- Andrei Platonov and the “Living Dialectic” of the “Pushkinian Person”
In recent years, a fair amount has been written about Andrei Platonov’s collaboration with Georg Lukács, Mikhail Lifshitz, and the other contributors to Literary Critic and members of the Current discussion group.1 It was an unlikely encounter between two of the twentieth-century’s most important Marxist aestheticians—one of them long famous to the world and the other only now being “rediscovered”—and the working-class artist who may rightly be called the greatest Marxist prose writer born of the Russian Revolution. The circumstances of this collaboration add further dramatic resonance. These three thinkers engaged in a public literary-critical polemic with leading representatives of the Soviet literary establishment, including Valery Kirpotin and Vladimir Ermilov.2 Meanwhile, the “anti-party group, Literary Critic” was targeted by Kirpotin and Aleksandr Fadeev in a secret denunciation addressed to Iosif Stalin, Andrei Zhdanov, and other members of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party during the height of the Stalinist Terror.3 The heated debates [End Page 87] between the two groups concerned Socialist Realism, “popular spirit” (narodnost´), humanism, positive character types, optimism, aestheticism, and their place in Soviet literature. The Pushkin jubilee of 1937 made the poet’s legacy a key front in these polemic battles.4 It was in this context that Platonov published two lengthy articles on Pushkin, “Pushkin Is Our Comrade” and “Pushkin and Gorky,” in the January and June 1937 issues of Literary Critic.5
Platonov’s contributions to this intellectual “current” were diverse in nature. In addition to taking part in the group’s discussion circle, he published short fiction, literary criticism, reviews of Russian, Soviet, and foreign literature, and polemical articles in Literary Critic (as well as other journals and newspapers like Literary Review and Literary Gazette) between 1936 and 1940. As Ermilov put it in “On the Harmful Views of Literary Critic,” his 1939 polemical assault on the journal, Platonov was an “‘artist-critic’ in the literal sense.”6 Though Ermilov hardly intended it, this hybrid Russian construction points to the category-defying nature of Platonov’s literary-critical essays from this period. Neither entirely rigorous literary scholarship nor pure artistic creation, they incorporate elements of both while constituting something at once more and less than either taken separately. In 1938, Platonov’s considerable stature as a Soviet critic in this period earned him a contract with Soviet Writer to publish a collection of his critical articles and reviews under the “modest” title of Meditations of a Reader.7 In August of 1939, the publisher had already begun printing the book when the mounting campaign against Literary Critic put a halt to the release. In September, Platonov was informed that “Pushkin and Gorky” would be removed from the book, and the articles on Pushkin were given special negative attention in Ermilov’s article attacking Literary Critic’s “harmful views.” The collection was shelved indefinitely in 1940 after a negative internal review by none other than Kirpotin, then the director of the criticism section of the Soviet Writers Union.8 [End Page 88]
Apart from criticism, Platonov published some of his finest mature prose in Literary Critic, including the short stories “Immortality” and “Fro” (no. 8, 1936). As Kirpotin and Ermilov’s denunciation notes, the journal “made Platonov their banner” and “points to him as a model” for other Soviet writers.9 Following Gorky’s death in 1936, these humanistically disposed leftist thinkers saw an opportunity to debate some of the defining features of Socialist Realism and sought to put forward their own theoretically refined aesthetics and Platonov’s masterful socialist fiction as the new standards for Soviet art.10 In his 1937 article “Emmanuil Levin,” to this day, one of the most insightful works of scholarship on Platonov, Lukács illustrates this new ideal on the basis of Platonov’s “Immortality.” He counterposes the story’s protagonist to the “ready-made” heroes of other Soviet fiction, with their “abstract, but, at the same time, completely defined, ‘pure,’ ‘socialist’ traits.”11 By contrast, Platonov manages to “show the complex process of the new person’s coming into being...