Alex Thomas: “Platonov Would Have Supported Extinction Rebellion”

Alex Trustrum Thomas is a specialist on the work of Andrei Platonov. A Ph.D. student at Oxford University, Thomas is a graduate of University College London, where he wrote his dissertation on the history of the Soviet avant-garde journals Lef and New Lef. This year, Common Place will publish a Thomas’s essay on Platonov. Fyodor Derevyankin sat down to talk with Thomas about the difficulties of translating Platonov into English, Fedorov and Vernadsky’s influence on Platonov, the writer’s environmental outlook, and why a proper understanding of his work could help save the planet.

How did you get into Russian literature?

I read my first piece by a Russian writer in school; for some reason, it was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It was in English, of course. When I was fifteen or sixteen, I decided I would study Russian. The first time the teacher, who had a huge beard, came to our class just to interest us in the subject. That was his job: to find pupils for his class. He walked in and wrote the word atom on the board in English and below it in Cyrillic — атом. The words resembled each other, but at the same time there was something different and incomprehensible about the Russian word. That’s the best explanation of my attitude towards the Russian language and Russian culture: there is something different and alien about them, and something familiar. So I see Russianness as the border between what I know and what I don’t.

So this feeling hasn’t changed even though you’ve been studying Russian literature for many years?

Almost not. I’m constantly surprised how many things I don’t know at all or I sometimes perceive the simplest things differently. As for literature, I fell in love with Dostoevsky when I was sixteen — Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Gambler, and Brothers Karamazov, of course. I read all this in English, but as my Russian improved, I tried to read things in the original more often. Now, of course, I read mostly in Russian: a different sense of the books immediately opens up, and I am now very wary of translations. This was especially important, naturally, when I was working on Platonov. The translations of his works are particularly problematic—they should be read with care.

Platonov constantly uses a technique that is dissimilar to the ostranenie used by other modernist writers: in his prose, he makes unfamiliar, strange and unusual things ordinary. Olga Meerson calls this neostranenie, or ‘re-familiarization’ in her seminal study of Platonov. For example, the fact that, in The Foundation Pit, the character Misha is literally, not figuratively, a bear should be strange but somehow isn’t. Platonov lulls you into not questioning the fact that the blacksmith’s assistant is a literal bear and that there is nothing out of the ordinary there. Often when you’re reading Platonov you get the feeling that he made a mistake and used the wrong word — it sounds odd or awkward. There is a typical example in my favorite story, “Among Animals and Plants.” When the main character’s conscience is aroused, he begins having doubts about technology and modernization. He says to himself, “But the forest will also be cut down someday, and now it is becoming more and more mysterious and pleasant to live in humanity.” It is now more or less obvious to me that the passage is a mashup of two famous sayings of Stalin: “You can’t chop down the woods without chips flying” [i.e., you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs] and “Life has become better, life has become merrier.” But I have no clue how to get this across in English translation.

In his essay “Catastrophes in the Air, ” Joseph Brodsky quite accurately describes the experience of reading Platonov. He writes that Platonov leads Russian into a semantic impasse from which there is no other way out but to go back. These semantic dead ends are a very serious problem for translators. There are, of course, decent translations in English: I first read The Foundation Pit in Robert Chandler’s translation, for example. But you lose a great deal even with Chandler’s translation. By that time, I’d been studying Russian for a long while, so I was reading the book in English and Russian simultaneously. I remember that I was at university at the time and wrote an essay about the novel. Actually, that was how I started to dig into Platonov’s work.

What was the essay about?

The essay was about space imagery in the novel, which I analyzed vis-à-vis Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and the opposition between Apollo and Dionysus in ancient Greek culture. It was my best essay in the course — it got me my highest mark. At that moment, I realized what a treasure I’d found, and it became my favorite object of study. I was struck then by a phrase about a dog at the beginning of The Foundation Pit—something about a dog wailing lonely in the night or wailing in the night alone. Something like that. And that the nearby inhabitants were also suffering a lot at the same time. I was struck by the fact that the dog does not just howl, but behaves like a person. It was then that I first thought about environmental poetics in Platonov’s fiction, although I didn’t spell it out in the essay. It was later that I elaborated on everything related to this idea.

The particulars of how you got into Platonov’s work are quite intriguing. What aspects caught your attention in the first place?

There were also the strange but fascinating metaphors in The Foundation Pit. For example, when the Soviet authorities order the liquidation of the kulaks as a class, it is decided to put all the kulaks on a raft and send them down the river to the sea. It’s a quite unexpected take on the word “liquidate, ” which, in fact, does contain the word “liquid.” It’s funny and frightening at the same time, of course, when people literally interpret words and orders that actually mean something completely different.

I think only a foreigner could reach this conclusion. It’s not at all obvious to me, for example.


Liquid execution? I think that’s overdoing it even for Platonov.

