The Goalkeeper of the Republic: Platonov and the Utopia of the Stadium

Keith A. Livers, University of Texas, Austin

From Boris Groys's exploration of the Russian avant-garde's role in bringing about the advent of Socialist Realism (and, hence, its own demise) to Alexander Zholkovsky's recent articles on Axmatova, Zoshchenko, Pasternak and others, current scholarship has consistently sought to foreground the continuity between late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century cultural mythologies and the artistic and ideological products of the Stalinist era. Works which had previously seemed opaque and devoid of scholarly interest are now being reread in the light of what has emerged as a fundamental connection between the life-transforming, utopian mythologies of the turn of the Silver Age and the attempt at creating a realized utopia during the Stalinist thirties. Thus, in his recent book Rasstavanie s narcissom (1997), Aleksandr Gol'dshtein discusses, among other things, Lev Kassil''s attempt (in his novel Vratar' Respubliki) to realize the Symbolist dream of a universal, "synthetic" art form (Blok, Ivanov) by presenting the Stalinist soccer stadium as a locus of sanitized Dionysian orgy, as the primary means of creating a clean and lucid (as opposed to dark and grotesque) collective body. The critic takes his search for ideological precursors a step further, however, seeing the novel as an ironic realization of Plato's Republic, with the soccer-playing Kandidov as a manque representative of the Guardian class and his journalist mentor Evgenij Karasik as a questionable reincarnation of the philosopher-king. Although the degree of the novel's irony remains a subject for debate, as far back as the 1930s Andrej Platonov seems to have realized precisely the un-ironic utopian/Platonic intentions of Kassil''s Vratar' Respubliki and subjected them to scathing criticism. Himself a less than fully reconstructed utopianist even in an era which frowned on utopianism, Platonov criticizes those aspects of Kassil''s work which seem to banalize or "miniaturize" the idealistic animus of his own work. Using Plato's allegory of the cave as a metaphor for Kassil''s project and the state of contemporary art in general, the author writes that "almost all of the images of the novel relate to reality just as a shadow relates to the object that casts it. And while it [the shadow] is begotten by the world of reality and although it is an unfailing indicator of the sun shining somewhere, still in and of itself the kingdom of blessed shades is not the best place for art." Alongside such prominent contemporary critics as A. Lezhnev who attempted in vain to inspire contemporary Soviet literature with the example of great art "based on synthesis, dynamism and enthusiasm, aimed not at the passively perceiving spectator but at an actively intervening participant," Platonov endeavors in his essays on Kassil''s Vratar' Respubliki and others to carve out a place for genuine art linked to utopian striving, while simultaneously challenging the Stalinist dream of creating a miniature, realized utopia such as the one represented by the Gidraer commune in Vratar' Respubliki. This project is considerably complicated by the fact that Platonov's own writing of the period (e.g. "Fro," Schastlivaja Moskva) consciously distances itself from the full-blown utopianism characteristic of the 1920s. In this paper I will discuss Platonov's literary-critical essays dealing with such contemporaries as Kassil', Prishvin and Paustovskij as part of the author's attempt to negotiate a place not only for himself but for the great art of utopian striving amid the general miniaturization of artistic discourse under Stalin, as well as in the context of his own troubled reflections on the nature and significance of utopia in such later works as "Fro" and Schastlivaja Moskva.