The classical Russian novel was more than a work of literature, it was more often than not a means for communicating ideas and for philosophical discourse. There is also a remarkable continuity of themes with Russian writers taking up, as it were, themes from a previous novel by a different writer and taking them forward.
In that Andrey Platonov followed in the footsteps of the other great Russian novelists and used the medium of the novel to comment on the progress of the Russian Revolution. Once its enthusiast- he came from a working class background and immediately after the revolution graduated as an engineer and worked towards the electrification plans, he was sensitive to the brutality of its implementation.
His enthusiasm was soon to be curbed and his disenchantment was to be reflected in the novels that he subsequently wrote. His major works were to be published decades after his death in 1951. He was working as a window cleaner in the Soviet Writer’s building when he died.
The Foundation Pit is the most well known of Platonov’s novels. It describes the impact of the forced collectivization that Stalin introduced in 1927. There are over a dozen major characters and is mainly a novel of action and development, there are few soliloquies or psychological portraits of the characters. That is for good reason and is indicated right in the beginning of the novel.
The pace is set by the first paragraph of the novel where Voshchev is discharged from his job in a machine factory “because of his increasing loss of powers and tendency to stop and think amidst the general flow of work”. Subsequently, no character in the novel makes that mistake again as the Party activist goes about forcing the poor and the small/ middle peasantry into the kholkoz, the collectivised farm.
He also gets them to dig the foundation pit for a massive building that would house the future socialist citizenry. The pit finally becomes the burial ground for the little girl Nastya, who is born of a “kulak” woman and therefore of “capitalist scum.” But her dying mother ingrains in her daughter the noble virtues of socialism and the little girl imbibes all the right words and ideas.
She describes her own capitalist tainted origin to the loyal Party excavator Chiklin thus: “I didn’t want to get born- I was afraid my mother would be bourgeois.” Later, as she is taken to school and where she “learned to love the Soviet government and began collecting trash for reuse”, she writes to Chiklin, the overseer of the foundation pit:
Liquidate the kulak as a class. Long live Lenin, Kozlov and Safranov.
Regards to the poor kolkhoz, but not to the kulaks.
At the end of the novel the Revolution finally devours its own child and she is buried in the pit by Chiklin.
Platonov’s style is very direct in this novel, it was to tone down dramatically in later works like The Soul and Happy Moscow that dealt with later Five Year Plan periods and where his style is more implicit (specially in the very effective use of the rhetoric in Happy Moscow.)
The Foundation Pit reflects the confusion of the 1920s that unleashed a great deal of creative energies among the intelligentsia specially of those coming from poorer and working class families. It also showed them the limits of that euphoria. By the 1930’s the State’s control was firmly established and by 1937 Stalin was to confidently go and finish of the bulk of the Party leadership, including “Lenin’s son” Nikolai Bukharin- something that led another disillusioned communist Arthur Koestler to chronicle in Darkness at Noon.
Platonov brings forth the Party slogans that were established and were executed with meticulous haste by the rank and file, only to be rescinded later with a different set, if not opposite ones. Former local leaders, once decorated for their result effectiveness, were now identified as having misinterpreted the Party Line and hence he is “liquidated.”
These are indeed themes that have occured in many works about Russia of the last century- what lends crecedence to Platonov his is physical presence during the times (unlike that of Western writes notably Koestler and Orwell) but also his ability to both write objectively on a progress of which he was a sympathiser of and maintain his belief that communism needs to proceed on a more humanistic basis than it did under Stalin. That rescues Platonov from succumbing to the disillusion of a Koestler and the propagandistic overtones in Orwell and enhances the authenticity of his work.
His own subsequent treatment and his elimination as a writer in the Soviet Union make him out as a martyr.
The Foundation Pit (as also his previous, longer novel Chevengur), follow up the themes that were previous treated by Dostoevesky in The Possessed and by Josef Conrad his near- prophetic Under Western Eyes. Post- revolution, the novel marks a continuity with Zamyatin’s We that was published in 1920.
The universality of this work lies in the fact that similar mechanisms continue to be employed in the contemporary world, whether it is in attempts at exporting democracy or exporting globalization and IMF diktats to the Third World in Capital’s thirst for markets. The vocabulary has changed, but the language remains the same- of violence against people en masse. The tragedy was more grotesque in the case of the Soviet Union of the 1920 and 1930s because socialism was supposed to have rescued the masses from the evils of exploitation.
Finally, a note on the length of the novel. Russian novels are generally long and run into hundreds of pages, with Tolstoy and Dostoevesky probably taking the cake. Only a Turgenev could write as concisely as Flaubert covering a whole gamut of human experiences in a novel of a hundred or so pages. In The Foundation Pit, Platonov follows Turgenev and achieves a veritable literary crescendo in a novel that is merely 140 pages long.