamyatin—were merely playing about with language in an effort to give it new sorts of freedom and remain outside the conformity of Bolshevik officialese. Be that as it may, the inverted language of Platonov does unfortunately seem to have the same drawbacks, the same tendency to monotony and ritualized mumbo jumbo, as its official Soviet counterpart. But of course this is unfair to Platonov, because, as Brodsky points out, his language is virtually untranslatable, and all that emerges from the demotic confusion are mostly scenes and exchanges of satiric effect that cannot seem other than predictable. This, for instance, from “The City of Gradov”:

Shmakov observed, and not for the first time, that marvellous phenomenon, that man has very little free time for personal life—this has been replaced by governmental and socially useful activities. And this is as it should be; in this is contained the nobility and greatness of our epoch of transition!

The excellent translation of Chevengur makes its points more humorous as well as more bitter. A revolutionary, known as the Jap, “lived in socialism and had thus long ago grown unaccustomed to the calamitous unease for the defenseless and beloved” which ordinary people show when they are wondering if their mothers or brothers are still alive. A fellow professional suggests they should “organize some sorrow” because the flavor of communism would be improved by a bit of salt, like everything else. In “The Foundation Pit” an immense hole is being dug to house the workers. Critics have compared the idea with Dead Souls, but this is surely inaccurate: Dead Souls is not a satirical work, and Platonov—like Zamyatin in We—has no alternative but to exploit a grotesque idea unilaterally and for its own sake.

The remarkable thing is that he got as much published as he did. In the confused years at the beginning of collectivization polemic about the purposes of literature was still vigorous, and in the early 1930s Platonov found supporters on the board of the journal Literary Critic, among whom was George Lukács. They published a couple of his stories, offering them as raw material for a theoretical argument about “the positive hero” and “the cult of optimism.” Another story, “For the Future Good,” slipped into print somehow, the tale of a picaresque journey through the new collectives which, according to Yevtushenko, inspired Stalin to write “Scum” across his copy. To have angered the monster did not require a masterpiece however.

Platonov wrote on, going back to journalism, foreign politics, travel sketches of the new Soviet central Asia. In 1938 his only son was arrested and sent to a camp, but Sholokhov—of all people—helped pull strings to get him released. During the war Platonov served as a correspondent with Red Star, ending up gravely ill with TB. During the last days of Stalin he was in a desperate position, unable to publish anything, but Sholokhov again came to the rescue and gave him the job of turning Bashkir folk tales into Russian. These proved an enormous success, so much so that they were retranslated back into Bashkir, an episode that might feature in one of Platonov’s own stories. He finally succumbed to TB in 1951, and after the thaw much of his work was republished and became popular; even Chevengur was about to come out, as Anthony Olcott tells us, but Platonov’s growing reputation in the West barred that and put him in eclipse again. He remains an author whose influence on others, whose atmosphere of humor and fantasy disseminated through a dead time, are probably ultimately more important than his own individual status as a writer.

Isaac Babel at his best is certainly a greater writer: here the overused term powerful would not be misapplied. Partly because of his own disappearance in the purges, and what he called the “style of silence” which preceded it, he avoided in his own way the deadly necessity of being “for” or “against.” There is as little satire in his stories as in those of Gogol and Chekhov. Like Tolstoy at Sevastopol he might have said (only he would not have) “my hero is the truth.” But of course he never tried to be objective. One clue to the impact and resonance of his stories is that he never makes up his mind—it is his style that seems to commit itself emotionally to all the excitements of the movement which he is in the thick of; in the same sense in which Joyce’s style in “The Dead” commits itself to Irish romanticism, or Scott Fitzgerald’s, in The Great Gatsby, to the tones in which ambition dreams of the fascinations of the rich.

That kind of stylistic collusion with what the narrative is also seeing steadily and whole is the trademark of a great storyteller, for it means the writer has retained the romanticism essential to life, and Babel was a great romantic. The interest of this new collection is that it brings together stories and sketches—including some very early ones—not elsewhere available, and also the rough diary kept by Babel when he was a correspondent and political attaché with Budenny’s army in the Ukraine during the Polish war. From these jottings Red Cavalry was born (a misleadingly translated title, for Konarmiya merely means “cavalry”) and we can see how Babel retained there not only real experiences but real names, like that of Diakov, the swaggering Cossack commander with beautiful boots and breeches.

As the Soviet ice age hardened Babel had of necessity to become a practiced dissimulator, and one myth he sedulously fostered was that he owed everything to that grand old man Gorky, who had discovered, encouraged, and inspired him. In fact, as the translator Nicholas Stroud is able to show in his introduction, Babel’s first stories were published in Kiev three years before he met Gorky. Furthermore Babel later pretended that he had published nothing during the years of war and revolution, because the journal Novaya Zhizn—“New Life”—in which many of his sketches had appeared, was closed down in 1919 on Lenin’s specific orders. Its founder Gorky had himself written too much anti-Bolshevik material into it, in articles which have ever since been suppressed in the Soviet Union.

These forgotten stories, many of them hurried memoranda or rapid impressions designed for the fleeting life of a revolutionary newsprint, have been translated in an effective way that retains the extempore flavor of the original. As a story, and as showing what Babel already could do, the first, “Old Shloime,” is undoubtedly the best. An old Jew lives a vegetable existence with his son and daughter-in-law and their family. When, under the growing threat of persecution, they decide to settle elsewhere he commits suicide. That is all, but Tolstoy himself could not have done it better. There is no trace of sentimentality in it, and no sign of what Tolstoy himself disliked above everything else, a story “done for effect.” It is very moving.

This Issue

May 3, 1979