The Foundation Pit

March 24, 2011
 
“We must smash the kulaks, eliminate them as a class.”  Joseph Stalin
 
The Foundation Pit, by Andrey Platonov is a short novel writen around 1930, but not published in Russian until the 1950s.  Platonov was an enthusiastic supporter of the Revolution, but came to understand firsthand its horrific consequences for the rural peasantry.  Unlike a lot of Soviet intellectuals who had their doubts about Comrade Stalin’s methods, and who were only at home in the cities, Platonov travelled and saw by himself what was going on during the period of forced collectivization and de-kulakization.
The kulaks (from the Russian for tight fist) were so-called rich peasants who would naturally tend to resist being forced to relinquish their property and livestock to join a collective.  In fact, any peasant who had any property at all could be deemed a kulak, and they were deported en masse to various parts of the USSR, with large percentages of them dying on the way.  The master plan was to force the rural masses to supply grain to the cities, where Stalin’s breakneck industrialization program was centered, and to supply the grain on demand, as called for by the central bureaucracy, regardless of what a fair price would be or what the rural nutritional needs were.  As a result, millions starved.  The incredible brutality of this policy caused a split in the Party, with horrific consequences. 

The book is rather difficult to read despite its brevity.  It begins and ends at the site of an enormous excavation for a housing project’s foundation, although it isn’t all that clear if the work is being carried forward in any rational manner, and in between there is a long section that takes place in an agricultural village where a party functionary, known as The Activist, is pushing along the collectivization program.   The story is structured like a fable, almost a fairy tale, but the landscape is bleak, and people speak only in political sloganese.  In fact, the language of the text is what is most difficult, for every sentence seems to contain within it many allusions, parodies, sarcasms, and deep ironies.   Readers who are not familiar with early Soviet culture and its controversies are likely to be mystified, or bored.

The weird language that Platonov creates seems to be mirror of the weird, irrational, tortured state to which Soviet society was reduced during the era of the purges and collectivization.  It seems to mock its speakers with its haywire intellectual pretensions, and sometimes notes of intense tragedy break through, in spite of it. 
 A sample – The activist is making a raft on which to float away the deported kulaks, perhaps an allusion to the practice of filling barges with anti-revolutionaries and sinking them that occurred during the French Terror – a kulak challenges the authorities:

“Show me your papers then, if you’re truly an authorized body.”
“What kind of a body am I to you?” said Chiklin [an engineer at the pit].  “I’m a nobody.  The only body around here is the Party.”
“Show me the Party then.  I want to take a close look at it.”
Chiklin gave scant smile.
“You wouldn’t recognize it – not if it were staring you in the face – I can barely sense it myself! Report to the raft at once, you capitalism, you bastard!”
“Let him sail the seas.  Here today, and gone tomorrow, isn’t that right?”  pronounced Nastya [a very youg girl].  “Bastards like him make life boring.”
Chiklin and the hammerer [a bear that acts like a human - often found in Russian folklore] further liberated another six huts that had been built with the flesh of poor laborers, and then returned to the OrgYard where the masses, now purged of kulaks, were standing in expectation of something.
The activist checked the newly arrived kulak class against his own social stratification register, found complete precision, and rejoiced in the action of Chiklin and the forge hammerer.  In return, Chiklin showed his approval of the activist:  Now that’s what I call consciousness!  Your sense of the classes is just like an animal’s!”

Zhachev, a legless veteran of the “imperialist war” watches the kulaks float away.

By then, the kulak river transport had begun to disappear around a bend, behind the bushes on the bank, and Zhachev was loosing the appearance of the class enemy.
“Fa-are we-ell parasites!” Zhachev shouted down the river.
“Fa-are we-ell! responded the kulaks floating off to te sea.

Does he loose site of the kulaks, or does he cease to see them as class enemies once they are reduced to their helpless state?  Does he know which?  Later, the activist is made frantic by a directive from on high that states that many people like him have gone too far, undermined socialist progress, maybe even been wreckers!  Such forward and backward leaps of policy, leaving the fanatical and the opportunistically faithful vulnerable to purges were common, and completely planned by Stalin.

After a while, the activist descended an inventory down onto the floor so that the child could leave a mark confirming receipt in full of all the property acquired in life by the landless laborers who had died without kin and stating that she would put this to good future use.  Nastya [who dies at the novel's end] slowly drew a hammer and sickle on the paper and handed the inventory back.

A symbolic exchange.  Note the weird verb cases – “descended an inventory down onto the floor…”  This is not a poor translation, it’s a deliberately odd use of the passive voice, mocking, I think, the pseudo-scientific, objective prose to be found in so much communistic hack work.

Somehow Platonov survived to die in 1951 from the TB he caught from his son who was sent to the Gulag at age fifteen.

… And now, for some comic relief:

Amiel

18 February 2009
Bankers are the new kulaks, rails Lady Black
As credit-crunched citizens of the world unite to scream “Off with their heads!” at bankers, who will protect the money-spinning classes from the howling mob? Step forward Barbara “My extravagance knows no bounds” Amiel.

