August 28, 2015

Why Stalin Called Andrei Platonov "Scum" – with 8 Quirky Quotes

Why Stalin Called Andrei Platonov "Scum" – with 8 Quirky Quotes

A man’s name is Incomplete; his sex: doubtful. A bear labors as a blacksmith, his hammer never stopping because socialist fervor runs deeper than humanity. A surgeon finds the precise location of the soul: just between where digestion ends, and the formation of excrement begins. People see with the eyes of their heads; beards grow from exhaustion; fowl can be pro-Kulak; the body of a chicken is made dead for morning breakfast; and good communists live thanks to birth, and die of life.

Andrei Platonov (1899-1951) spawned many an incongruous image and incomprehensible sentence in his time. The above are just a few examples. Compared by some scholars to James Joyce, he was critiqued by Stalin himself (a literary scholar in his own right) for the “double Dutch” of his linguistic style. Yet he avoided prosecution – almost a miracle in the 1930s – despite what is seen as his political ambivalence and his distortion, even annihilation, of the Russian language.

What exactly makes for a Platonovism? Certain strategies make his strangeness recognizable (if not comprehensible), and those include:

  • Endowing animals and plants with human emotions
  • Taking revolutionary jargon and Soviet bureaucratese to extremes
  • Redundancies (“eyes of their heads,” for example)
  • Words and thoughts about the traits of words and thoughts
  • Technical jargon (no wonder: he was an electrical engineer before succumbing to the “distraction” of writing)
  • Out-of-place (and constant) references to sadness, boredom, existence, construction, memory, and soul

And so, in honor of Platonov’s birthday on August 28, here are eight excerpts celebrating these and other authorial quirks. Try to pick them out, or just let your mind go blank and enjoy the poetry of his nonsense.

  1. “On the day of the thirtieth anniversary of his private life, Voshchev was made redundant from the small machine factory where he obtained the means for his own existence.”

The Foundation Pit

  1. “At the station, Dvanov felt the anxiety of space that was grown over and forgotten. Like everyone, he was attracted by earth's far distance, as if all distant and invisible things missed him and were calling to him.”


  1. “Every morning, when she woke up, Moscow Chestnova looked for a long time at the sunlight in the window, said in her own mind, ‘It’s the future time setting in,’ and got up in a carefree happiness that probably depended less on consciousness than on health and the power of her heart.”

Happy Moscow

  1. “He had had a terrible dream—that a small plump animal was suffocating him with its hot fur, some sort of field creature grown fat from eating pure wheat. Soaking with sweat from its effort and greed, this creature had got into the sleeper's mouth, into his throat, trying to burrow with its tenacious little paws into the very center of his soul, in order to burn up his breath.”

—“The River Potudan”

  1. “But Kopenkin couldn’t speak fluidly for more than two minutes because unauthorized thoughts climbed into his head and disfigured each other into inexpressiveness, so he stopped his own words and listened with interest to the noise in his head.”


  1. “’Every hen must be stockpiled, made dead—and eaten,’” declared a member of the activist body, after thinking a thought through.”

—The Foundation Pit

  1. “In the evening, no doubt, the windows of the village huts shone triumphantly, defending the revolution from darkness.”

—“The Motherland of Electricity”

  1. “During its spring floods, the river must have flung mountain stones at the very heart of the plane, but the tree had consumed these vast stones into its body, encircled them with patient bark, made them something it could live with, endured them into its own self, and gone on growing further, meekly lifting up as it grew taller from what should have destroyed it.”


This final passage is cited by Robert Chandler in his article on Platonov in Asymptote, in which he makes the argument that the description of that plane tree might well describe Platonov himself. And considering how the author consumed the trials of Soviet life, made them something he could create art from, and endured that writing into his own self, it seems a fair analogy.

A final line from Platonov, for good measure: “We speak in a language that is incomprehensible, but true.” It may be tough to tease out anything like truth amidst his mourning animals, triumphal machines, and exaltations of the future time of the revolution. And so perhaps Stalin’s epithet of “double Dutch” referred to that very doubleness: a dizzying clarity about the human condition, as glimpsed through the incomprehensibility of Soviet construction, destruction, and the broken language that lay in between.  


Thanks to Robert Chandler and his co-translators for sharing their translations and passion for Platonov’s language; to David Parker and Daniel Bush, fellow graduate students who have been sucked down Platonov’s chicken hole; and to Eric Naiman and Nariman Skakov, for opening the sluices to his incomparable prose.

Works by Andrei Platonov

Chevengur, 1928. Trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson. Excerpt from Asymptote. (Quote #2)

Chevengur, 1928. Moscow: Vremia, 2011. (Quote #5; translation by author).

The Foundation Pit, 1930. Trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson, and Eric Naiman. New York: New York Review of Books, 2009. (Quote #1: p. 1; quote #6: p. 79).

Happy Moscow, 1932. Trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, with Nadya Bourova, Angela Livingstone, Olga Meerson, and Eric Naiman. New York: New York Review of Books, 2012. (Quote #3, p. 16).

“The Motherland of Electricity,” 1939. In Soul, trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Angela Livingstone, Olga Meerson, and Eric Naiman. New York: New York Review of Books, 2012. (Quote #7, p. 268).

“The River Potudan,” 1937. In Soul, trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Angela Livingstone, Olga Meerson, and Eric Naiman. New York: New York Review of Books, 2012. (Quote #4, p. 214). 

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