28 September 2011

Bookin' It: Review

Today's book is The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov.  The same friend who recommended The Siege recommended this book.  Andrey Platonov is an influential Russia writer of the early 20th century.  He was a Freedom Fighter for the Communists in Russia and a well known writer, but then the rose colored glasses must have come off because he became one of communism's harshest critics.  His work was banned and Stalin had a particular dislike for Platonov.  This book is one of his most famous works and for good reason: it's a satire on Soviet collectivism.

Platonov had a particular distaste for collectivization and it shines through in this novel.  The pictured cover is not the version I read, which had a foreword that illuminated a great deal.  I have read people comparing this dystopian novel to the likes of 1984 and Brave New World, but I have to completely disagree.  The latter novels were imagined dystopias that drew on elements of the current world, but The Foundation Pit was imagining the current Soviet system all the way to its end.  Not that Platonov lacks imagination, but rather his book is a projection of a dystopia that was currently in progress.  It's a satire.  In the novel, the protagonist Voshchev searches for truth, but quickly gives up in order to live a workman's life.  He aspires to work all day and sleep in a stupor at night, so he joins his comrades in a digging a huge foundation pit for collective housing.  Many of the peripheral characters (Kozlov, Zhachev, Prushevsky, Safronov, Pashkin, Chiklin) are in pursuit of the great socialist dream and this only grows larger, which then enlarges the pit.  Work on the foundation pit abruptly stops as the cast of characters rally around activists that forcibly collectivize the middle-class peasants, often disparagingly referred to as "kulaks".  Nastya, a young girl who was rescued during her mother's pathetic death in an industrial complex, becomes the shining light of hope in the movement.  She wholeheartedly espouses the collectivist, communist mindset and becomes the darling of the movement.  Soon all the peasants are forced to give up their land to the collective, though many slaughter and eat all of their animals before the comrades can take hold of them because they cannot bear the idea of their animals being abused and even used by someone else.  Some refuse to join the collective and are shipped downriver on a raft.  To spoil the ending, the collectivists win and the ominous tone of the ending gives you the sense that it's all going to collapse.  (And it does!)

Each of the characters present a particular trajectory in the Soviet system: intelligent planners/engineers, workhorses, freeloaders, bourgeoisie (kulaks), misguided idealists, and enforcement.  In a way, it's reminiscent of Animal Farm  because it's representational, satirical, and unforgivably cutting in its deconstruction of the communist system.  What one must keep in mind when reading this is that this was written well before any of these events mirrored reality and Platonov continued to write criticisms, but Stalin's dislike for the man prevented them from getting much of an audience.  This was a bold move on Platonov's part and unlike Animal Farm, the story is not under the guise of a farmyard fable.  The satire of real life was real life slightly exaggerated, which makes the cut deeper.  The satire applies to more than just Russia itself (i.e. the whole USSR bloc), but given the political climate of Russia, the mere fact that this exists is a miracle.  I'm surprised Stalin didn't pull a Nazi-esque book burn on this sort of literature while he shot the masses and invaded central Europe.  Perhaps that's a tad too cynical.

This book review is shorter than most, so I'll end by saying that this book is historically significant and a very true-to-form satire of collectivization and the failure of Communism in the Soviet sphere.  A good read.

You can read a bare bones run-through of the plot here, but it's almost as long as the actual book, so you might as well read that.