In an extraordinary article for the current issue of the Canadian magazine, Macleans, Lady Black compares the treatment of bankers to that meted out to the intelligentsia in Mao’s China and the kulaks in Stalinist Russia.

“Those 1960s and 70s marches, complete with stops at which foul intellectuals would kneel and allocate [sic] to the mobs, are not so different from the modern American perp walk. These days it’s the pointy-head intellectuals and the media class that are the Red Guard, and Wall Streeters the accused. Every night, some TV station posts photos of the day’s addition to the Top 10 Business Villains and another fund manager is added to the list of foul CEOs…We are living through a collective madness, all part of the mob, finger pointing, judging, some driven by fear of economic chaos, others enjoying the schadenfreude express.”

This, of course, would strike a chord with Amiel, whose husband is currently serving a 6 ½ year jail sentence in Florida for defrauding Hollinger shareholders.

“I suspect current economic criminals resemble past ones in that they come in two varieties: the ones who really commit economic crimes and the ones who are elevated by political fashion to the status of criminals. Stalin’s taste made economic criminals of the entire kulak class; kulaks in today’s America would include CEOs and Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe. Certain titles such as ‘hedge fund manager’ have become terms of disapproval that trip off the tongues of people, at least half of whom I suspect have utterly no idea what a hedge fund is,” Amiel rails.

Amiel concludes, “Driven by old fears and left-wing hates, we are moving to notions, à la Bertolt Brecht, that all wealth is suspect. If, as I suspect, the economy is a psychodrama, anti-market hysteria is unlikely to restore equilibrium.


Zola’s La terre & the USSR

April 20, 2010

I am closing in on the conclusion of Zola’s epic of peasant life in the 1860′s, La terre.  Mother Earth is the Good Earth, but everything else is pretty much shit.  Well, even shit ain’t so bad.

The plot recalls King Lear in that Old Fouan, the farmer who makes a gift of his land to his children in return for a pension when he can’t work it anymore ends up homeless, impoverished, and scorned by family and neighbors.  He recalls that he couldn’t wait for his own father to die either, so it’s only natural that his children want him to “peg out” as they call it.  His own sister, La Grande, a demonic crone in her eighties who at the end of life lives only for thinking up ways to make her relatives miserable, takes pleasure in slamming her door on Fouan as a sort of final “I told you so!”  But then she disowned her daughter for marrying for love, watched her granddaughter work herself to death to support her physically and mentally crippled brother, and then took the grandson in as her personal slave.  Zola is not sentimental about peasants, in case you were wondering.

During one of the less tragic episodes, there is a political election roiling the community.  There is an impromptu debate between a well-heeled factory owner and a local farmer:  the industrialist wants free trade, cheap imported grain to lower prices, make it easier for his workers to eat on low wages, and assure his profits.  The farmer wants protection to keep prices high on his grain brought to market:

The two of them, the farmer and the industrialist, the protectionist and the free-trader, stared each other in the face, one with a sly, good-humoured chuckle, the other with blunt hostility.  This was the modern form of warfare, the confrontation which faces us today, in the economic struggle for existence.

“We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers,” said Monsier Rochefontaine.

“But first of all,” insisted Hourdequin, “you must make sure that the peasant has enough to eat.”

We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers.   There’s an irony for you.  The bourgeois industrialist is looking out for the welfare of his workers, and threatening the peasant.  Flash forward sixty years to the USSR under Joe Stalin.  What do we see?  The vozhd, the great strongman, leader of the industrial workers state going to war against the peasant, the kulak. Why?  To feed the workers in the cities.  The tangled historical logic of it all!  The result was the great famine in the Ukraine, as bolshevik instruments of terror requisitioned grain at riflepoint and left the peasants to starve.  And starve they did, by the millions.

Meanwhile, back on the plain of Beauce, France, the peasants shovel their steaming piles of manure onto the fields – from filth comes life, a theme that appears in the strangest places in Zola – and marvel that in Paris, this valuable nutrient is totally wasted in the sewers!  Hugo began a chapter-long discussion of the Paris sewers in his novel Les miserables with the declaration:

Paris throws five millions a year into the sea. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? day and night. With what object? without any object. With what thought? without thinking of it. For what return? for nothing. By means of what organ? by means of its intestine. What is its intestine? its sewer . . . Science, after long experiment, now knows that the most fertilizing and the most effective of manures is that of man . . . A sewer is a mistake.

The peasants move on, as their parents did, and their parents did, and theirs, back for centuries.  No need to move too quickly.

And as I was waiting at the corner to cross the street next to the World Trade Center site, right where the giant trucks move in and out of a sliding gate, a husky woman in construction worker’s clothes announced that a dump truck was ready to come out – the pedestrians would all have to wait.  “I’ve got another one coming out!” she shouted at the top of her loud voice.  I thought, that’s not the voice of a peasant.  Why would a peasant yell with such energy just to announce something she announces several times a day, day in, day out, year in, year out?  Something that’s such a routine part of the job.  Why waste the energy?  No, that’s the voice of an American worker, filled with comittment to her job, maybe with optimism and pride in her role.  I thought, “I’m with the peasant!”  Maybe I’m just reading too damn much…


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 172 other followers