In response to the catastrophic state violence of the 20th century, a number of novels held out the ideal of retreating into private life. How do you rebel in 1984? You keep a diary and fall in love. After the cataclysmic failure of utopian politics, intellectuals defended the inviolability of the individual, and argued that freedom was found in personal fulfillment. If Stalin called writers “engineers of the human soul,” then good anticommunist authors should refrain from trying to meddle with the human spirit in all its uncrushable, ahistorical beauty and instead revel in human imperfection. Writers from Zamyatin’s We on, including émigrés fleeing the Soviet Union, from the schlocky Ayn Rand to the aesthete Nabokov, considered the individual the antidote to the so-called totalitarian state – and Americans ate it up.
The Soviet writer Andrei Platonov is different. He describes Stalinism as a failed project, but not for the reasons you’d expect. We have a common narrative about writers, particularly dissident writers in repressive countries. They write to express themselves, to escape falsehoods for the sake of personal freedom. Platonov is an anti-utopian who isn’t a liberal humanist. He remained committed to total transformation of the world with an earnestness unimaginable today, yet called for human mastery over the human soul. Another way of being anti-utopian is to hint at other utopias.
Reading Platonov is a reminder of alternatives to Franzenish pleas for real people, real feelings, real lives. His prose melds jargon and bureaucratese with Biblical echoes and folktale surrealism as if it were transmitted from the heights of the state and mistranslated by the people at the periphery. “Woe to the people into whose language Andrei Platonov can be translated,” Joseph Brodsky declared. This Marxism-Leninism-as-a-second-language quality superficially resembles the idea of totalitarian debasement of language familiar from Orwell's Newspeak, but turns out quite different. The language of Platonov's novels is awkward because the nature of Soviet subjectivity was too.
Take the opening of his best-known work, The Foundation Pit:
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.
So a guy got fired for slacking off? At first glance one might see a heartless bureaucracy constraining human possibilities in the name of a utopian project in which there is no room for actual human beings. But the high Stalinist 1930s weren’t just for grimly efficient Stakhanovites concentrating on surpassing the pig-iron production quota. Comrade Stalin wanted you to be happy. Soviet leadership claimed after the first Five-Year Plan that step one, “elimination of capitalist elements,” was done. Now it was time to create new people—beautiful ones. “Life has become better, life has become more cheerful,” went one slogan, repeated around the Soviet Union and hung from the gates of Gorky Park to invite Moscow to come out and play. The miraculous abundance that the bourgeoisie kept to themselves would be shared with the whole working people. Moscow was to be lit up brighter than any of the bourgeois capitals, filled with elegant and joyful proletarian youth. It would be like capitalism, only better.
The peculiarity of Platonov comes from his participation in this project – something that sets his work apart from conventional critics of communism. He is asking something more alien to our sensibilities. What exactly is the point of private life when great works are in progress? How could a reader be interested in daydreams and random strangers when an entire society, the likes of which the world had never seen, was being built at breakneck speed all around them? Yet The Foundation Pit is haunted by the sense that this new place will never be found. As the book goes on, plans for a majestic proletarian home grow, but work on it becomes more meaningless, and the characters drift into boredom and increasingly brutal violence.
Unlike such contemporaries as Mikhail Bulgakov or Daniil Kharms, the working-class Platonov wrote about the revolution from the inside. After trying his hand at writing, Platonov threw himself into building socialism. "I could no longer be occupied with a contemplative activity like literature," he said. Platonov’s land reclamation projects drained thousands of acres of swampland. But then he returned to literature, depicting Soviet society in what the official formulation of socialist realism called its “revolutionary development.” Facing increasing difficulties with the authorities — the Soviet Union's top literary critic, under his pen name of Stalin, called Platonov “scum” — he did not give up trying to get published, with some success but more rejection, and died in 1951 of tuberculosis caught from his son, who had been sent to the gulag. His 1930s novella Happy Moscow was found, ambiguously unfinished, only in the late 1980s in the state archives among the writer’s papers, which were ordered, according to his translator, “neither by date nor literary genre but simply according to the size of the pages Platonov had used and whether they were plain, lined, or squared.” This origin story seems appropriately Platonovian: It suits his engineer’s emphasis on the physical side of existence. Literature is made from raw materials, to the point where their materiality overwhelms their more “literary” elements.
In Happy Moscow, Platonov’s characters start off unable to imagine any happiness greater than taking part in the transformation promised by communism. Then they stray from this path for a private life. Yet for them this is not liberation but a crushing disappointment.
The violence of Soviet society is rarely hinted at in Happy Moscow. In its place is Platonov’s criticism of Stalinist kitsch. A beautiful girl, named Moscow in an orphanage after the revolution, scales the heights of Soviet society. The name Moscow ties her to the tradition of female allegorical figures who represent a city or nation, but Platonov will not make the connection too neat. Moscow enters aeronautical school and becomes a brilliant and daring parachutist. She pushes herself to the limit of the possible and not beyond — “but the limit was a great deal further than people thought, and Moscow was all the time moving it still further,” like a good Soviet engineer. She is gnomic and unsatisfiable. Men fall in love with her and she grows bored. There’s a communist jazziness to scenes of late-night dancing, where to “some insane European music that contained centrifugal forces… almost every man present asked [Moscow] to dance, finding in her something that had been lost in his own self.” But one day she lights a cigarette midflight and ignites a fire. Afterward, she is dismissed from the air force, goes to work in an office, and sees another side of Soviet life. In cramped communal apartments she encounters continued deprivation. Later she joins a team building the magnificent Moscow metro and has her leg crushed in an accident.
Moscow’s personal and erotic adventures take her between several men who are representative of features of the new society. The surgeon Sambikin and the engineer Sartorius are searching for technologies of the soul.
