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Voronezh has done well by Andrei Platonov. When I was there last year I photographed three locations where the city mothers and fathers have commemorated the fact that this hometown boy did good. (There is a fourth that I did not get to.) Today I present the plaque honoring Platonov’s work as a young journalist in the Voronezh Commune newspaper from 1919 to 1925. It was unveiled in October 1987 and was the first of the plaques and monuments that would appear over the next few decades. The paper’s editorial offices were located in this building at 39 Revolution Prospekt, the town’s main drag. The paper, incidentally, has a rich history. It was founded in 1917, coming out under several different names until 1919, when the moniker of Voronezh Commune stuck for almost a decade. The city name was dropped in 1928 and the paper began appearing under the name of Commune, which it continues to do to this day.
Platonov (which is a pseudonym – his real last name was Klimentov) used numerous aliases when writing for the local press early in his life. Aside from Platonov, these assumed names included A. Firsov, Yelpidifor Baklazhanov, Iogann Pupkov and Foma Chelovekov. Excellent names, all of them! He published short fictions as well as journalistic articles, all while working on local construction projects involving the railroad, electric stations and other major objects. He gave up writing (more or less) for awhile in 1921 when Russia was hit particularly hard by a drought and ensuing famine. He is quoted as saying at the time, “How boring merely to write about the suffering millions, when you can take action and feed them.” Be that as it may, he published his first collection of poetry, The Blue Depth, in Krasnodar in 1922. (I’m grateful to the online Encyclopedia of Voronezh Life for many of the tidbits offered here.)
At this very same time Platonov married Maria Sheremetyeva, from the famous line of nobles, and remained with her until his death in 1951. Maria – as well as the couple’s first son Platon, and later their daughter Maria – was later instrumental in saving and protecting Platonov’s large archive of unpublished stories, novels and plays. (Here I cannot pass over the fact that Platonov died from tuberculosis that was brought back to him from the labor camps by his son Platon, who, most likely, was arrested for the sin of being his father’s son.) Stories like this, of brave people preserving priceless archives in the Soviet years, are legion. And far be it from me to say that one archive was more important than another! How are you going to put numerical values on archives left behind, say, by Osip Mandelstam, Vsevolod Meyerhold, or Andrei Platonov? Nonsense. And yet. And yet. In recent decades, in the estimation of many esteemed and knowledgeable individuals, Platonov has emerged as the greatest writer of the Soviet era. I worked for a couple of years with British director Tim Supple and Ukrainian playwright Maksym Kurochkin on a doomed – alas! – project that was intended to engage full-on the excruciating 20th century in the Soviet Union, and Platonov’s name came up time after time, as a model, a paradigm for excellence, resistance, and insight during that benighted period. The novelist Viktor Yerofeev wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, “In Russia it is Platonov who is increasingly described as the best writer of the post-revolutionary epoch.” None less than Joseph Brodsky said the following: “I squint back on our century and I see six writers I think it will be remembered for. They are Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, William Faulkner, Andrei Platonov and Samuel Beckett… They are summits in the literary landscape of our century… What’s more, they don’t lose an inch of their status when compared to the giants of fiction from the previous century.”
These last two quotes are offered as testimonials on the back cover of a book you cannot have seen yet. It is Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays, edited by Robert Chandler, in the new Russian Library series published by Columbia University Press. An uncorrected proof of the book, planned for publication on December 6, 2016, found its way into my hands a week or so ago, thus reminding me that I had not yet shared my photos of the plaque honoring Platonov’s time as a writer for Voronezh Commune. This volume seems a fitting way to launch this important series that, I presume is intended not only to bring us new versions of writings that we already love, but to acquaint us with writers we may not yet know. Platonov, therefore, is at the head of the juggernaut which the Russian Library promises to be.
Chandler is a well-known translator of Russian literature with Platonov, Pushkin, Nikolai Leskov, Vasily Grossman and many others under his belt. He offers up a 23-page introduction to the book, and I offer up here a brief excerpt from it:
“…There are still aspects of his [Platonov’s] work that have hardly been explored at all. His six film scripts are almost unknown; his eight finished and two unfinished plays plays are still seldom staged, even in Russia. At least two of these plays, however, are masterpieces. The Hurdy-Gurdy (1930) and Fourteen Little Red Huts (1933) anticipate the work of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. They are as bold in their political satire as Bertolt Brecht at his most biting. And they are also important as documents of historical witness. Along with the short novel The Foundation Pit, they constitute Platonov’s most impassioned, and penetrating, response to Stalin’s assault on the Soviet peasantry – the catastrophes of the collectivization of agriculture (1930) and the ensuing Terror Famine (1932-1933).”
That was all to come afterwards. It began right here, on this street, in this building in the center of Voronezh.