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Andrei Platonov 1899–-1951

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(Pseudonym of Andrei Klimentov; also transliterated Andrey, Andrej) Russian novelist, short story writer, poet, dramatist, folklorist, essayist, and critic.

Platonov is best known for his short stories and novels that demonstrate his disgust at the misguided application of Marxist principles to Soviet peasant communities in the decades after the 1917 Russian Revolution. The ironic and often bizarre portrayals of how Communist utopian ideals were crushed beneath bureaucratic and dictatorial Soviet policies resulted in many of Platonov's works being banned or censored during his lifetime. His writing enjoyed some posthumous recognition after their publication in the 1960s, and there has been a resurgence of interest in his work after the late 1980s with the rewriting of Soviet literary history. Even so, Platonov remains something of an obscure figure in Russia and abroad. However, champions of his work consider him to be a central voice in the repressionist Stalinist era, praising his stories' innovative use of puns to express ontological concerns, modernistic elevation of peasant speech and dialogue, anarchist sentiments, and depiction of suffering under a machine-like bureaucracy. While acknowledging the inaccessible nature of his fiction, critics today find in Platonov an uncompromisingly honest chronicler of Russian life who foresaw what were to be the brutalizing effects of Soviet rule.

Biographical Information

Platonov was born in 1899 in Voronezh, a town three hundred miles north of Moscow, the son of a railroad metal worker. Although financial difficulties forced him to leave school when he was fourteen, Platonov spent his free time during his teenage years teaching himself science and mechanics. While a soldier in the Red Army, he wrote his first short stories for local railway magazines and Bolshevik newspapers. These early tales express Platonov's hope that human technology would aid the construction of a Communist utopia. In 1920 Platonov joined the Communist Party, but left a year later. In 1922 he published a volume of poetry, but abandoned writing to pursue his engineering career. In 1924, Platonov was made the overseer of projects designed to modernize his home district's electrical and agricultural industries. He then moved to Moscow to work for the National Commissariat for Agriculture. There, he became disillusioned with bureaucracy in the government agency, and in 1927 he left engineering to devote his life to writing.

In the late 1920s Platonov was associated briefly with a group of writers called the Perevalists, Communist Party members who were committed to the ideals of the Revolution but who were highly critical of the Soviet state, which they viewed as a temporary, transitional phase before the more perfect realization of a Marxist community. Many of Platonov's short stories from the 1920s reflect his growing scorn for the bureaucratic machinery of the Communist Party. His first volume of stories, Epifanskie shlyuzy, enraged government censors for their harsh portrayals of peasant workers victimized by the agencies responsible for uplifting them, and shortly after its publication Platonov was arrested and forced into exile. Only after he wrote two public apologies to prominent newspapers in 1931 disavowing his stories and his “contra-revolutionary tendencies” was Platonov offered a chance at rehabilitation. He was sent to observe the creation of Communist communities and organizations in Turkmenistan and to write laudatory newspaper articles about them. However, Platonov's observations would become the settings for his bleak portrayals of utopia-building in such stories as “Dzhan” and “Takyr” in the 1937 collection Reka Potudan’. The publication of this volume cemented Platonov's reputation as a pessimistic opponent of the Communist state. Blacklisted and impoverished by censorship, Platonov survived throughout the 1930s by pseudonymously writing critical reviews of European and American literature.

Platonov's situation improved somewhat in 1941 when he was drafted as a war journalist. As his attention turned to combating the evils of fascism, many of Platonov's works were published to great popular approval. But this popularity was short-lived. Several stories written after the war, were criticized as attacks on Soviet veterans and communism in general. For the rest of his life until he died of tuberculosis in 1951, Platonov's work was effectively blacklisted from publication or critical commentary.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Platonov's first published collections of stories, Epifanskie shlyuzy, published in 1927, marked a clear departure from the idealistic Marxist tales written in his youth. The new stories were less than enthusiastic about how communism had changed the lives of peasants living in village hinterlands, commonly depicting individuals who have become slaves to the machinery and bureaucracy that was supposed to usher in a socialist utopia on earth. It was also with this collection that Platonov began his experiments with the skaz, or traditional frame story using peasant dialogue. He revolutionized the form by presenting with sympathy and complexity peasant speech and concerns, giving artistic expression to his philosophical conviction that all communication, no matter how vulgar or unrefined, conveys the nature of reality and human existence.

A second volume of short stories, Reka Potudan’, which appeared in 1937 after his exile and rehabilitation, showed that Platonov had become even further estranged from the Communist state. Most of these tales concern themselves with dispossessed characters—beggars, homeless children, orphans, and other miserable individuals—whose ability to love and communicate are diminished by the demands of the socialist government and its policies of collectivization.

Many of the more than fifty articles and stories written from 1941 until the end of the war, when Platonov enjoyed a brief respite from censorship by attacking fascism, develop his early concern for the ontology of language—the possibility that language has to reveal basic concerns about human existence—and the near-hopeless struggle faced by humans in their effort to lead a truly spiritual life. His post-war stories, which led again to the suppression of his writing, are frequently psychological in nature and involve bizarre sexual events. Apart from a collection of folk tales published a year before his death, Platonov did not see any more of his writing published in his lifetime.

Critical Reception

During his life Platonov's stories were condemned by Soviet censors for their anti-revolutionary sentiments. The publication of his 1927 volume contributed directly to his arrest and exile from Moscow. The 1937 Reka Potudan’ stories were banned because of their themes of suffering at a time when censors demanded positive and uplifting portrayals of Soviet life. He was accused of being a nihilist and an anarchist, and Stalin was reported to express hatred for Platonov and his work.

It was only during the “cultural thaw” under Khrushchev in the 1950s and 1960s, which for the first time permitted critical examinations of Lenin and Stalin, that some of Platonov's large body of work was allowed to be published. He was thereupon praised by critics and the Soviet public hailed him as a voice of and for the common man.

The vast majority of critical commentary on Platonov is in Russian, and a great deal of what can be found in English is little more than introductory. However, the publication of English-language editions of his short stories in The Fierce and Beautiful World and Fro and Other Stories in the 1970s have done much to bolster Platonov's reputation as a unique voice in world literature. While some critics have labeled his writing old-fashioned, too full of early Communist sloganeering, and too reliant on puns that are not translatable to be interesting or relevant to contemporary readers, most commentators agree that Platonov has secured his place in Russian literature as a misunderstood visionary who tried, using the voice of the people, to warn against the brutalizing effects of Soviet authoritarianism.

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Principal Works