Andrei Platonov (pluh-TAWN-awf), the pseudonym of Andrei Platonovich Klimentov, was a fiction writer, dramatist, poet, and critic; he was one of the most important Soviet writers of the first half of the twentieth century. His full development, however, was thwarted by political circumstances that were beyond his control. The son of a railway worker, he left school at the age of fourteen, but he later completed his education at a polytechnical school, became an electrical engineer, and worked on electrification projects for five years. He had begun to write poetry in school, and he continued to write while working as an engineer.
Along with many other intellectuals of proletarian origin, he welcomed the Revolution of 1917, joined the Communist Party, and fought on the side of the Bolsheviks, in the hope that they would bring needed reforms and a better life for his countrymen. His idealism was put to test during and after the revolution by the harsh realities of life, and he began to voice his disappointment. Even though he placed his trust in science and technology, believing that people can conquer nature with machines, common sense, and good will, in one of his earliest stories he warned against relying too much on technology and neglecting feelings and conscience. In addition, he was afraid that the dual danger of undisputed authority and rising bureaucracy would threaten humankind’s creativity.
With the publication of his first collection of short stories, The Epifan Locks, began the long history of the authorities’ distrust of Platonov. In the title story an English engineer, hired by Peter the Great to build a waterway, fails in his job because of the poor planning of his predecessors and is sentenced to die. This thinly veiled allusion to the autocrats in the Soviet Union of the 1920’s unleashed severe criticism of Platonov and a virtual ban on the publication of his works, especially after he also criticized the harsh methods of forced collectivization of the farms.
The ostracism, lasting until the late 1930’s, did not deter Platonov from writing. During this period he wrote his most important works. They are all variations on a related theme, attempts by human beings to better their lot and the misunderstanding on the part of the authorities of their basic needs and desires. In the novel Chevengur a group of workers, led by visionaries and idealists, moves to a legendary city, where they can govern themselves and organize their way of life in a brotherly and cooperative fashion, free from the control of restrictive authorities. In the process of building a new life, however, they fail miserably, unable to provide for even the basic needs of the people. The leaders of the group prove to be the culprits, because, after the successful liquidation of the assets of the bourgeoisie and other opponents, they are incapable of constructive work. As one of the workers says, “People who shout about the Revolution make people die from hunger, and the Party is filled with wretched wastrels.” Platonov’s implication of the Communists’ failure clearly indicates the change in his thinking, even though he still had faith in their original intentions, placing the blame on their naïveté and on the narrow-minded officials.
In another novel, The Foundation Pit, the inhabitants of a small village try to build a community house where they can live decently, but they do not progress beyond the excavation of a foundation pit, because they cannot agree on how to build the house. All that is left of the dream is a huge hole filled with mud. In another novel, Dzhan, a tribe in central Asia wanders around a desert near the Iranian border in search of a better place to live. At the end, the multitude disperses while the leaders are wondering what went wrong. In all these antiutopian works–unpublished in the Soviet Union but available in translation abroad–Platonov does not abandon his faith in humankind or his desire to satisfy the basic human needs of a decent and honest life. This faith sustained Platonov in the years of suppression and enabled him to reestablish himself whenever the restrictions eased.
In the late 1930’s, unable to publish, Platonov toned down his satire of the direction in which the state and the ideas governing it were moving and replaced it with the emphasis on the basic human values to which even the authorities could not object. During World War II he wrote popular reports from the front, extolling the bravery of the Soviet peasants and workers defending their right to live in their own land. After the war, however, Platonov was again called to answer for slandering Soviet society in the story “Ivanov’s Family,” in which he depicts the homecoming of a Russian soldier and his difficulties in readjusting to a peaceful life without help from the authorities. This latest ostracism proved to be too much even for the seemingly indestructible Platonov. His health impaired, he spent the last years of his life in silence.
Since his death in 1951, Platonov and his writings have experienced increased popularity, both in the Soviet Union and abroad. The main qualities of his writings seem to be impervious to the ravages of time. In his depiction of simple, destitute people, who struggle to better their lot despite the odds, he has created some unforgettable characters. His restless vagabonds, despite their often-tragic experiences, never lose their idealism, and that appeals to readers. Above all, Platonov has been able to transfer his own faith in the basic human values to his characters and to his readers.