Russia's Forgotten Anti-Stalinist Playwright

Review: Andrei Platonov, Robert Chandler (ed.), ‘Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays’

Andrei Platonov / Wikimedia Commons
December 17, 2016

In 1933, George Bernard Shaw wrote the Manchester Guardian to protest the British press’s "blind and reckless" reporting on Russia. "Particularly offensive and ridiculous," Shaw claimed, was "the revival of the old attempts to represent the condition of Russian workers as one of slavery and starvation, the Five-Year Plan as a failure, the new enterprises as bankrupt and the Communist regime as tottering to its fall." Nothing could be further from the truth—or so Shaw thought. He had visited Russia two years earlier and "saw nowhere evidence of such economic slavery, privation, unemployment and cynical despair." British readers, he scolded, should "take every opportunity of informing themselves of the real facts of the situation."

If Shaw himself had bothered to take off his blinders, he would have discovered that those "real facts" included about 25,000 Ukrainians dying of starvation every day at the same time he wrote these words. Between three and five million Ukrainians and about one-and-a-half million Kazakh peasants died in the first half of 1933 alone. These were all a direct result of Stalin’s ambitious Five-Year Plan, as it was called, to collectivize the nation’s agriculture and make Russia an industrial powerhouse. Ukrainian and Kazak peasants were either killed or enslaved and their farms requisitioned in order to redirect resources to workers in the cities. Yields plummeted, and the remaining peasants were accused of hiding surpluses. Party activists charged with finding those supposed surpluses took the farmers’ seed corn to make their quotas, and before long, there was nothing left to plant, and nothing left to do except wait for death.

When Shaw visited Russia, he saw none of this. Neither did many Soviet writers, most of whom were from the city. Members of various Soviet writers unions were sent into the country to visit model, working farms, and returned with glowing reports of Russian productivity. Some hinted in their work that something was wrong, while others, like Maxim Gorky, welcomed the extermination of the peasants. "You’ll pardon my saying so," he once remarked, "but the peasant is not yet human…He is our enemy, our enemy."

One of the few to write openly about the Holodomor, or Terror Famine, was Andrei Platonov (1899-1951). Unlike other writers, Platonov knew actual peasants. A supporter of the 1917 Revolution, Platonov left his budding writing career in 1921 to work land reclamation projects for the government, digging 763 ponds, 331 wells, and draining 2,400 acres of swamplands. In the early 1930s, as a member of the People’s Commissariat of Agriculture, he visited farms and reported on the collectivization effort. His entries in his notebooks were damning: "State Farm no. 22 ‘The Swineheard.’ Building work—25% of the plan has been carried out. There are no nails, iron, timber…milkmaids have been running away, men have been sent after them on horseback and the women have been forced to work. This has led to cases of suicide…Loss of livestock—89-90%."

His novel, The Foundation Pit (1930), and his plays during this period, The Hurdy-Gurdy (1931) and Fourteen Little Red Huts (1933), capture the surreal horror of Stalin’s collectivists programs, where activists and workers mindlessly repeat Soviet progressive jargon about the bright future of Mother Russia while actual mothers mourn their dead children or contemplate using them as fish bait. All of these works were suppressed and only first published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The latter two plays, plus an unfinished draft, have recently been published by Columbia’s excellent Russian Library Series, with revised and new translations from the long-time Platonov apologist Robert Chandler.

The Hurdy-Gurdy follows two cultural workers who wander around the country visiting district towns with a robot who spews Soviet propaganda, and who play old-fashioned tunes on the hurdy-gurdy to reach "uncollectivized peasant households" and "dekulakize"— or "organize"—them. They are also supposed to sing the praises of Stalin’s "shock workers" who were committed, as the slogan went, to the "Five-Year-Plan-Now-Being-Fulfilled-in-Four." But the cultural workers don’t really care about collectivization, and neither does the director of the district office, Ignat Nikanorovich Shchoev.

Under Shchoev’s management, the district runs out of food. When the workers try to catch a supply of fish, a huge flock of birds sweeps in and eats the catch. Shchoev turns to a Danish researcher to create a new "scientific" food—"black earth cutlets," "kasha made from locusts and ants’ eggs," a dessert of "glue and kvass," and other items. The entire town is invited to sample the dishes, which they can barely finish before exploding in "collective nausea." Shchoev, who is snacking on sausage and cheese, commands them to school themselves "in self-control—you are opening a new epoch of radiant food. The whole world is developing, thanks to patience and torment." Shchoev’s assistant responds that "They stuffed themselves till they burst, the monsters. They’re yelping now…but they’ll get used to it!"

While Platonov claimed to be an atheist, his works are packed with religious allusions, and some critics have speculated that he may have been a covert Christian. In The Hurdy-Gurdy, not only is there an allusion to the plague of Egypt before salvation of the Jews from the oppression of Pharaoh, but to the Last Supper. In the Biblical accounts, God executes judgment on others—the Egyptians in one case and Christ in the other—to redeem his people. In the Eucharist, Christ’s body is the bread, "broken" for us, and the wine is his blood, "shed for the remission of sins." In The Hurdy-Gurdy, however, it is the peasants who must suffer, who must be broken, for the benefit of those who are supposedly saving them.

Fourteen Little Red Huts follows Johann-Friedrich Bos, a one-hundred-year-old "world-renowned scholar" and "chairman of the League of Nations Commission for the Resolution of the Riddle of the World Economy," who is visiting the Soviet Union to see the successes of the "second Five-Year Plan" and tell the world of socialism’s superiority.

Bos is based on Shaw, who turned 75 during his visit to the Soviet Union in 1931. Bos, like Shaw, only wants to see the good in socialism. "Where can I see socialism," he asks almost immediately as he steps off the train. "Show it to me at once. Capitalism irritates me." Yet unlike Shaw, Bos follows a beautiful local woman who appears by chance on the train platform and goes to live with her in a village by sea. Here, he sees collectivism in all its absurd, gory detail. The play ends with Bos leaving the village after most of its children have died. "I’ll go on my way," he tells Futilla, "I’m bored of you all with your youth and enthusiasm, your capacity for work, and your faith in the future. You stand at the beginning, but I already know the end. We can’t understand one another."

Platonov is sometimes called a surrealist because of the jarring juxtaposition of diction and situation in The Foundation Pit and these early plays. His characters speak with cool detachment in scenes depicting the gruesome results of Stalin’s collectivization—a child sleeping on her mother’s corpse or an emaciated mother trying to nurse her dead son.

The truth is, he’s a realist—a realist of the absurd, and one whose work is all the more necessary as the siren song of socialism tickles young ears again.

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