It’s unexpected. I felt nearly the same perplexity when, at the very end, one of the characters stays up at all night digging a grave for a little girl that is as big as the foundation pit that has been dug throughout the entire novel.

But if we return specifically to the topic I was working on, I remember, for example, the funny moment when the horses suddenly self-organize: they understand the meaning of collectivization and collectivize themselves. That is, they do what the people have been unable to do. It’s amazing. This is not an allegory or coded language, but something much deeper. After all, it’s not just a reflection of what happened to people, but Platonov’s notion of nature and the non-human world. This different vision of the world (different from what was familiar to me then) fascinated me.

And Platonov certainly has a great sense of humor, which I think is underrated. The beauty of this humor is that it’s almost impossible to understand what Platonov is making fun of. Nearly everything Platonov describes — collectivization, the language of the Bolsheviks, life itself—seems absurd. The English have this concept I love, gallows humor. Since this was a time when artists actually were shot for making jokes, we can say that Platonov was living on the edge. We know, after all, that Stalin personally wrote the word “scum” on the manuscript of Platonov’s story “For Future Use.” It’s basically a mystery to me why Platonov survived the Great Terror.

What did you decide to do after all these things had caught your eye?

Right after university, I went to Central Asia, where I specially retraced some of the route described in Platonov’s short novel Dzhan. All the action takes place in an area that now lies on the border between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan — the Ustyurt Plateau, the Amu Darya delta, Khiva, and so on. It was during this same trip that I worked for a month teaching English in Kyrgyzstan. Then I returned to England and got a job at a brewery, where I worked for one year. But after graduating, I really missed the Russian language and Russian culture. I was constantly thinking I wasn’t done with this topic, with that strange fellow Andrei Platonov. At the end of that student essay, I had argued that we needed new tools, a new approach in order to understand the natural environment. To get to the bottom of this, I went back to school: I enrolled in a master’s program, where my thesis topic was the environmental poetics of Platonov’s fiction in the late thirties and forties. During the course of my research, I read nearly everything Platonov wrote, of course. I argued that his work can be divided into three periods. There were the twenties, when he believed in millenarianism. This concept has also been applied to socialism in the sense of the collective longing to build the ideal society. Today, the religious meaning of the word is quite akin to the notion of the end of world, which also contains a kind of utopia, an ideal toward which we should strive. Platonov clearly believed then in the socialist project, in the idea of conquering nature in order to build the ideal society.

Then he wrote Chevengur and The Foundation Pit, in which it is obvious that his outlook had begun to change. In 1934, Platonov wrote the philosophical treatise “On the First Socialist Tragedy, ” in which his doubts about the fate of socialism, as it had been implemented in the Soviet Union, were already clearly legible. From this moment, after 1934, his attitude to what was happening around him changed dramatically, as did his writing. He wrote Dzhan after a trip to Turkmenistan, which had obviously affected him greatly. Then, in 1936, he wrote my favorite story, “Among Animals and Plants.” In 1938, he wrote “The Potudan River” and “The Cow.” Even in the forties Platonov wrote excellent, really beautiful stories — not only “Homecoming, ” which is well known, but also “The Unknown Flower” and “The Little Soldier”, for example.

After 1934, a different perception of nature emerged in his works. Whereas his early texts had dealt with man’s struggle with nature, the latter works are more noticeably a return to nature as an integral part of life. There is a passage I like in his diary: “Unless it is ennobled by animals and plants, humanity will perish, fall into decline, and succumb to the malice of despair, like a lonely man in solitude.” The entry is dated 1936, and its sense is quite different from Platonov’s statements of the twenties.

It is no accident that Platonov’s turning point came in the early thirties, right when socialist realism was introduced as the Soviet Union’s cultural ideology. It was then that Zhdanov (borrowing from Yuri Olesha, it seems) said that a writer should not be an artist, but an engineer of the human soul. Platonov also wrote that, yes, a writer should be an engineer of the human soul, but he should be a real engineer, not his foreman. That was the key difference for him. And after that, he apparently decided that he should solve this issue himself, that he should impact the human soul himself.

What does this have to do with nature?

It was roughly around this same time that Platonov wrote that socialism does not exist on the external level of politics and the state, socialism exists in the human soul. His mission was to understand how one nurtures socialism in the human soul. For Platonov, everything began with the relationship between man and nature. If we have a bad attitude toward nature and everything non-human, it will be like in that quotation: man will “succumb to the malice of despair, like a lonely man in solitude.” Platonov’s solution to this problem was to return to nature. In the story “Among Animals and Plants, ” he uses a simple but effective device: the action begins in the woods, then moves to a hut in a village, then to a city, and then to the capital, to Moscow. The main character undergoes a gradual process of estrangement — from himself, from his family, from nature. He finally realizes what has happened to him, and so he goes back—from the capital to the city, from there to the hut in the village, and then everything ends up again in the woods. Platonov wrote this in 1936, during the heyday of socialist realism. This is hardly a coincidence, but rather an attempt to find his own way of nurturing socialism in the human soul.