It was essential to understand everything, because either socialism would succeed in getting right into the most secret recess of a man’s insides and cleaning out the pus had accumulated drop by drop in every century or else nothing new would happen and each inhabitant of the earth would go off to live separately, keeping this terrible secret place of the soul safe and warm inside them, so as to sink their teeth into each other once again in voluptuous despair and transform the earth’s surface into a lonely desert with one last weeping human being.
Yet the creator figures of Happy Moscow turn away from this path of seeking wholeness for the very individualistic goals their grandiose visions reject. Both Sambikin and Sartorius fall obsessively in love with Moscow. But what in another novel would be a path to liberation is for Platonov only loss. Love doesn’t give their lives meaning to replace the hollowness and lies of the state; instead mere love turns out to be terribly small compared with communism. Sambikin chooses to distance himself from Moscow “so that he could stand aside and resolve the whole problem of love in its entirety.” Moscow and Sartorius have sex and agree that it does not “achieve” what they wished it to. “Love cannot be communism,” says Moscow. “I’ve thought and thought and I’ve seen that it just can’t. One probably should love—and I will love. But it’s like eating food—it’s just a necessity, it’s not the main life.” Sartorius reflects on this and concludes that “the love which comes with embraces brings only a childlike, blissful joy, and does nothing to solve the task of drawing people into the mystery of a mutual existence.” Rather than love bringing people to a truth that ideology conceals, ideology comes out looking a lot better.
The novel concludes with a transformation beyond any dreamed of under Stalin. Eventually, crippled and disillusioned, Moscow takes up not with a brilliant genius but with a bitter pensioner named Komyagin, who scrapes by as a militia volunteer extracting fines. The two bicker endlessly: “You’re stealing time from the State!” Sartorius visits Moscow late one night, after Komyagin has apparently frozen to death. After brief happiness from more “embraces,” Sartorius “understood that love originated due to the poverty of society, a universal poverty that had still not been eliminated and that meant people were still not able to find any better, higher destiny.” He looks out at the city and declares to himself: “What am I on my own? I must become like the city of Moscow.” Sartorius then realizes “he wanted to live a life that belonged to a stranger and not to himself.”
First, imagine such a sentence written in a recent American story on, say, urban loneliness or suburban anomie. In that case, the sentence would draw meaning from the American ideology of individual identity and would read as ironic: so sad that the glittering lives of others always loom larger than one’s own. Here it’s quite different: Sartorius interprets better than the authorities do the rhetoric of universal brotherhood of socialism. He wants to go further than the Stalinist state and take socialism to its logical conclusion. So Sartorius actually takes another person’s life. He purchases a forged passport identifying him as a worker called Grunyakhin, and Platonov starts referring to him by that name. In the last ten pages he leaves both Moscows behind for an increasingly passive life as an attendant in a small suburban factory.
Is this oblivion communism? It’s hard to say. Historian Jochen Hellbeck, in a study of diaries written under Stalin, finds people working to make new selves. They seek purification, tormented by the possibility that their class origins make them unredeemable. It’s hard not to feel pity for these diarists; they blame themselves and not the outside world for their failure to become what they ought to be according to Soviet rhetoric about social life. As Hellbeck shows, this command led to constant anxiety – not only of the threat of the security services, prison camps and the approaching purges but self-doubt, internal turmoil, and guilt. Each lingering thought meant that if communism failed, it was because of you.
These diaries are by no means unambiguous records of Soviet subjectivity, but they clarify how the attempt to make oneself an ideal individual under such ideological conditions was also to take part in a project of annihilating oneself as an individual. The new material base of socialism would change people, but people had to take an active hand in this remaking of themselves. Citizens were to excise capitalist remnants from their consciousness just as the Stalinist state pruned wreckers and saboteurs. The self wasn’t something “found” or “discovered.” It was something made. And not made in the sense of a self-made man. Made like you make products in a factory. Made just like socialism was being built. These diaries – far from Winston Smith’s – weren’t special secret places for individual creative expression, but the forges of a new, remade self. Instead of a struggle between the monolithic state and the individual, this is a struggle within the individual to become part of the communal project.
Going beyond these diarists, Platonov’s characters don’t regret the destructiveness wrought by the attempt to transform humanity. They wish it would go further. “We’re going to intervene in what lies inside a man,” Sartorius promises. Someone listening is reassured: “The very best engineers had now taken on the task of refashioning the inner soul,” he thinks, in an echo of Stalin’s description of writers as “engineers of the soul.”
The story Platonov tells here goes even further than official socialist realism. Platonov believes in a better communism, a real communal transcendence, and it’s this that Stalin destroyed. Just like the hope that technology or sex can bring people together, Soviet Communism made some big promises and then it couldn’t go far enough. (Imagine how one might do this today: perhaps a novel of the false promise of sociality that is proclaimed by social media that still held out the dream of the “singularity” as a beautiful but unreachable idea, a character unable to lose her investment in its transcendent meaning.)
Platonov’s response was to literalize the Stalinist metaphor: rather than writers, wouldn’t it be even better to have actual engineers at work on the soul? In a 1930s essay included in NYRB Classics’ edition of Happy Moscow, “On the First Socialist Tragedy,” Platonov writes, “man himself changes more slowly than he changes the world.” This tragic incompatibility leads him to call for “creative engineers of the human soul,” to “prevent the danger of the human soul being left far behind by technology.” Instead of wistful yearning for love, better to try to catch up with the machines. Stalinism, he implies, offers only foremen of the soul. It taunts with an ideal of a socialism of the spirit when the actually existing utopia — the classy and gleaming Moscow with monumental architecture and well-read workers — never could satisfy the desire. Reading Platonov, engineers of the soul sounds less like nefarious Newspeak and more a summons to a factory where human beings can produce their own fates.