Tag Archives: Andrei Platonov

Nikolai Zadonsky plaque, Voronezh

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Until today I knew zilch about Nikolai Zadonsky (1900-1974). But, again, I am fascinated by the way a long, wandering walk around a city of culture can bring you bits and pieces of an education that you lack. Had it not been for this plaque hanging on the flaking walls of building 6A on Kommissarzhevskaya Street in Voronezh, the chances are I would never have found my way to this writer.
The first thing that struck me when I began digging into the facts is that Zadonsky has a weak, though glancing, connection to Nikolai Erdman, about whom I like to think I know quite a bit. The connection – and I said it was weak – is that Zadonsky, from his home in Voronezh, chose to align himself with Sergei Yesenin’s Imagist group of poets. Here’s how Zadonsky put it remembering those days in the early 1920s:
In those days there was a fashion of sorts – you joined up with some sort of literary school. We had Futurists and Acmeists and even some ‘nobodyists’ in Voronezh. Well, Boris Derptsky and I declared we were Imagists.”
The point here, of course, is that Zadonsky would not have crossed Erdman’s path and so there is no reason I would have run across his name. And yet, knowing this little fact about Zadonsky widens the picture for me. The Imagists are generally considered the runts of the poetic movements of the ‘teens and ‘twenties in Russia in the 20th century. The Futurists and Acmeists, especially, were high-octane. They had followings all over the country and the high quality of the poets that attached themselves to one or the other group, ensured that there was good reason to keep them in mind. The Imagists, grouped around Yesenin as the only well-known member, were often disparaged as a not-very-serious group who were more into playing pranks than anything else. Group members Anatoly Mariengof, Vadim Shershenevich, Erdman, and a few others have grown in stature over the decades, but only Erdman has achieved a fame that can stand, to one degree or another, in the vicinity of Yesenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky (Futurist), Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam (Acmeists at one time or another). All of these poets and their groups would have had strong support and popularity outside of Moscow. I’ve never thought of the Imagists in that way – but here we have Zadonsky and his friend Derptsky (born? – 1923, a little-known Voronezh poet and journalist who committed suicide when still quite young) choosing to attach themselves to Yesenin’s group. That, for me, is a small, but interesting discovery.
Zadonsky’s connection to the Imagists did not last for long, however, He traveled to Moscow in 1923 (just as the Imagists were falling apart as a group) and, with the help of Shershenvich, was introduced to Yesenin. The young poet from the provinces handed over some of his poetry to his famed hero and asked what he thought. Yesenin put an end to the young man’s illusions of grandeur. Again, let’s let Zadonsky himself tell it (as reported, like the previous quote, in a bibliographical work about Yesenin and his circle):
Yesenin reportedly told Zadonsky, “There are some good lines in your poetry. But you are a long way from genuine mastery. You’ve got to work hard. You must write poems in such a way that they set the human soul on fire, turn it inside out, and leave no one impassive. If you can’t write like that, you’re better off not writing at all!”
Zadonsky sums up the little story by adding, “After that I quit writing poetry.”

Zadonsky did not, however, quit writing. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s he wrote plays and worked as a journalist. A well-researched online biography published on the excellent Literary Map of Voronezh Oblast states he wrote over 2,000 newspaper items between 1918 and 1924. His first play, “Money,” was published in Voronezh in 1920 and he wrote a large number of plays after that. Again, I must say that, although I have studied Soviet-era theater and drama in relative detail over the last few decades, I had never come across any plays by Zadonsky. Leaning on information in various places I can verify that he wrote a minimum of 15 plays, but since sources often add the words “and others” to their lists, I suspect the real number was higher yet. In 1934 Maxim Gorky signed the paper declaring that Zadonsky was admitted as a “candidate” to the Writers Union – and throughout his life he preserved this document as a keepsake. He received full membership in the Writers Union in 1939.
The most successful and fruitful years of Zadonsky’s life as a writer began in 1942, prompted by one of those wonderful haphazard things that life tends to throw our way, and continued even after he suffered a stroke in 1965. That great Voronezh Literary Map website tells the story as follows: “The soldiers of the Workers-Peasant Red Army and the partisans of the Denis Davydov squadron sent the writer a letter in 1942 in connection with their reading of Zadonsky’s essay, ‘Partisans.’ In their letter the soldiers gave the writer the idea of researching and telling the story of the life of D.V. Davydov in more detail.
And, indeed, Zadonsky began traveling around the country, visiting places connected to life of Davydov, a famed poet and hussar from Alexander Pushkin’s group of friends, and he ended up producing a work of such depth, detail and veracity, that he almost had no choice but to accept historical prose as his new calling. Zadonsky’s first so-called “historical chronicle,” Denis Davydov, was published (to the best I can determine) in 1952 in Kuibyshev. It has been reprinted countless times since then. He followed this study with other, equally popular “historical chronicles,” such as,  A Troubled Time (1954), Kondraty Bulavin (1959), Liberia on Don (1960), The Decembrist’s Grandson (1963), Secrets of Bygone Days (1964), and Mountains and Stars (1965, about Nikolai Muravyov, a Russian statesman whose life was devoted to developing Siberia). Again, there appear to have been even more of these historical studies/novels, but the online sources are incomplete and sometimes contradictory.
Zadonsky apparently carried on a long friendship with fellow Voronezh son Andrei Platonov, about whom he wrote in his literary memoirs Amid the Stream of Life (1969). Among other books about writers was his There, Where a Great Writer Lived, about Lev Tolstoy and Yasnaya Polyana.
Zadonsky (whose real last name was Koptev) was born in the city of Zadonsk in the Voronezh gubernia (similar to a county). He  struck out on his own by finding work as a typographer in Yelets at the age of 16 then moved to the big city of Voronezh in 1918. He later moved back to Yelets for awhile, but lived the majority of his adult life in Voronezh. He occupied an apartment in the building pictured here from 1953 until his death in 1974.

