Platonov was that rare thing, a proletarian writer who composed modernist literature of the first order. He was mobilized during the civil war, he had a regional career in journalism. But the famine he observed made him quit writing to retrain as a hydrologist and engineer. When he returned to writing in the mid twenties, his work is marked by a rare practical sense of what was involved, and what could go wrong, in trying to build a new mode of production from the ground up.
From the late twenties on, he composed a series of masterpieces that read like a counter-history of the Soviet Union, written from a point of view that is not so much history from below as from below the below. His central characters are usually orphans who have even less than proletarians. None of his major works were published in his life time. We are fortunate that New York Review Books Classics have put out a series of maginificent translations by Robert Chandler and his collaborators, including Foundation Pit , about Stalin's forced collectivisation of agriculture; Happy Moscow , about the high Stalinist culture of the capital in the late 30s, and Soul , which travels to the far west to look at Soviet power from the periphery.
Unfortunately, the book many would consider his masterpiece, Chevengur , is out of print.
A older translation can be found here. Chandler and his colleagues have released some fragments of a new translation. Here below is a remarkable section in which the locomotive figures, perhaps as an allegory for the failure of the infrastructure of the infant Soviet state to live up to the airy language emamating from its superstructures.
In Molecular Red , I devote a section to working through Platonov's history from below the below of the Soviet experiment in creating a new mode of production. It seems fairly clear that the current one within which we live can't last. The Anthropocene is a catalog of the reasons why the ever-expanding commodification of everything is on a collision course with planetary limits.
Collecting P. T. Barnum
And so I turned to Platonov, not just as a writer, but also as a theorist, who thought long and hard, and based on direct experience, about what it means to build a civilization from nothing. Novokhopersk was surrounded by dry ground, except for the approach from the river, which was all marshland; here the Cossacks had kept up only a feeble vigilance, assuming the marsh was impassable. As such, Goldfrank, along with others, interprets them as part of Malia's constant struggle with revisionists. Malia's continued polemics with the revisionist school of Russian history defined his career and eventually led him to call for historians to reassess the methodological and ideological assumptions that underlay their work.
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Norman Pereira, Professor Emeritus of History and Russian Studies, Dalhousie University, who was a student of Malia's, discussed his legacy as an educator and his career as a scholar. From Karpovich, Pereira observed, Malia gained several ideas that stuck with him throughout his career: that Russia had been an integral part of Europe since at least the 18th century; that the systemic collapse of was attributable to governmental incompetence; that World War I was a decisive and catastrophic event in Russian history; and that ideology and politics were central to the Soviet experience.
History's Locomotives: The Intellectual Legacy of Martin Malia
According to Pereira, Malia's students were a diverse group ideologically, a situation facilitated by his liberal outlook on intellectual debate. Echoing Goldfrank, Pereira noted that Malia's first book was followed by a long silence, caused in part by his disillusionment with the "revisionist" direction of the field. In , colleagues persuaded him to have a collection of his lectures published in French. Pereira summarized Malia's views of the Russian Revolution: first, Lenin's party theory provided the missing link in the Marxist vision of revolution, providing a vanguard for action; second, Communism followed Marx's vision of socialism as "non-capitalism," which included the suppression of private property; third, the alternative to Stalin was not the ideas of a figure like Nikolai Bukharin, but rather a demolition of the system as a whole; fourth, the Great Purges of —37 were not an aberrant rampage, they were rather the genuine functioning of the Soviet system, masking the gap between reality and ideology; and finally, there would be no second socialist revolution after ; all attempts to bring it about would result in massive repression.
Hugh Ragsdale, independent scholar, provided a chronological summary of Malia's major works. In Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism, Malia discussed the problem of why the radical political ideology of socialism arose in perhaps the most socio-economically backward major European country. According to Ragsdale, Malia addressed this issue in part by applying de Tocqueville's ideas on the roots of the French Revolution, most notably, the gulf between intellectuals and those people who actually engage in practical politics.
By highlighting a similar disconnect in Russia, argued Ragsdale, Malia demonstrated that the Russian idea of freedom was only plausible in the imaginative preoccupation of the intellectual, which led naturally to a kind of teleology of socialism. Ragsdale reviewed Malia's next scholarly success, the book Comprendre la revolution russe, which analyzed the events surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution and Russia's failure to reach a liberal breakthrough of the English type or a conservative breakthrough of the Prussian type. In assessing The Soviet Tragedy, Ragsdale argued that Malia focused too much on the ideological nature of the Soviet experience without taking into account other factors, such as the influence of traditional tsarist autocracy.
In Russia under Western Eyes, Ragsdale discussed how Malia used the idea of a cultural gradient in Europe, an idea that was influenced by Alexander Gerschenkron's postulation of the existence of an economic gradient running from east to west across Europe. Ragsdale agreed that a gradient undeniably exists and said Malia was correct in his emphasis on the importance of culture in determining outcomes. Ragsdale argued, however, that in Russia's case, this gradient was emphatically material as well cultural and ran both north to south and east to west.
Another element of the cultural gradient theory that Ragsdale noted as troubling was its inclusion of Russia as an intrinsic part of Europe.
- History's Locomotives.
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Ragsdale objected that while Russia is ethnically and linguistically a part of Europe, psychologically and anthropologically it is not. If a country "westernizes," Ragsdale argued, then it is by definition not part of the West.
Kulturtheoretische Ansätze | SpringerLink
Russia pioneered the experience of Westernization, Ragsdale added. Malia's final book, History's Locomotives: Revolutions and the Making of the Modern World, was praised by Ragsdale for explaining the medieval concept of society correctly and for accurately defining the term "revolution" in the early modern and late modern contexts as a return to origins and as an overthrow.
Ragsdale criticized the book, however, for being Eurocentric and for not taking into account what he believes are some of the most important revolutions in world history. Ragsdale also took issue with the book's notion of the West as the leading force of progress in the world.