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Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit – A Measured Dissection of Utopia’s Gravediggers

Bradley Jardine By Bradley Jardine Published on May 16, 2017

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The Foundation Pits stylistic cornerstone is its cooptation of the Soviet Union’s bureaucratized use of language. 
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Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit presents a nightmarish vision of a world in which language and human labor have lost all meaning. The narrative begins with Voschev (a character whose name is derived from voobshe, Russian for “generally”), a Soviet everyman who has been dismissed from work due to “thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labor.”

Voschev journeys to a neighboring town and joins a group of workers as they dig the foundation pit for a vast new apartment complex to house the next generation of proletarians. But work in the pit is not as it first appears and soon the body-count starts to rise as the workers grow increasingly disillusioned; a not-so-subtle metaphor for Communism under Stalin. 

But what’s traded off in subtle is gained in a bold and focused piece of literature. The hole becomes a near-mythic manifestation of a people struggling to find meaning for both themselves and the nation they are building. The Russian word for pit, katlovan, sounds similar to cauldron, katyol, and Platonov uses this linguistic interplay to heighten the brooding sense of tension haunting the narrative’s setting.

The characters are no less tormented than their spectral workplace. All of them echo Platonov’s own sense of socialist disillusionment, personifying the ideological vacuum he felt following Stalin’s aggressive drive toward total collectivization. This is most evident in Voschev, the overly thoughtful intellectual who “grows weak without meaning” only to be rebuked by his comrades that a sense of purpose can only be found during hard graft.

Depressed and hell-bent on their own annihilation, some of the novel’s characters dig for a sense of escape: “in these actions he wanted to forget his own mind.” It is no surprise that the gloomy dispositions of Platonov’s work were out-of-step with the euphoria of the then-dominant socialist realist style of Maxim Gorky and the officially sanctioned Soviet Writer’s Union. Indeed, most of his work remained buried under the dust of the Soviet archives until the regime teetered into the past tense.

The book’s central tension lies in its deeply self-conscious sense of historical context – that of the war between Russia’s proletariat and peasantry.

With the release of formerly classified documents, The Foundation Pit gained a renewed sense of urgency. The book’s central tension lies in its deeply self-conscious sense of historical context – that of the war between Russia’s proletariat and peasantry. The USSR adopted as its emblem the hammer, symbolizing the workers, and the sickle, symbolizing the peasants. It claimed to be a state representing the interests of both, but lurking beneath the surface was a fierce hostility between the fragile Bolshevik state and the masses beyond its immediate control. As a matter-of-fact, the peasant’s entire way of life was a threat to the Party’s plan for a strong, centrally planned state. After and uneasy truce following the introduction of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) in the mid-1920s, Stalin’s first five-year plan renewed the Bolshevik offensive.

Under the Party’s instruction, the countryside was to be the front for an “intensification of the class struggle,” in which poorer peasants were pitted against the so-called “Kulaks” – peasants who owned property and hired additional sources of labor. As the book’s translator Robert Chandler notes, a key recurring symbol deployed by Platonov to address this conflict is that of a bonfire. Later in the story the symbol turns into reality as the fences which the peasants had once used to demarcate their individual holdings are thrown into a huge fire to “warm the proletariat.”

The book’s prose is extremely dense, and it is clear that Platonov must be a huge challenge for translators. The Foundation Pit’s stylistic cornerstone is its cooptation of the Soviet Union’s bureaucratized use of language. Unlike the flowing prose of Russian greats like Tolstoy, Platonov’s narrative voice is equal measures cumbersome and jarring. For example, the book’s opening sentence reads: “On the day of the thirtieth anniversary of his private life, Voschev was made redundant from the small machine factory where he obtained the means for his own existence.” Nevertheless, after acclimatizing oneself to this angular style following the first few pages, the reader quickly comes to understand that it serves to distill the internal logic of totalitarianism – brutalizing, dehumanizing and disorienting.

The Foundation Pit is a remarkable book with a broad vision that culminates in a memorable last page in which the true nature of the pit’s purpose is unveiled. If you are seeking insight into the profound impact of Stalin’s murderous political apparatus on its citizenry, this novel is an ideal starting point.

Bradley Jardine is a journalist based in Moscow, Russia. He has written extensively on the politics of the former Soviet Union and is an avid reader of literature from the wider Communist Bloc.

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