Click on photos to enlarge.
I have had to work my way up to this post. The photos have been ready in my computer for over half a year. But I keep passing them over because I haven’t been sure what I thought about this monument to Andrei Platonov. It was created by local Voronezh sculptors Ivan Dikunov and Elza Pak and was unveiled in this small square at 24 Revolution Prospect on the 100th anniversary of Platonov’s birth on Sept. 1, 1999. (The Russian Wikipedia article about the monument says it was unveiled Sept. 11, but I’m sticking with Platonov’s birthday of Sept. 1.) The monument is big and it fits the city space well.
My doubts about the work are grounded in two basic thoughts: 1) the black marble or tile that serves as the base looks more suited to a grave site than a proper monument, and 2) there is something faceless about the whole thing, despite the fact that it is also unusual. The coat, in which Platonov is bundled against a chill, is rather formless, his face seems lacking in expression, and the simple cement tiles on which he “walks” down off the pedestal (and which also make up the pedestal’s lower platform) are almost irritatingly common. There is also something rather crude about the two lower tails of Platonov’s overcoat as they fly out to either side. There are moments when I think they look terribly contrived. On the other hand, take a look at the third photo immediately below: From an angle slightly behind Platonov’s figure the flying coat tail looks quite natural indeed.
This is the crux of my ambivalence about this monument. Details that I easily criticize sometimes strike me as being quite good. To wit, I direct your attention to a rather nonsensical sentence that I wrote in the previous paragraph; that the monument is simultaneously unusual and faceless. That is not a direct contradiction in terms, but it should raise questions about what I think.
And so, I have pondered and pondered and pondered until today. I didn’t make my mind up today, but I have decided it’s time to get these photos up, regardless of whether I am ready to have my say or not.
I will say this: The monument begs to be photographed. You walk around it and you keep seeing interesting new angles. I am particularly partial to the shots from behind and from a good distance. But even what I call the “facelessness,” the rather boring front facade and face given to the writer by the sculptors can be said to have meaning. Platonov, after all – whose real name was Klimentov; he took his pseudonym from his patronymic of Platonovich – basically remained anonymous throughout his life. He was not allowed to publish much once the Soviet machine got underway (his first story was printed in 1919). Large numbers of his works remained unpublished until after his death. He was able to publish certain war tales during World War II, but not a single edition of note came out between 1946 and 1965. It really wasn’t until the 1980s and then the post-Soviet period that Platonov’s works began to receive their proper attention. Thus, there is a certain justice in this monument’s facelessness – how many hundreds of thousands, if not, millions of Soviet citizens walked past Platonov between the 1930s and his death in 1951, having no idea they were in the presence of one of the Russian language’s greatest stylists ever? Whether I buy entirely into the execution of this monument’s “faceless” aspect, that surely is one of the moving thoughts behind it.
And then there is that chin. There’s nothing greatly expressive about it; it is all about subtlety. It looks rather as if Platonov may be gritting his teeth. He is not grinning, but he is bearing it. He is withstanding all the blows of fate, the hurt, the injustices, the crimes against him (his 15 year-old son was tossed in the labor camps and came out with tuberculosis, which he passed on to his father) and others. Platonov is bearing it, and moving on ahead.
Of course, the other nice aspect of this ensemble is the fact that Platonov has up and decided to leave his place on a pedestal. He is in the process of walking down the sloped front half to join the average folks walking on the lowly earth. This, too, is very much Platonov. He was very much a writer of and about common men and women. Although his rough-hewn language and writing style was unlike anyone who had come before or will ever come again, he was very much tied into the fate of the “faceless masses,” if you will allow such a bathetic phrase. His heroes were lonely and often limited. They struggled to make sense of the world around them, usually failing, although they would reveal dignity, individuality and independence in the process. Platonov’s language is chunky and clunky, as if words in it were made of chipped and broken bricks. He wrote about a country and a people trying to build itself from scratch, and his words and sentences and paragraphs sounded like what they were describing. There’s a nice Platonov website (in Russian) and it starts with a shot of this monument and with a few comments about Platonov by other writers. Since I’m partial to Andrei Bitov anyway, and since I think his comment is particularly apt, let me offer his blurb here in English:
“Platonov somehow wrote his texts in an almost pre-Christian language of a primeval, newly-born consciousness. The depth of these epiphanies is equal precisely to the genesis, the first birth, to that moment of consciousness when nothing has yet been expressed. Perhaps we should read Platonov to children. They will understand this more easily, and it would be timely for them.”
For the record, the lettering on the pedestal behind the figure of Platonov says: “Andrei Platonov” (on the left), and “without me the nation would be incomplete” (on the right). That phrase is not, as it often is assumed, a matter of Platonov speaking about himself. In fact it is uttered by a character in Platonov’s story, “The Innermost Man.” We are, however, within our rights to apply that phrase to Platonov, as long as we recognize the origin. Indeed, it is true. Platonov’s contribution to Russian literature, drama and culture in general, is difficult to overestimate. He is an entire style and voice unto himself. I have seen very good writers just shake their heads when talking about Platonov. Nobody knows “how he did that,” and, of course, they cannot know. It was his unique gift.
So let’s toss off my rather tedious reservations about this monument. It’s lovely to be walking down the street in Voronezh and to look up and see Platonov walking toward you. There is something calming and pleasurable in sitting down on one of the benches around him and sharing a bit of a city square with him. Whatever I may think, this monument to Platonov, who was born in Voronezh in 1899, does just what monuments should do – it puts the city folk and visitors, too, in direct, living contact with someone who shaped the world we live in, and the language we speak.