A good Sovietologist has shelves packed with books like Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism 1917-1923, Science and Industrialization in the USSR, and Soviet Economic Structure and Performance. However, Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit confronts us with the possibility that we have all the wrong books. We might have read the slogans spilled from Stalin’s mouth and splashed across Pravda’s pages, we might have analyzed the Soviet statistics on farm production and industrial output during the era of industrialization and collectivization, but we’ve been like children who know the alphabet but are unable to assemble words. Platonov’s The Foundation Pit is the primer we’ve been waiting for. And for those non-Sovietologists among us, prepare to be rewarded with a fable of modern humanity’s struggles to reconcile its imperfect soul with the science of industry.
Born in Vorenzh, 400 miles south of Moscow, in 1899, Andrey Platonov came of age during the chaotic years of the Russian Revolution. Though he pursued studies in electrical engineering, when 1921 brought drought and famine he went to work as a specialist in land reclamation, overseeing hundreds of well- and pond-digging projects, as well as the draining of thousands of acres of swampland.
As is the case with many Russians, his sensibilities were as poetic as they were scientific. Platonov increasingly turned to writing as he endeavored to reconcile his idealistic beliefs in the Communist movement with the brutal policies of the Bolshevik government, and after moving to Moscow in 1926 to work as an engineer he established himself on the Soviet literary scene. While his early stories were published and even praised by Maxim Gorky, one of Socialist Realism’s founders, many of his subsequent works drew harsh criticism and were labeled subversive and heavily edited by censors. Such is the case of his novel Soul; others, like Happy Moscow and The Foundation Pit, remained unpublished until the onset of the glasnost era in the late 1980s.
Although other novels from this era of Soviet history (such as Olesha’s Envy or Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita) tackle similar themes as those found in The Foundation Pit, Platonov’s work stands out for its portrayals of individuals trying to reconcile their Russian souls with their new Soviet identities. And whereas Olesha and Bulgakov write about Soviet themes with Russian prose, Platonov employees Sovietese to expose the disparity between Communism’s noble goals and its ruthless Bolshevik reality. The very Soviet narrative voice permeates even down to the smallest of moments and most minor of characters. (In one of many examples, village women on an evening walk find that “their feet stepped with a power of greed and corporeal torsos had broadened and rounded out, like reservoirs of the future.”)
The Foundation Pit is a singular literary manifestation of a people in the midst of a struggle to create new identities for themselves and their nation. American readers in search of the elusive “Great American Novel” will appreciate all that Platonov achieves in this sort of work. Additionally, The Foundation Pit is, at heart, Platonov’s very personal statement about disillusionment with one’s country and what that disillusionment means for one’s daily life. Contemporary readers of all nationalities will probably find such disillusionment achingly familiar.
During his futile attempts to publish The Foundation Pit, Platonov continued to revise the novel and no less than four texts have come to light since the opening of the literary archives: two from the manuscript department of Pushkinsky Dom in Petersburg (one manuscript and one typescript); one typescript from the personal archive of Platonov’s daughter Maria in the Russian Academy of Sciences; and one typescript in the Russian State Archive in Moscow. All editions prior to this new release by NYRB Classics were based on the edition from Russian Academy of Sciences.