 

 

Andrei Platonov plaque, Voronezh

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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.”

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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.

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Andrei Platonov monument, Voronezh

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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.

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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.

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Andrei Platonov plaque, Voronezh train station

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There is a line (there are many) that my wife Oksana and I frequently quote from Nikolai Erdman’s play The Suicide. The mailman Yegor is starting to throw his weight around because he’s getting tired of being treated with what he considers to be disrespect, by life and by those around him. So when someone tells him all the topics that writers write about, Yegor puffs up and snaps, “I’m a mailman! And mailmen want to read about mailmen!”
I couldn’t help but think of that when I was standing on the platform of the Voronezh train station a few weeks ago at around 7 a.m. You see, entirely unexpectedly, I ended up standing just beneath a plaque on the station wall that proclaimed: “Voronezh. The homeland of the writer Andrei Platonov, the author of many works about railroad workers. 1899-1999.” A second plaque just beneath that adds: “On the 100th anniversary of the writer’s birthday.”
Anniversaries are great – if it weren’t for them I wouldn’t have found half the plaques and sculptures that make up this blog. But, as you understand, I’m most intrigued right now by that information that the Voronezh railway station offers up on its platform – that Platonov (real last name Klimentov) wrote “many works about the railroad.”
Yes! Railway workers want to read about railways!
By the way, my concentrated reference back to Erdman here has another aspect to it. Platonov and Erdman were good friends who shared a similar life in the 1940s. Platonov (1899-1951) went virtually unpublished after the 1930s. He never was arrested, never spent time in the camps, but he was virtually erased from the face of contemporary Soviet literature. He could not be erased from Soviet or Russian literature proper, because he was too damn good. He is now considered one of the greatest Russian writers of his age. There are those would consider him one of the greatest, most distinctive writers of any language in the 20th century. But that’s what we know now. In his life he, like Erdman, was shunted off into obscurity. Perhaps this drew the two together, or perhaps they were simply sympatico. The details I have at my fingertips, are, unfortunately, skimpy. It’s something I’ve always wanted to know more about, in grand, juicy detail. But, so far, no go.
Still, what I can say is this: Platonov and Erdman used to hang out from time to time at the Metropole Hotel in the center of Moscow. They would drink and talk and, perhaps, drink some more. I don’t know what Platonov drank. Erdman drank only cognac. That was his poison. But there was another component to these meetings and his name was Yury Olesha. That’s right, three writers with great comic talent, three writers hounded out of the public eye by the times they lived in and the people they lived among. And they would get together at the Metropole and talk. And drink. I know Olesha was quite a drinker. Erdman was too, although the word I have from many a source is that no one ever saw him drunk. In fact, he didn’t like sloppy drunks. But he did love his cognac. Platonov – I don’t know. This blog space is public, somebody can fill me in if they do know. But the image I’m working in my head right now is of the magnificent Metropole, right across from the Bolshoi and Maly Theaters, and there in the bar or restaurant is a table with three men sitting, drinking, chatting. Platonov. Erdman. Olesha. Wow.
Who knows what they talked about? Literature? Maybe. Colleagues? Probably. Women? Certainly. Themselves? No way. What I’m saying is that even if we could find a way to go back 70 years in the guise of a fly on the wall, I’m betting we wouldn’t learn a damn thing about any of these guys and what they were up against. We might learn plenty about life, but not about their biographies. All three of them were a special cut of individual – reserved, self-protected, quiet. What a sight it must have been. For the record, I heard tales of these meetings from the writer Iosif Prut, a childhood friend of Erdman’s, who used to get into street fights with the future playwright, and who was also a friend and admirer of Platonov and Olesha.

