The Foundation Pit, Andrey Platonov (trans. Robert & Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson). NYRB Classics. 208pp, $14.95.
A good Sovietologist has shelves packed with books like Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism 1917-1923, Science and Industrialization in the USSR, and Soviet Economic Structure and Performance. However, Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit confronts us with the possibility that we have all the wrong books. We might have read the slogans spilled from Stalin’s mouth and splashed across Pravda’s pages, we might have analyzed the Soviet statistics on farm production and industrial output during the era of industrialization and collectivization, but we’ve been like children who know the alphabet but are unable to assemble words. Platonov’s The Foundation Pit is the primer we’ve been waiting for. And for those non-Sovietologists among us, prepare to be rewarded with a fable of modern humanity’s struggles to reconcile its imperfect soul with the science of industry.
Born in Vorenzh, 400 miles south of Moscow, in 1899, Andrey Platonov came of age during the chaotic years of the Russian Revolution. Though he pursued studies in electrical engineering, when 1921 brought drought and famine he went to work as a specialist in land reclamation, overseeing hundreds of well- and pond-digging projects, as well as the draining of thousands of acres of swampland.
As is the case with many Russians, his sensibilities were as poetic as they were scientific. Platonov increasingly turned to writing as he endeavored to reconcile his idealistic beliefs in the Communist movement with the brutal policies of the Bolshevik government, and after moving to Moscow in 1926 to work as an engineer he established himself on the Soviet literary scene. While his early stories were published and even praised by Maxim Gorky, one of Socialist Realism’s founders, many of his subsequent works drew harsh criticism and were labeled subversive and heavily edited by censors. Such is the case of his novel Soul; others, like Happy Moscow and The Foundation Pit, remained unpublished until the onset of the glasnost era in the late 1980s.
Although other novels from this era of Soviet history (such as Olesha’s Envy or Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita) tackle similar themes as those found in The Foundation Pit, Platonov’s work stands out for its portrayals of individuals trying to reconcile their Russian souls with their new Soviet identities. And whereas Olesha and Bulgakov write about Soviet themes with Russian prose, Platonov employees Sovietese to expose the disparity between Communism’s noble goals and its ruthless Bolshevik reality. The very Soviet narrative voice permeates even down to the smallest of moments and most minor of characters. (In one of many examples, village women on an evening walk find that “their feet stepped with a power of greed and corporeal torsos had broadened and rounded out, like reservoirs of the future.”)
The Foundation Pit is a singular literary manifestation of a people in the midst of a struggle to create new identities for themselves and their nation. American readers in search of the elusive “Great American Novel” will appreciate all that Platonov achieves in this sort of work. Additionally, The Foundation Pit is, at heart, Platonov’s very personal statement about disillusionment with one’s country and what that disillusionment means for one’s daily life. Contemporary readers of all nationalities will probably find such disillusionment achingly familiar.
During his futile attempts to publish The Foundation Pit, Platonov continued to revise the novel and no less than four texts have come to light since the opening of the literary archives: two from the manuscript department of Pushkinsky Dom in Petersburg (one manuscript and one typescript); one typescript from the personal archive of Platonov’s daughter Maria in the Russian Academy of Sciences; and one typescript in the Russian State Archive in Moscow. All editions prior to this new release by NYRB Classics were based on the edition from Russian Academy of Sciences.
However, experts agree that it is the typescript in Pushkinsky Dom that best reflects Platonov’s final intentions, and it is on that manuscript that Robert & Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson have based their new translation. Even those who have read the previous English translation from Harvill Press should find much that is noteworthy to this NYRB edition. Included are two handwritten pages reproduced from the Pushkinsky Dom manuscript (complete with Platonov’s cross-outs, marginal notes, and insertions), and the chief differences between the two editions, primarily deletions from the first thirty pages, are explained in detail in an appendix.
Most importantly, Chandler and Meerson have taken into account Russian scholarship in the ten years since the publication of Harvill’s edition and have made significant changes in word choice based on that scholarship and their own deeper understanding of the text. For example, in the afterword Chandler explains the challenges faced when they translated the voice of The Foundation Pit’s Zhachev’s, a cripple and resentful outcast from Soviet society. In Russian, Zhachev’s speech is quite threatening, yet he uses words that translate innocuously in English to mean, “earn” and “receive.” While in the previous translation, Chandler opted to make Zhachev’s speech sound less stilted and render the meanings of “earn” and “receive” idiomatically, in this edition, the translators have returned to the literal meaning. What in the previous edition had read,
Or do you fancy a lathering from the whole of the working class? Come here then—let me do this job!
in this edition reads,
Or do you fancy earning from the whole of the proletariat? Come over here then! You’ll receive as if from the class!
While the latest translation reads more awkwardly, the Soviet-speak of that era shines through in a brutal way all-too-consistent with the collectivization policies that concern Platonov.
Indeed, brutal language is the cornerstone of The Foundation Pit. Unlike the romantically inclined omniscient narration of Tolstoy, Platonov managed to poise his omniscient narrative voice between the spiritual and the Soviet. In English Platonov’s voice can be jarring and awkward; readers might even wonder over the translators’ English proficiency. For example, Pit opens with our hero, Voshchev, losing his job for being too much intelligentsia and not enough proletariat.
On the day of the thirtieth anniversary of his private life, Voshchev was made redundant from the small machine factory where he obtained the means for his own existence. His dismissal notice stated that he was being removed from production on account of weakening strength in him and thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labor.
