Book Reviews

The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov

The Foundation Pit is probably Andrei Platonov’s most popular work. However this isn’t saying much because he seems to be an under-appreciated writer in the English-speaking world. In the beginning of 2021 I had just read Life and Fate by Vasili Grossman which I loved A LOT (review to come) so while looking up the translator (Robert Chandler) I saw that he translates a lot of lesser-known books and immediately picked up The Foundation Pit.

Warning: Platonov just does not hold back on the criticism and I think this is definitely worth reading, especially because (according to the afterword in my copy of the book) Platonov’s intimate knowledge of the liquidation of kulaks was unique as none of his peers had first-had knowledge and experience like he did. This book is brutal and depressing. If you’re not in the best mental state I would advise against it. At the time of writing, I have read several works written in the Soviet-era and this is probably the darkest and most brutal of all.

There is a section in the beginning of the book which really struck me. I think this overly casual manner of discussing suicide sets the tone for the rest of the novel where death (though still very tragic) is very much a fact of life and part of their daily experience.

Time passed, and he doubted: “Or should I perish?” Prushevsky could not see who might want him so much that he needed to keep himself going until a still-faraway death. In place of hope all that remained to him was endurance, and some where beyond the long sequence of nights, beyond the orchards that faded, blossomed, and perished once more, beyond all the people he had encountered and who had then passed on into the past, there existed his fated day-when he would have to take to his bed, turn his face to the wall, and pass away without being able to cry. Only his sister would then be living in the world, but she would give birth to a child and the pity she felt for it would be stronger than her grief over a dead, destroyed brother. “I’d better die,” thought Prushevsky. “People make use of me, but no one is glad of me. Tomorrow I’ll write a last letter to my sister-I must buy a stamp in the morning.” And, having decided to pass away, he lay down on his bed and fell asleep with the happiness of indifference towards life. Not having had time to sense all this happiness, he awoke from it at three in the morning and, after lighting a lamp in the room, he sat there amid light and silence, surrounded by nearby apple trees, right up until dawn; he then opened a window so that he could hear the birds and the footsteps of pedestrians.

There is a scene somewhere in the middle of the book where one of the foundation pit workers (Chiklin) goes to an old tile factory to reminisce and hopefully meet the old boss’s daughter who he was fond of. He manages to meet her, but she’s lying on the floor with her daughter who has been tasked with applying a lemon rind around her mouth (the only way to get nourishment, as they were starving) and just after Chiklin talks to her she dies (I suppose from despair and starvation). This book is absolutely brutal, and death is treated as casually as eating lunch, as evidenced by the quotes below:

“With regard to both art and expediency, Prushevsky could already foresee what kind of composition of static mechanics would be required in the cen ter of the world, but he could not foresense the psychic structure of the people who would settle the shared home amid this plain and still less could he imagine the inhabitants of the future tower amid the universal earth. What kind of body would youth have then? What agitating force would set the heart beating and the mind thinking? Prushevsky wanted to know this now, so that the walls of his architecture should not be built in vain; the building would have to be inhabited by people, and people were filled by that surplus warmth of life that had been termed the soul. He was afraid of erecting empty buildings-buildings where people lived only be cause of bad weather.”

“Zhachev ate with his gums and said nothing, preferring to strike Kozlov in the belly that very day, only a little later, for be ing a pushy bastard who was tearing ahead. As for Voshchev, hearing these words and exclamations, he lay without a sound, still unable to comprehend life. “I should have been born a mosquito,” he supposed. “Their fate is fleeting.”

In addition to the casual references to despair, death and suicide the book satirizes the fervent worship of communism through the character of Nastya, the little girl who is such a champion for socialism, the socialist utopia and the Soviet state. Spoiler alert, it is clear that the book makes the case against socialism and the dream of the socialist utopia.

And this is why we must throw everyone into the brine of socialism, so that the hide of capitalism will peel away and the heart will attend to the heat of life around the blazing bonfire of the class struggle and enthusiasm will originate!” Possessing no outlet for the power of his mind, Safronov discharged it out into words and would go on speaking them for a long time. Heads resting in hands, some of the men listened to him, in order to fill up with these sounds the empty yearning in the head, while others grieved monotonously, not hearing the words and living in their own personal silence. Prushevsky was sitting on the very threshold of the barrack and looking into the late evening of the world. He could see dark trees, and sometimes he heard distant music agitating the air. With his feelings Prushevsky made no retort to anything. To him life seemed good when happiness is unattainable and the trees merely rustle about it and brass band music sings about it in the Trade Union Park. Soon the entire work team, submitting to a common exhaus tion, fell asleep as it lived, in daytime shirts and trousers, so as not to labor over the undoing of buttons and to preserve its powers for production. Only Safronov remained without sleep. He looked down at the supine people and spoke his mind with sorrow. “Ay, you masses, you masses! It’s difficult to organize you all into the gruel of communism! What do all bastards want? You’ve worn out the entire vanguard, you vermin!”

The little girl sat carefully down on a bench, saw a map of USSR amid the slogans on the wall, and asked Chiklin about the meridians of longitude. “What are they, uncle? Fences to keep out the bourgeoisie?” “That’s right, my little daughter,” explained Chiklin, wishing to give the girl a revolutionary mind. “They’re to stop the bour geoisie climbing over.” “But my mama never tried to climb over, and she died all the same!” “That’s the way it is,” said Chiklin. “Bourgeois women are all dying now.”

“Now who might you be, my little girl?” asked Safronov. “What did your dear papa and mama do?” “I’m nobody,” said the little girl. “How can you be nobody? Surely some kind of principle of the female sex must have been pleased to oblige you, if you got your self born under Soviet power?” “But I didn’t want to get myself born-I was afraid my mother would be a bourgeois.” “How did you get yourself organized then?” In constraint and fear the little girl hung her head and began to pull at her shirt; she knew that she was now present in the proletariat and so she was keeping watch on herself, as her mother, long ago and at length, had told her she must. “But I know who’s most important of all!” “Who?” asked Safronov, listening intently. “Stalin’s most important of all, and then-Budyonny. Before they came, when only bourgeoisie lived, I couldn’t be born, be cause I didn’t want to be born. But now that Stalin’s become, I’ve become too!” “Well, my girl,” Safronov managed to say, “your mother must have been a woman of consciousness! And our Soviet power goes deep indeed if children, even when they have no memory of their own mothers, already sense comrade Stalin!”

Despite how brutal the book is I still think it’s a great book to pick up, particularly if you’re interested in early Soviet history. As I mentioned, according to the afterword in my copy of the book, Platonov’s intimate knowledge of the liquidation of kulaks was unique as none of his peers had first-had knowledge and experience like he did.

If you’re thinking of reading this book, the edition I got was really good. It is published by NYRB and translated by Robert Chandler. As someone who perhaps didn’t catch a lot of the nuances of early Soviet policies, the extensive footnotes and the afterword were very informative and helped me appreciate the book more.

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