Posts tagged 1930s

Central Asia and “Soul” by Andrey Platonov


I just finished reading a powerful short story that became a classic in the former Soviet Union. Perhaps because it touched a nerve with the “souls” of those who were struggling in a supposedly “classless society.”  It certainly irked Stalin enough to put Platonov on the black list of Soviet writers.  However, Platonov’s stories continue to surface, even today. 



I appreciate the cover on the front of this “Soul” book which uses the artist Kazimir Malevich opaque painting “Torso in a Yellow Shirt.”  I have run across Malevich’s works before in relation to Ukraine’s Holodomor [Terror Famine] and the devastation of millions of destroyed souls in the early 1930s. 


Platonov masterfully and craftily writes about famine which manifested itself in Central Asia as well without ever once using the words “starvation” or “famine.” [of course those words were verbotten in the 1930s]  I think the translators skillfully brought out Platonov’s Russian nuances into English which will hopefully make this a classic MUST read among westerners.  Please read the following quotes I found intriguing, I’m sure the original Russian is just as gripping.


p. 31 “Chagataev told the old man that he had come from far away for the sake of his mother and his nation.  But did his nation still exist on earth, or had it come to an end long ago?

The old man said nothing.

“Did you see your father anywhere?” he asked.

“No. And you – do you know Stalin?”

“No, I don’t,” Sufyan answered.  “I once heard that word from a passer-by.  He said it was a good word.  But I don’t think it can be.  If it is something good, let it come here to Sary-Kamysh.  This was the hell of the entire world, and no human being lives a worse life than I do.”

“It’s me that’s come,” said Chagataev. “Here I am.”


p. 105 “Then Chagataev gathered everyone together and asked whether they intended to live of their own accord or were they still living merely thanks to such outside forces as food, air, water and habit acquired at birth.  Nobody answered him anything.

Many pale eyes were straining to look at Chagataev, trying not to close from weakness and indifference.  Chagataev felt the pain of his sorrow: his nation did not need communism.  His nation needed oblivion – until the wind had chilled its body and slowly squandered it in space.  Chagataev turned away from everyone: all his actions, all his hopes had proved senseless…”


“…Did there remain in his nation even a small soul, something he could work with in order to bring about general happiness? Or had everything there been so worn away by suffering that even imagination, the intelligence of the poor, had entirely died?  Chagataev knew from childhood memory, and from his education in Moscow, that any exploitation of a human being begins with the distortion of their soul, with getting a soul so used to death that it can be subjugated; without this subjugation, a slave is not a slave.  And this forced mutilation of the soul continues, growing more and more violent, until reason in the slave turns to mad and empty mindlessness.  The class struggle begins with the victory of the oppressors over the ‘holy spirit’ confined within the slave: blasphemy against the master’s beliefs – against the master’s soul, the master’s god – goes unpardoned, while the slave’s own soul is ground down in falsehood and destructive labour.”

p. 109 “Half an hour later he was close enough to see that the entire Dzhan nation was sitting around this fire of quietly burning saksaul.  The nation was singing a song and did not notice Chagataev.  Chagataev listened to this song, enthralled…The song said: 

“We won’t cy when tears come to us,

we won’t smile from joy,

and nobody will be able to reach our deep heart,

which will make its own way towards people

and the whole life and stretch out its hands to them

when its bright time comes,

and this time is now near;

deep in our hearts we can hear our soul,

hurrying to come out and help us.”


p. 149 “Chagataev took Ksenya’s hand in his own hand and felt the far-away, rapid beating of her heart; it was as if her soul wanted to reach him and come to his rescue.  Chagataev now knew for sure that help could come to him only from another human being.


So it would seem that the communist idealist who believed in Stalin because he was essentially orphaned to the communist State, went on a mission to be the “savior” to his meager “pedestrian nation” in Central Asia, extracting it from near extinction.  However, in the end he needed saving from himself and those ideals that had possessed and tormented his life almost to physical death.  Ultimately, he was freed in the end of this short story by love from another desperate soul.

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Bakytzhan’s Grandfather – Open Heart and Open Home

Almost everyone has heard older people say the “new generations are worse than previous ones” or “we used to study/work harder than present generation”, etc. But when I remember my grandparents, I generally agree with this. They definitely were the people that devoted their entire lives to make others’ lives easier and better.

My grandfather Bernar was a surgeon. He came to Almaty in 1950s, as many of young Kazakhs did, to get a degree in medicine. Although he came from a relatively affluent background (his father was an influential journalist of that time), his life was not easy. He and his older siblings remember severe famine that affected most of Kazakhstan in early 1930s. Their family used to bring other people’s children to their house, and saved them from starving to death. They used to share that little that they had with people around them, and did not require anything in return, though, of course, they enjoyed respect and admiration from others.

My grandfather graduated from Medical Institute with very high marks, when met my grandmother and eventually married her. After he completed his studies, he was ordered by the government to go to countryside to work in a local hospital. He would tell me different fascinating stories about his experience there, because at that time he was the only educated medical professional in that area. Although he was a surgeon, he had to perform various other tasks, sometimes not even related to medicine. He said that this experience was incredibly important in his later career, as it gave him a sense of confidence and wide knowledge and understanding of other fields in medicine.

Later, he returned to Almaty, where he was offered a job in a large new hospital. There his outstanding performance and talent ensured his career growth, and by a few years he was promoted to the position of Chief Surgeon. He would supervise all surgical operations that took place in his hospital, and performed operations on hearts himself. Therefore, he would save people’s lives, and thousands of people all around Kazakhstan, who had cardiovascular diseases treated in his hospital, still owe their existence to the skills and professionalism of my grandfather and his colleagues.

Similarly, my grandmother came to Almaty to study in Pedagogical Institute. After she graduated from it, she went to work in a school, where she used to teach Physics. She is a very educated person, and she passed her love to literature to her children and grandchildren. She used to work very hard, and despite low salary she was always devoted to her job. She retired a few years ago and now she concentrates on her grandchildren, my cousins.

Although my grandparents did not always have a large house, its doors were always open to anyone. This was a true Kazakh sense of hospitality that is being lost in modern times. According to my mother, they always had one room in their apartment occupied for guest(s). My grandfather’s personality was so welcoming and open-minded, that many people admired him and maintained good friendship with him. Therefore, when he deceased in 1999, hundreds of people came to his funeral, and shared grievance and mourning with us.

When I was born, I was the first of his grandchildren and thus enjoyed full love and care from my grandparents. My parents divorced soon after my birth, and my grandparents decided to take care of me, in order to help my mother to pursue her own academic career. They were probably the best grandparents in the world. They used to explain everything to me, without becoming irritated, as some parents do, and they always encouraged me to study and learn more. They both kept saying me that only educated people are truly respected, and that this is the only right way to succeed in life. Moreover, their devotion to work despite low pay and tough environment stands as a very good example for me. I am very grateful for all the knowledge and values they gave me and wish future generations such grandparents.

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