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New Left Review 33, May-June 2005


Tony Wood on Andrey Platonov, Happy Moscow and Soul. Recently discovered works by the neglected giant of twentieth-century Russian letters. The singular language and multiple ambiguities of Platonov’s style, and heroic impasses of his life and times.

TONY WOOD

ANNALS OF UTOPIA

Perhaps the most striking literary consequence of perestroika, standing out even amid the late 1980s’ flood of new publications and overturning of established truths, was the rediscovery of Andrei Platonov. Born in 1899—the same year as Nabokov—Platonov had previously been known only as the author of a handful of stories and tales who had, in the early 1930s, attracted the ire of Soviet officialdom, and remained in literary limbo until his death in 1951. But with the appearance, in 1987 and 88, of two major works, Kotlovan (The Foundation Pit) and Chevengur, he rapidly came to be seen as one of Russia’s greatest 20th-century writers. Composed at the turn of the 1930s, neither work had been published in the increasingly hostile literary climate of Stalin’s ussr. Though both came out in the West in the early 1970s—English translations soon followed—it was their reception in Russia that lifted Platonov from minor figure to the status of modernist master. They combine a deep-seated yearning for utopia with troubled awareness of the distance, difficulties and violence that separate it from the present, encapsulating the contradictions of the Soviet experience like few other texts. While Russians’ new-found access to Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn and others undoubtedly broadened their cultural horizons, Platonov’s work required a full recalibration of the literary tradition—a process which continued as more texts emerged from the family archive.

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