Platonov and The Sun, the Moon, and the Ether Channel

Information and Questions for Reading

Andrei Platonov (1899-1951)

(Pertaining to the excerpts in Worlds Apart.)

Andrei Platonovich Platonov's original last name was Klimentov - note that "Platon" is the Russian form of the name Plato, and by the 19th century it was marked as most often a peasant's name. He was born in the provincial Russian city of Voronezh, southwest of Moscow, in a working-class family. He started working on the railroad at 15 (more or less as WWI was starting), then served in the Red Army during the Civil War, graduated from a polytechnical institute in 1924 and worked in his home province as an electrical engineer. He started publishing in a variety of genres in 1918, and his first book, Electrification, appeared in 1921. Electrification was a big deal at that point (Lenin pushed it hugely; the little naked bulbs dangling from wires on the deilings of peasant huts were called "Ilyich's little lamps" and made a big impression on people who until then had burned wooden splinters for light at night and seen house spirits in the dark shadows.)

Platonov wrote a science fiction trilogy in the 1920s, Descendants of the Sun (Потомки солнца, 1922), The Lunar Bomb (That's bomb in the sense of bombe or "round thing" - Лунная бомба, 1926), and Ethereal Trail (Эфирный тракт, 1922-8), and our excerpts are taken from these. With some pauses, he continued to write and also to rise through the Soviet trade union hierarchy. By the mid 1920s, his stories were appearing in the most prestigious Soviet literary journals. Some of his writing shows the influence of our old friend Nikolai Fyodorov, though less here his impulse to colonize the stars and more his philosophy of human commonality. By 1927 Platonov was able to leave the electrical engineering and devote himself full-time to writing, and he moved to Moscow - the New York City of the Soviet writing scene.

Elena Dryzhakova-Al'tshuller describes a special Platonov type character: "the 'secret' dreamer, a man 'unburdened' by education or culture (which is 'condensed intellect' in Platonoc's interpretation), yet 'animated' (одухотворен, one of Platonov's favorite words) by the idea of a common weal." Thus, again, the influence of Fyodorov (who had died when Platonov was 3 or 4 years old). "...[H]e dreams of fully renouncing his individuality and merging with the universal life of nature and of history. The result is an almost masochistic drive not to spare oneself, to perish for the sake of the common cause. Such feelings make the 'secret man' unintelligible and alien to those around him; hence came his spiritual anxiety, loneliness, and feeling of doom."

Eventually, Platonov began to express doubts in his writing about the true brightness of the Soviet future, and then of course he couldn't publish what he wrote. A lot of his best stuff was composed in the 1930s "for the desk drawer," though he was able to publish some stories on more ordinary, personal topics. (Note for film buffs: the marvelous 1937 story "The Potudan River" was the basis of Aleksandr Sokurov's even more wonderful first movie - his "diploma project" - "The Lonely Voice of Man" (Одинокий голос человека) in the 1980s.) Platonov worked as a war correspondent in 1942-5, no doubt enjoying the wartime relaxation of censorship, but then was censored again and attacked in 1946, his name removed from histories of Soviet literature. He got work in a children's publishing house, rewriting folktales.

The last part of Platonov's story is just as upsetting: he contracted tuberculosis from his son, who got it while in a Stalinist labor camp and died in his parents' care. He died in 1951, two years before Stalin (who had never liked his writing), and left behind a huge archive of letters and manuscripts that were eventually gradually published, though some appeared only in tamizdat until the late 1980s. The wonderful translator Robert Chandler has been making a project of translating Platonov's work, and more of it is available in very good English translations with every passing year.

Questions for reading these excerpts from the 1920s:

  1. Like many followers of Fyodorov, Platonov comes off as a bit of a wacko. Which ideas or events are scientifically plausible, and which are not?
  2. In particular, how does "ultra-light" (p. 585) compare to "liquid sunlight"?
  3. If you've read Maxim Gorky or other representatives of the romantic strain of Socialist Realism, how would you compare Platonov's writing here to theirs?
  4. Recalling that Platonov turned 18 in 1917, the year of the revolution that was his revolution and gave him access to education and an eventual writing career, what do you make of the revolutionary and labor enthusiasm of his characters?
  5. Not a question, but I have to say: "whey somehow bonded with the ether" (also p. 585) has to be one of the most glorious typos I've ever seen. (Leaving out puns about hte Milky Way...)
  6. How do you think the Czechs or Slovaks or Ukrainians and Ruthenians would have liked the evaporation of the Carpathians?
  7. Compare the very Modernist or Symbolist description of the voyage to the Moon to other space voyages we've seen, and/or to the writing in We.
  8. In "The Ether Channel," Kirpichnikov's last name comes from "kirpichnik," brick-maker. Does this link with old kinds of technology and the building trades tell you anything useful about his class origins and/or character? (Probably not a link with Alquist in R.U.R., but who knows?)
  9. How do these texts imagine and depict scientists?
  10. Are the terrible accidents or tragedies caused by actions of the various scientists presented as examples of hubris?
  11. What do these stories suggest about Platonov's (early) views on Soviet scientific, technological, and other ambitions for transforming the world and Soviet people?
  12. Why could Stalin have disliked Platonov, based on what you've read so far?
  13. What do you make of all the weird deaths?
  14. Anything interesting here regarding the gender relations?
  15. Is there any moral to these stories, as far as you can tell from reading only bits of them?