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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

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Set in the 1920s, Andrei Patonovich Klimentov's The Foundation Pit is a literary work that combines the genre of dystopian fiction, political satire, and ethical allegory to present a bleak, bewildering perspective on the newly formed Soviet Union. Voschev, the protagonist of Klimentov's novel, represents the struggle between the collective and the individual. Voschev rebels against the communist ideal that individuals gain their greatest sense of self and purpose when working on behalf of the collective community. Voschev cannot accept that his true identity is discovered or served simply by producing product, contributing to public works, and building up the ideological and infrastructural frameworks of the Soviet Union. While Voschev seeks to find purpose and fulfillment as an individual, he still recognizes that he must work and contribute to the collective good unless he wishes to face personal consequences.

Though he is a machinist by trade, Voschev takes a job helping to dig a foundation pit for a building that will eventually house members of the proletariat, his fellow working class comrades. Digging the foundation pit quickly becomes another activity that causes Voschev to wonder if his life has meaning beyond hard labor. In his work at the foundation pit, he meets a cast of characters who represent a variety of perspective working class individuals likely had during the rise of the communist regime in Russia. Some are zealous political activists, ready to help advance the efforts of the Marxists. Others empathize more with Voschev and his concerns that prizing the collective over the individual may not ultimately serve either entity well.

As the workers reach what they believe to be the point of completion on the foundation pit, they are informed that the pit will need to be expanded to be four times its size to house all the people who will ultimately live there. Coinciding with the sharing of this revelation that this is yet more work to do is an announcement of a pogrom that will be taking place to kill Kulaks, or land-owning peasants, in order to cease their property and exterminate them as a class within Russia. This order comes from the Marxist activists. Wanting to advocate for these peasants who are now under the real threat of death, Voschev brings the peasants to the foundation pit and insists that they wish to enlist as workers. The addition of new workers means the foundation pit will now need to be larger. In this action, Voschev does somehow merge the mandate to care for the collective with his own desire for his life to amount to more than only work.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1075

Set somewhere in the early 1930’s, The Foundation Pit seems to have all the components of the canonical construction novel: a huge project, Party activists, marching pioneers, collectivizing peasants, a random assortment of workers come together to build the foundations for a bright Communist future. Although the novel follows the digging of the foundation pit and the collectivizing of a nearby village, it is worlds apart from anything resembling Socialist Realism.

As the novel begins, Voshchev arrives at the outskirts of a provincial Russian city. Fired from his machine-shop job for “pensiveness in the midst of the general tempo of labor,” he has gone in search of a plan for life—life as a whole, that is, since his own life is not a puzzle to him. He lives merely because, like any other creature, he happened to be born. As he makes his way to the city’s center, his loneliness and isolation never leave him but instead grow as he watches the construction projects rising all around him. He has the uncomfortable sense that when humans put together a building, they manage to fall apart themselves. He wanders back to the empty lots and wasteland at the city’s edge and, more or less by accident, joins the crew of an enormous construction project.

Although the project is enormous, the crew is not: A motley assortment, they all sleep in a garden shack converted into barracks. They are digging a foundation pit for no ordinary apartment building, though, but for an enormous all-proletarian “home,” a true communal residence unlike the separated, fenced-off houses of the old city. The building is the brainchild of Engineer Prushevsky, who, suffering from the same puzzled melancholy as Voshchev, comforts himself with the resolution to die in the near future.

Hereafter, the novel simply follows the course of the digging, and the life of the crew itself, the “artel”—Chiklin the tireless laborer, Safronov the Party activist, Pashkin the trade-union secretary, and Zhachev the sadistic cripple, who takes it upon himself to wreak revolutionary vengeance by bullying and robbing anyone who seems bourgeois. As plans progress, Engineer Prushevsky and Chiklin discover something in common—a lost sweetheart, daughter of the former owner of a nearby Dutch tile factory. In the ruins of that same factory they discover a ragged woman and a small child. The woman, whom they take to be that same girl from their youth, dies of starvation. They take the girl with them, and she becomes their mascot, the symbol of the young proletarian future.

More than that, she becomes their oracle, the voice of that future, as she mouths slogans and watchwords of the Revolution. Nastya, the child, is the only pure proletarian among them, since she, as she says, refused to be born until Lenin appeared on the scene. The workers dote on her, try to make her as comfortable as possible, find a bed her size—a child-sized coffin, one among many tucked away in a cave near the foundation pit.

It turns out that the peasants from a nearby village own these coffins and demand them all back, at which point the Party activists realize that the village is yearning for collectivization and needs the encouragement of the local proletariat. Kozlov, a tubercular digger turned bureaucrat, and Safronov, the Party activist, are dispatched by the artel as messengers and emissaries to the peasants. At the same time Voshchev again wanders off, vaguely on the peasants’ trail, in search of direction in a different place, since none of the workers has any clearer idea than he does about their reason for living. Prushevsky is ordered (on Pashkin’s initiative) to expand the size of the pit sixfold, lest Socialist children “live out in the open air, in the midst of the unorganized weather....”

It is the child Nastya who informs Chiklin that Safronov and Kozlov are dead, and so Chiklin and Voshchev, now returned, set off for the village to investigate. They find the murdered pair laid out on a table in the village Soviet, and there Chiklin almost accidentally kills a peasant with a single blow; murdered or not, the yellow-eyed peasant becomes the third corpse on display. The real murderer, or “wrecker,” eventually climbs up on the table and dies for solidarity’s sake.

Chiklin and Voshchev stay in the village to help dispose of the wealthy peasants, or kulaks, to confiscate their hoarded grain and livestock, and to build for the poor peasants a raft. The poor peasants plan to liquidate the kulaks as a class by simply launching them downriver, en masse. Prushevsky, Nastya, and Zhachev (who has taken on the task of educating Nastya) arrive to act as cadres of the Cultural Revolution, as does Pashkin, who has discovered the last “most oppressed landless hired laborer” in the district. The laborer, who had once been paid nothing but who now works in the village smithy, is a bear, the most politically conscious creature of the whole lot. The diggers take the bear on the rounds of the village to identify the kulaks marked for liquidation, and his instinctive sense tallies perfectly with the Party activists’ list.

The poor peasants celebrate the launching, Voshchev wanders off in search of discarded objects symbolic of the old life. In one of the hovels that very night the striker bear wakes the entire village with his hammering; while Chiklin works the bellows, the bear frenziedly works the iron, and gradually the entire village joins in until all the charcoal is gone, all possible repairs made, and all tools supplied.

As the diggers prepare to return to the foundation pit, the Party activist is declared a saboteur and a wrecker by a directive brought from outside—and he, too, dies from one of Chiklin’s mighty blows, although as much because he has taken his jacket away from feverish Nastya as for any ideological reason. On the snowy winter road back to the future home of the proletariat, Nastya weakens and, in the morning, she dies. Voshchev arrives a short time later, along with the entire collective farm and bear in tow—they want to enlist in the proletariat and help dig the foundation pit even wider and deeper. The novel ends as Chiklin digs a special grave for Nastya and carves a special stone. At night, when everyone in the barracks except for the striker bear is asleep, he buries her.