On the First Socialist Tragedy

Platonov_a Andrei Platonov in New Left Review:

[Editor's introduction to the piece] The year 1934, his thirty-fifth, was a significant watershed in the life of Andrei Platonov. He had already written The Foundation Pit and Chevengur, the novels for which he is today best known, but neither had been published in full. Soviet readers knew him mainly for a few short stories and, above all, his semi-satirical account of collectivization, ‘For Future Use’, which had been met by a storm of official criticism when it appeared in 1931. For the next three years, Platonov was unable to publish anything. But in the spring of 1934, he was included in a brigade of writers sent to Turkmenistan to report on the progress of Sovietization, and the same year was asked to contribute to a series of almanachs. Under Gorky’s general editorship, these were to celebrate the completion of the second Five-Year Plan in 1937; but they never appeared. The text reproduced here was written for one of these, titled ‘Notebooks’; it arrived on Gorky’s desk in early January 1935—a month after the assassination of Kirov, an event which unleashed a wave of purges that presaged the terror to come. Within a few days Gorky had rejected Platonov’s text as ‘unsuitable’ and ‘pessimistic’; in early March the organizing secretary of the Writers’ Union publicly denounced the unpublished article as ‘reactionary’, ‘reflecting the philosophy of elements hostile to socialism’.

[Platonov] One should keep one’s head down and not revel in life: our time is better and more serious than blissful enjoyment. Anyone who revels in it will certainly be caught and perish, like a mouse that has crawled into a mousetrap to ‘revel in’ a piece of lard on the bait pedal. Around us there is a lot of lard, but every piece is bait. One should stand with the ordinary people in their patient socialist work, and that’s all.

This mood and consciousness correspond to the way nature is constructed. Nature is not great, it is not abundant. Or it is so harshly arranged that it has never bestowed its abundance and greatness on anyone. This is a good thing, otherwise—in historical time—all of nature would have been plundered, wasted, eaten up, people would have revelled in it down to its very bones; there would always have been appetite enough. If the physical world had not had its one law—in fact, the basic law: that of the dialectic—people would have been able to destroy the world completely in a few short centuries. More: even without people, nature would have destroyed itself into pieces of its own accord. The dialectic is probably an expression of miserliness, of the daunting harshness of nature’s construction, and it is only thanks to this that the historical development of humankind became possible. Otherwise everything on earth would long since have ended, as when a child plays with sweets that have melted in his hands before he has even had time to eat them.

Where does the truth of our contemporary historical picture lie? Of course, it is a tragic picture, because the real historical work is being done not on the whole earth, but in a small part of it, with enormous overloading.