It is hard to believe that Platonov’s ideas are so original that there is no one in English-language literature who wrote about something similar.

I don’t know any books that take this stance. Of course there are people who have tried to theorize such things: environmental policy was invented long ago. But I don’t remember its having been mentioned in connection with socialism. This is more of a coincidence, but I was already interested in ecological theory when I began studying Platonov. There are several offshoots of this theory, one of them based on Vladimir Vernadsky’s work on the biosphere and noosphere. Despite the fact that ecological theory is western, Vernadsky’s Biosphere, which was published in 1926, is considered fundamental. I haven’t been able to prove it yet, but it seems likely that Platonov was familiar with this work. It was this connection between contemporary ecological theory and Platonov’s ideas that I tried to prove in my dissertation.

Does anyone still take Vernadsky’s ideas about the noosphere seriously?

I’m not sure about the noosphere, but as for the biosphere, of course they do. I’ve read many books about ecology, and I learned about Vernadsky from them. The concept of the noosphere emerged later, but Vernadsky’s book about the biosphere is a serious scientific work. It articulates things that are quite apparent to us nowadays: there is a layer of life on and around the earth, and everything in it is interconnected. In Platonov’s work, everything is connected in the exact same way. Vernadsky has this concept, “living matter, ” and you find the same exact phrase in several places in Platonov’s later fiction. This may be a coincidence, but there are still obvious similarities in their ideas. I wasn’t exactly obsessed with this find, but I felt it was necessary to record it. There is an incredible amount of research about Platonov’s work, and most of it is better than mine. But as a student, I noticed something that others seemingly hadn’t noticed before. Of course, I’m not the first to note the connection between Vernadsky and Platonov — there are a couple of scholarly articles in Russian about it. But they touch only slightly on what I call environmental poetics. And Vernadsky was the starting point in the development of my ideas.

The most obvious connection is between Platonov’s poetics and Nikolai Fedorov’s philosophy. It’s impossible not to notice Fedorov’s influence when you’re reading Platonov’s works. In The Foundation Pit, for example, you find constant references to Fedorov’s Philosophy of the Common Cause. Voshchev, for examples, gathers fallen leaves for the future life, “hiding them in a secret compartment of his bag where he used to keep all kinds of objects of unhappiness and obscurity.” Why does he do this? Because, as he says to a leaf he has picked up, “You had no meaning in life. […] Lie here, I will learn wherefore you lived and perished. Since no one needs you and you are straying about in the midst of the whole world, I will preserve you and remember you.” The connection between Platonov and Fedorov is the subject of a book by Ayleen Teskey. It’s a comparatively old work (it was published in 1982), but it’s still a classic.

But I still had the feeling that all previous researchers had been missing something, that Fedorov’s influence on Platonov was not the only one. There were Vernadsky and ecology, and they had to be taken into account: there is this gap in Anglophone criticism of Platonov. So my job is not finished: I’m planning to write about Platonov’s works based on my dissertation. It’s only a matter of time, because when I was at university I could not cover all of his oeuvre. I only managed to analyze a few short texts, but I didn’t touch on any of his earlier work, which is no less interesting. It’s also a matter of anthropocentrism: it was a revelation to me that we live in a time when humanity has a decisive impact on the planet. And it’s really time for us to do something about all this because the fate of the planet is now solely in our hands. Either we solve the problems with the environment, pollution, resource depletion, and global warming — or we don’t, and it will end very badly.

What does Platonov have to do with it?

It’s all directly related to Platonov. When I began working with his texts, I was looking for a language in which to capture and rethink our relationship with nature and the non-human, with everything that exists except us. It’s quite important for us to overcome our anthropocentrism if we want to save the world from destruction. If we go on regarding the world in terms of us versus everything else, that is the end: we can forget about the planet’s future because it won’t have one. In Platonov’s fiction I found an environmental poetics, an environmental vision that I think could be used to change people’s perception. Platonov can teach us how to treat nature and the planet differently. We should use all the resources at our disposal to rethink the relationship between us and nature. This includes art, science, education, work, and business, everything that makes up human life. In literature, we can use Platonov’s worldview for this purpose.

It’s hard to imagine he would have been worried about holes in the ozone layer and things like that.

They did bother him. In fact, in “On the First Socialist Tragedy, ” he talks about how we’ve begun digging into the world, into the earth, and how the world reacts to it. The dialectic of nature according to Platonov was that the more we harm the planet, the more it will react against us. It’s just that in Platonov’s time the concepts of ecology and such things were somewhat different. That’s why, in his work, the dialectic of nature is not manifested so starkly as it is nowadays when we understand a lot more about the environmental harm caused by humanity.

