Tuesday, 20 April 2010

And the Camps are Far Away

In my maddest moments I think we’re turning into the Soviet Union; about middle era Brezhnev: the corruption, the inefficiencies, the isolated political elite, and the fantasy world of the media feel ever so familiar. The new dawns and false promises of Socialist Realism sold the Soviet state, that bag of particularly rotten merchandise, while Western PR sells The Corporation, and its mirage of eternal happiness.

So what was the Soviet Union really like? Can
Andrei Platonov help us? Or is it another world, a completely different one, that he sees?

Small allegories of the dullness of Soviet life; the irrational violence that visits like a half expected guest; and bold empty slogans, big words telling you,"You Are Free!" You walk around with thick-set men with heavy jowls in long corridors, endlessly…. And a heavy door slams ominously in the distance – an echo, and you look at each other, gloomy and prophetic.

For the dissident writer in the Soviet Union the problem is enormous: the material is too powerful, and too obvious. The corruption and brutality so overwhelming that it becomes the only subject, which must be written obliquely turning it into parable; and all the parables the same, dull mirrors of those bright Socialist Realist slogans, the fine detail, the nuanced ideas, all lost. Think of Zinoviev’s Yawning Heights, possibly the most boring book I’ve ever read.

Of course, one could treat the Soviet Union as God was treated previously: some mystical other, a source of mystery in which to create delicate fairy tales; with insight and fresh perspectives. Certainly, there are examples in other East European countries, and it’s possible that the best Soviet writers have yet to be published in the West. In the Cold War we only wanted the obvious, the Zinovievs, the Solzhenitsyns.

And Andrei Platonov? Foundation Pits, large engineering works in the far east…. Just ideas, and obvious ones at that?

“You see, Nazar Ivanovich, we don’t feel that Soviet Power is giving us any easy life: go on, it tells us, be glad, and be responsible yourself for good and evil, it says, you’re not any longer just a bystander on this earth. And what kind of life did we have before! When you’re in your mother’s womb you don’t remember who you are, then you come outside and grief and hardship drive you, you live in a hut like in some dungeon where you can’t even see the light, and then you die and lie there quiet in your grave and forget that you even existed. We’ve been in tight places everywhere, Nazar Ivanovich – a womb, a prison cell, a coffin, with nothing but blankness all around us. And everybody hindering everybody else! While now everybody comes to help – that’s Soviet power and cooperation have brought us!”

This is from his short story Aphrodite, an officer in the Second World War looking back on his early life, to the town where he fell in love, and built a power station. A power station! That most obvious of Soviet metaphors, but here turned into a Sermon on the Mount: even old symbols can be given new life – think of the Gospels, the nuanced handling of a few dozen images, their transformations over the centuries.

The quotation is from one of the participants in that project, which gives a purpose, a religious meaning, to the community. This story, like the others, captures the atmosphere of the early Soviet Union, just after the Civil War, when for the idealists everything was possible – it reminds us of the excitement, the innocence, of Communism, at that time. Here love and Communist ideals are mixed up to create an all-pervading sense of possibility, and of happiness. Even when something goes wrong, as with the power station in this story, happiness can still be possible:

Now the happy years of peace had long gone by. They could not have lasted forever, for even happiness must change if it is to be preserved. In war Nazar Ivanovich Fomin had found another happiness for himself, different from what his peacetime work had given him but related to it; after the war he hoped to find a higher kind of life than anything he had yet experienced, either as a worker or as a soldier.

And what a line! Even happiness must change if it is to be preserved. Platonov’s main characters are always in love, and mostly that love is for a lifetime. A love of a wife and love of an ideal are almost inseparable, and they live on, in shared habits or in memories. There is a suggestion, perhaps, that for Platonov life without these is not possible. We need happiness! Our own, and that of our community. And it survives, if we have this temperament, even after criminals (in Aphrodite) or Commissars (in Dzhan) try to destroy it. Though there is a curious story (The Potudan River) which suggests you can have too much happiness: he finds it impossible to live with his love for Lyuba, it is too powerful, and wired with sensitivity he runs away, unable to live with its surface tension. Intoxicating happiness! That revolutionary excitement of the early Soviet Union. How quickly it disappeared.


  1. Good grief Mr. Schloss. It's not as if we're living in a surveillance state where taking pictures of public buildings can attract the attentions of the security forces. I mean, you'd expect to be thrown out of a Politburo conference for shouting "rubbish" under anti-terrorist laws, but surely you're not saying that would ever happen over here? The British people would never accept detention in police custody for 28 days without charge now, would they? Those are the actions of a police state, and I put it to you sir, that you are the typical example of a paranoid poet. It seems that they had quite enough of your type in the old Soviet Union.

  2. Who is the poet, I wonder. A touch perhaps of the poète maudit?

    Pluvius, venting spleen on all enclaves,
    Upsets his chamber-pot of lethal gloom
    On leaden neighbours mouldering in their graves
    And fog bound rhymers pacing in their rooms.

    Spleen (Charles Baudelaire)

    Max Weber once defined the state as having a monopoly on violence. Only it has the right to legitimate force. Thus all states are police ones….

    Of course, then the nuances begin: Britain around the time of the first policemen compared with the Russia of the mid 1980’s, with half the audience at a Pop Mechanics gig believed to be police informers? China in the Cultural Revolution, where the kids became coppers….

    Cloud-sovereign himself, the Poet seems
    To rule the storm and taunt the crossbows’ strings,
    But exiled on the earth in scornful times,
    Can never walk for such outlandish wings.

    The Albatross (Charles Baudelaire)

  3. You've made it quite clear that you intend to vote Liberal Democrat. I rest my case, Mr Schloss.