In 1920, andrey platonov attended the first all-Russian Congress of Proletarian Writers. In reply to a point in a questionnaire-“What literary movement do you belong to or sympathise with?”-Platonov, then just 21, wrote, “None, I have my own.” I take this story from Robert Chandler’s introduction to The Return. Anyone who (like me) knows pretty well nothing about Platonov will be very grateful to Chandler.
Platonov’s life was one of who knows how many thousand tragedies of obstinate integrity. He was born in 1899, the eldest of 11 children of a metal worker. He left school at 15, trained as an engine driver’s mate and electrician, always wanted to write and gave it up only once, and then temporarily, to work on a land reclamation scheme. Politically he was committed heart and soul: a bliss-was-it-in-that-dawner who longed to serve the revolution but could not forgive it for what it became and for what it was not. The date of the first story in this collection, “The Motherland of Electricity”, is not certain, but it is certainly in the spirit of the first Five Year Plan, with Platonov himself as a young electrician setting out to walk for three days down the cart-tracks to Verchovka, where the village soviet has appealed for emergency repairs. He takes with him only a few potatoes his mother has boiled for him, a little bread and some salt. At Verchovka he finds a ramshackle emergency power station, with an English twin-cylinder motorcycle driving a small dynamo. It is running on grain spirit. An old man, blissfully drunk, is sampling the spirit from a tin mug to see that it’s strong enough. An old woman, who has been taking part in a procession, agrees readily that God doesn’t exist. “I picked the old woman up as if she were a girl of eight and carried her in my arms towards the village… and decided to dedicate my life to her, because in youth it always seems there is a great deal of life and that there will be enough of it to help every old woman.” The young electrician converts the generator into a pump and then sets off home again. It is hard to convey the appealing innocence, almost gaiety, of this story, but not difficult to see why Platonov found himself in disfavour.
His first volumes came out in 1927 and were quite well-received. Then he fell foul of Stalin himself, and had to face savage criticism. It was criticism which Platonov seemed barely able to understand. What he feared was the loss of that compassion which forgives fellow human beings and accepts them for what they are. This would include forgiving ourselves-which is more difficult than it sounds.
The story “Rubbish Wind” is nominally about Nazi Germany. It is dedicated to Comrade Zachow, a witness at the Leipzig trial, and begins in July 1933, six months after the Reichstag fire. Its protagonist, Albert Lichtenberg, tries single-handed to batter down a monument to Hitler. Onlookers attack him, tear off his ears and his penis and fling him into a rubbish pit. A rat gnaws his hand. In turn he eats the rat, “wanting to recover from it the meat and blood which over 30 years he had accumulated in the meagre income of poverty.” He escapes; or rather wanders off into a half-deserted village where a woman is trying to care for two children. They are already dead. To provide a meal for her he cuts the flesh off his own leg and cooks it.
Although Chandler points out the folk-tale elements in this story, it is pitched very high, and although it is set in Hitler’s Reich it was written late in 1934, at the beginning of Stalin’s purges. Gorky, who had supported Platonov so far, felt that “Rubbish Wind” was unpublishable. It bordered, he said, on “black delirium.” But Platonov still longed to be accepted by the Soviet writing community and seems to have done his best to write in a more acceptable manner. In this he was not successful. His next collection, The River Potudan, was published in 1937. The authorities were outraged, and Platonov’s 15-year-old son was arrested and sent to a concentration camp.
Yet Platonov, writing more simply now, and more clearly, continued to tell his readers what he wanted them to take to heart. In “The Cow”, Vasya is a sharp, knowledgeable little boy, but he has no defence against the loss of the family cow. The cow’s calf had been taken away from her and sold, and she had lost her wits, strayed on to the railway track and been killed. Vasya feels the mindless sorrow of the cow. “She did not understand that it is possible to forget one happiness to find another and then live again, not suffering any longer.” Vasya tries to express this in his answer to a school essay: “How I will live and work in order to be of service to the Motherland.”
It is also one of the truths to be learned from Platonov’s superb title story in this book, “The Return”. In a truly Russian juggling of tragedy and comedy, it begins, as it ends, with an anticlimax. Ivanov is demobilised from the army and his friends give him a send-off “with music and with wine,” but his train is delayed and he goes back to the barracks for the night. The next day there is another, not so lavish, party, and at the station the train has still not arrived. So, rather than face his comrades for a third time, he spends the night on the platform. This is how he meets Masha with whom he falls, at least a little, in love.
But in fact Ivanov is on his way home to his wife, Lyuba, and their two children. Lyuba has taken time off work at the brick factory to give him a loving welcome, but Ivanov is disconcerted. His son, Petya, has become the man of the house, directing everything with nervous authority, standing at the stove, oven-fork in hand, giving commands to his mother and sister. As for Lyuba, she quite readily admits that she has consoled herself with one, perhaps two, men. Lyuba could surely be forgiven, and Petya cut down to size without wounding his dignity, but Ivanov attempts to do neither. He packs his bag and catches the train back to Masha. Then, as the train heads out of town, he sees two children struggling along the sandy path. They are Petya and his sister, trying to catch his attention but already a long way behind.
“The Return”, written in 1945, is not a political story, but Chandler reminds us that at this point, the period of Stalin’s greatest triumph, “the only acceptable mode to treat such a theme was the optimistic and heroic.” One might think there was something heroic in Ivanov’s decision to throw his bag out of the window, get out himself and walk back towards his children. But when the story was published in 1946 it seems to have led to Platonov’s final disgrace. He had to spend the last five years of his life unpublished.
His son was released from the camp in 1941, but died of the tuberculosis contracted there. Platonov, who had been nursing him, contracted the disease in his turn, and died in 1951. His work was reprinted from the 1960s onwards, becoming available to Russian readers often for the first time. English-speakers already have a good translation of his novel, The Foundation Pit. Now we have the stories and there’s more to come. The Return
Harvill 1999, ?9.99