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Platonov’s father Platon Klimentov worked as a mechanic on the railroad. One day, when Andrei was around 15,  his dad took him to work, a trip that changed the boy’s life. Here is what the Literary Map of the Voronezh Region website says about it:

“In June 1914, with school behind him, the 15 year-old Andrei set off with his father to the estate of the Bek-Marmarchevy family (village of Ustye of the Devitskaya district of Voronezh county – now the Khokholsky area) to repair a broken-down steam locomotive. Having fixed the engine, Andrei stayed on as the engineer’s assistant. For the first time there he encountered real machines – steam powered combines that created kinetic energy, such as he had studied in school in his physics classes. The train rig made a lasting impression on the youth and inspired great interest in technology and the striving to harness it, that lasted all his life. […] From January 1915 to July 1916 he worked as a clerk in the  South-East Railroad Society. By summer’s end in 1916, Andrei began working in a pipe factory, an affiliate of the Stoll and Co. Mechanics Factory. After working there a year as a  foundryman, he returned to the South-East Railroad Society, where he worked in the railway workshops.”

In summer 1920 Andrei began studying to be a railroad electrician, but the hardships of the Russian Civil War interrupted that plan.  I return the narrative to the website text:

“The first workers’ Communist regiment of railway defenders of the southern front was formed by the political office of the South-East Railroad from volunteers among workers and clerks along that stretch of the railroad. Cadet [Andrei] Klimentov volunteered as a common infantryman in the regiment. It was a difficult time for the future writer and it had an enormous influence on him. His impressions bound up in the Civil War; his work on the steam engine; and the stories he heard from his father – who worked on a snow-clearing engine that cleared out snowdrifts inundating the steel rails from Voronezh to Lisok; – all of this was reflected directly in his novella The Innermost Man.”

Platonov’s language and images had the spirit of railroads and engines and machines in them. It is a constructed language and world, built by a man who had a unique eye and ear for the world around him. This station platform where Oksana and I stood for a few minutes before boarding our train to Moscow would have been a place Platonov saw and visited often.

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Andrei Platonov plaque, Moscow

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Andrei Platonov (1899-1951, real last name Klimentov) is a writer about whom you will often see the words, “the best writer you’ve never read.” At least that’s true in the English-speaking world. Most of Platonov’s works – he wrote novels, stories, poetry and plays – were buried in the noise of their time. The vast majority of them have come back to us in recent decades. He was already in the process of being rediscovered in the late Soviet period, but it was after the fall of the wall that he came to us more or less in full light and full flight. The plaque commemorating the fact that he lived at 25 Tverskoi Boulevard (not to be confused with Tverskaya Streeet) from 1931 until his death in 1951 is the work of sculptor Fedot Suchkov. According to Suchkov’s memoirs the bas relief that he created for the plaque originated in a bust he had made for the Platonov family and which was kept in the family home. Heinrich Boll, the great German writer and an admirer of Platonov, purchased a copy of the bas relief for his own personal collection. The plaque hangs not far from another honoring the fact that the poet Osip Mandelshtam also lived at this address for a brief period in the early 1930s. This is the same home in which the 19th-century publicist Alexander Herzen was born, and where the Gorky Literary Institute is located, all of which I have written about previously in this space.
Platonov’s sister-in-law Valentina Troshkina would later recall: “Andrei worked here a lot, he would take his writings to publishers, but only rarely could he publish under a pseudonym. Friends would sometimes gather on Tverskoi. Guests included [Mikhail] Sholokhov, [Alexander] Fadeev, Georges Chernyavshchuk, a marvelous person, although people said various things about him.” Troshkina’s comments, like those of Suchkov, are published in memoirs published on Platnov.narod, a fan-maintained website for the writer.

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Troshkina tells another story I had never heard: When the Germans approached Moscow during World War II many Muscovites were evacuated, Platonov among them. According to Troshkina, he left almost his entire archive of unpublished writings with Troshkina’s husband Pyotr for safekeeping. Platonov took only one thing with him – a piece he called Journey from Leningrad to Moscow, based in spirit, at least, on the great Journey from Petersburg to Moscow by Alexander Radishchev (about whom I have written in this blog). The work apparently meant so much to Platonov that he actually tied the manuscript to his arm when he slept in the train, but somewhere, at some point, the string holding the valuable work of literary art  either slipped from the author’s arm or was clipped by a thief who surely had no idea what he or she was stealing. Thus disappeared a potentially major work by Platonov, one he worked on for eight years, mostly at the home on Tverskoi Boulevard.
It is impossible to imagine Soviet literature now without Platonov somewhere in the center of it. His strong, unique, innovative language conjures up a whole era of Russian/Soviet history. His unblinking pictures of the difficult human condition, along with his unbending humanist convictions, make for literature of genuine power and impact.

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