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Andrei Platonov: Чевенгур (Chevengur)

This novel was written in Russia in the 1920s but was not published till 1972, well after Platonov’s death and then only in the West. Despite support from Gorky, only parts of it were published in the Soviet Union during his life. It is not too difficult to see why. While nominally about the birth and rise of communism (in the form of an allegory with a quixotic hero), its semi-naïve approach tends to make it highly critical of communism. In some respects it might be seen as Gogol meets Voinovich, with a dose of Cervantes thrown in but it is more than that and has its own unique style.

Platonov’s avowed attempt is to show the birth of communism with the tale of a small group of people and a small village – Chevengur. We start off with a jack of all trades during a period of acute suffering in the early years of the revolution. This man – Zakhar Pavlovich – struggles but the others in the village, overcome by the extensive drought, despite that the fact that they live in one of the most fertile parts of Russia, often give up, welcoming death. Death is a key theme in this book and, all too often, is welcomed by the characters rather than feared. Zakhar Pavlovich takes in an orphan – Sasha (Alexander Dvanov) and it is Sasha who becomes the hero of the book. Sasha wanders round the steppes, eager to set up communism and seeing much misery and suffering (all of which is treated in a matter-of-fact manner both by Platonov and by the victims). Eventually, he teams up with Kopenkin, a Don Quixote figure, who has his own Dulcinea, whom he calls Rosa Luxemburg, and who is dead.

The pair go to Chevengur, a small village, which has lost a lot of its inhabitants because of famine, to set up communism. Both they and, more particularly, the inhabitants of Chevengur, have a poor understanding of communism. The peasants, for example, think it means doing no work so they just hang around and get bored. Death and destruction, with the Cossacks to the fore, is the norm but it is all taken as being a normal part of the world. More importantly, Platonov’s style is semi-ironic without a hint of sarcasm (the distinction is important) and a strong element of naivety, as it is clear (and must have been clear to the censors) that he is not showing the way to build communism but, rather, how communism is unlikely to succeed, given the conditions in Russia at that time. Nevertheless, Platonov’s distinctive and original style, the misplaced idealism of its main characters and the portrait of a devastated Russia show clearly that many fine works were being written during the Soviet era but were sadly suppressed.

Publishing history

First published 1972 by YMCA Press, Paris
First English translation Ardis 1973
Translated by Anthony Olcot (Ardis); Robert Chandler & Elizabeth Chandler (NYRB)