Platonov had a different perception of the environment, an alternative vision in which man and the non-human world of animals and plants differed in degree, not in kind. For example, the main character’s injury in “Among Animals and Plants” and his return to nature are a manifestation of Platonov’s dialectic. And it would be difficult to call Moscow Chestnova’s loss of a leg while building the subway, in Happy Moscow, a positive assessment of Stalinist industrialization. Although, in fact, Platonov’s environmental poetics boils down to his pity for everything non-human, and that is the most important thing for us. Empathy, the acceptance of the other in oneself as an integral part of the self, including the entire non-human word are the essence of Platonov’s environmental poetics. The urgent environmental problems of our time, with which we now all have to deal, would be much easier to solve if we all had a Platonovian view to begin with.

It took him a mere ten or fifteen years to come to believe in man’s need to conquer nature and then lose his faith? Even though he didn’t even live to see the Soviet project to reverse the flow of rivers.

Marx witnessed only the early stages of capitalism, when it was in a less advanced form, but he still wrote Capital. So it is perfectly feasible that Platonov understood even then what was happening and the general direction that things were going.

I guess I don’t understand, then, why all other readers and researchers have failed to notice these insights of Platonov.

It’s all the fault of anthropocentrism. Only now have we started to move away from it. Why are The Foundation Pit, Chevengur, and “Homecoming” famous? Because they are about humans. That’s the problem (although this obsession with humans is also understandable — we are people, after all): almost no one knows his stories about plants and flowers; they are all less well known than his texts about people. At the same time, however, for every “Homecoming” Platonov has two or three works about flowers, including “The Unknown Flower” and “A Flower on the Ground.” I’m not trying to argue with the fact that Platonov’s most valuable texts are about humans. This is understandable: we are all trying to make sense of the world and our place in it. If our main concern is with understanding why we’re here and what life is, then when the subject is a little flower or something else non-human, it’s not so interesting. But that’s the problem, I think: we overlook non-human things. For example, in the story “Unknown Flower, ” the titular flower also strives to live, just like a person does: it “labored day and night to live and not die.”

But it clearly won’t do to use this a guide to survival.

It depends on what you want to get from literature.

What do you want to get?

I want to feel that I’m not alone.

Platonov, it seems, wrote more about lonely people.

Yes, that’s the point, because when you read it, you know you’re not the only one thinking about these things, that there’s someone who relates to you. Platonov was often criticized for writing only about pity, for feeling sorry for everyone around him. Moreover, there is no joy, no positive picture of the world, no depiction of how everything is improving, how life is getting better, and how life is becoming merrier, in his works. No one had any use for his pity back then. It is needed more by people who are trying to understand life’s meaning. Personally, I found in Platonov a man who could express my thoughts in a way I couldn’t myself. His pity, his love for nature, for non-human life — for turtles, sparrows, plants, flowers—is already a consolation. It is a comfort when a person thinks the same way as you do when you look at a plant and think, “What a pity that it lives and dies.” What’s the point of this cycle of living and dying? In my view, Platonov explores this question in a deeply ecological way.

In working with animals and trees, there is a desire to ennoble non-human nature itself. But animals and plants also have dignity: they need no additional justification by humans. There is a very beautiful passage in Dzhan where Platonov says the same thing: “[I]n the eyes of the tortoise there is a wistfulness, and in the blackthorn there is a fragrance, signifying the great inner dignity of their existence, which does not need to be supplemented by the human soul.” The very fact that we as a species have become masters of the world does not mean we have the right to exploit and destroy it, as if it were our property. This is not true, and we actually have a huge responsibility for what is happening on the planet right now. Our task is to teach our children not to be like us. They need to understand that everything in the world is connected. Some beings cannot be more significant and important than others, because all living matter has dignity.

We need to demolish the hierarchy of species, to overcome the catastrophic harm caused by Cartesian philosophy and the monotheistic religions, which have separated man from the non-human world, preaching the exclusivity of man as something higher, divine, and immortal. No, we are all part of the world, part of the biosphere, and future generations will hold us in contempt if we don’t turn away from this irresponsible, destructive path. Platonov understood all this, I am convinced of it. I think his philosophical outlook, and the ecological poetics in his prose, can help us transform our children’s perceptions if we start to read him from this perspective.

This is a challenge that I face as much as anyone else. I’m not saying I’ve found all the answers to my questions. But if I’ve managed to find at least one answer, or even half of an answer, then it has been worth it. We have only one earth, and we have very little time left. This is why I support the global Extinction Rebellion movement, the radicalization of the views of people of all ages and generations around the world. This is probably our last chance, our last hope. I recently joined, and my position has become more radical, because the times call for it. Platonov would have supported it too!

Translated from Russian by Thomas H. Campbell.

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