Every nation has its public jargon. Where bailout, stimulus package, and Joe the Plumber may be read as code for anger, recession, and average American, in the jargon of early Soviet history, anniversaries zapped births of their privacy. “Obtained the means for his own existence” replaced the ownership of “had a job,” and “removed from production on account of weakening strength and thoughtfulness” was Soviet-speak for being too much of a thinker and too little of a productive worker. Within a few pages readers will acclimate themselves to the rhythm and nuances of this Bolshevikized Russian—its muscular “can-do” attitude, its bullying force—and find that it encapsulates the Stalinist era and adds a complexity to Platanov’s subtext that is difficult to achieve in a translation.
Voshchev ventures into the Soviet countryside to find a way in which he can fit his meager life into the greater societal machine. In the dead of night he finds a field being mowed, not for crops but to construct a tower that will house peasants from a nearby village. In spite of not having the right work papers, Voshchev is taken on as part of the work crew, and though he soon proves an inadequate ditch-digger he is assigned other tasks (such as watching over corpses in the nearby village). Not all are as fortunate as Voshchev: his fellow worker Kozlov continues to dig until he becomes ones of the pit’s victims.
Dead bodies and references to death accumulate faster than piles of dirt. In one of many twists of dark Platonovian humor, the local village peasants rise up to protest the confiscation of their coffins, one of the most valuable items they each own. The coffins are grudgingly returned, then Misha, the bear who labors in the local blacksmith shop, denounces a former master as a kulak—a wealthy peasant who resists collectivization—and sets in motion a purge of all kulaks. The digging crew is pulled from the pit to build rafts, upon which all the kulaks are set adrift down a Styx-like river toward the sea, and Misha falls into a deranged and furious pace of work that destroys the very iron he is supposed to mold.
These fable-like elements blend naturally into The Foundation Pit’s plot. For instance when a mother dies, her orphaned daughter, Nastya, is taken up by Chiklin, one of the pit’s managers. After Chiklin brings Nastya to the work camp, he brings another manager, Prushevsky, back to see the mother’s 32-year old dead body. He then entombs her Christ-style with stones and bricks in her home. When Prushevsky questions why Chiklin is doing such a thing, Chiklin replies,
“What do you mean—why? . . . The dead are people too.”
“But she doesn’t need anything.”
“True—but I need her. Let at least some worth be retained from a person. When I see the grief of the dead, or their bones—that’s when I sense why I live.”
Nastya spews slogans of the Communist regime of which even Stalin would be proud. She so endears herself to one of the pit’s more enthusiastic workers, Safronov (he too becomes a casualty of project), that he declares it is for children such as Nastya that they are working.
Here, however, rests the substance of creation and the aim and goal of every directive, a small person destined to become the universal element. That is why it is essential we finish the foundation pit as suddenly as we can, so that the home may originate more quickly and childhood personnel may be shielded from ill wind and ailment by a stone wall.
It is no coincidence that we are reminded of the stone wall that now entombs Nastya’s mother. And how does our hero and the novel’s spiritual guide, Voshchev, see Nastya?
Voshchev felt the little girl’s hand and looked all of her up and down, just as he had looked in childhood at an angle on the church wall; this weak body, abandoned without kin among people, would one day feel the warming current of the meaning of life, and her mind would see a time like the first primordial day.
Nastya’s death and final internment by Chiklin in the now abandoned foundation pit ends the novel, leaving no doubt of Platonov’s feelings towards Stalin and his mad rule. The reader is left to ponder, like Voshchev, how so much death could be warranted in the effort to build a better life.
Maria Platonova says of her father in her introduction to the 1996 Harvill Press edition of The Foundation Pit that “as a writer Platonov was above crude ideology” and, as such, his work should be read in a larger context than simply anti-Sovietism. The Foundation Pit would surely have sunk into literary obscurity if this were not case, although Robert Chandler replies in his afterword to the NYRB Classics edition that while “Platonov’s deepest concerns may always have been more philosophical than political . . . , The Foundation Pit is located in a very particular historical and political context—that of Stalin’s drive towards rapid industrialization and Total Collectivization.” Platanov might have been spurred to write by the horrors of collectivization, but ultimately it is both the universal theme of humanity’s quest for purpose and the very Soviet theme of class conflict that vibrate through every page. The Foundation Pit transcends the era in which it was written, a feat that makes it an invaluable work of literature.
In Platonov’s spare 150-pages every word counts, not only for the story and ideas that they cumulatively convey but because they give a voice to a brutal era of history, a voice that cannot be captured by dry, academic studies filled with names, dates, places, and statistics. From the mouths of his characters down to the very descriptions of an evening walk, Platonov twists Soviet jargon until naught but irony and dark humor surround the promise of national greatness. Little surprise that The Foundation Pit was kept buried in Russian archives. But what better time to celebrate its emergence than during what will hopefully be, in the face of recent economic and political upheavals, a time of worldwide national rebirths. Let us hope that our slogans will not prove as meaningless as the Soviets’.
Karen Vanuska is a freelance writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a regular contributor to Open Letters: A Monthly Arts and Literature Review. Her fiction has appeared in UC Irvine’s Faultline and her creative non-fiction in a recent issue of The Battered Suitcase.
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Karen Vanuska
Read more articles about books from NYRB Classics