Notes On Soviet and Post-Soviet Class Formation - Maria Chehonadskih

The title of my blog links metaphorically the Soviet past and the post-Soviet present. One can say that there is nothing in common between that past of the ‘real socialism’ and contemporary capitalist present, but the prefix 'post'. Today this prefix indicates the experience of the ‘socialism in one country’ resulted in nationalist project of the Soviet Republics and uncertain status of its present in-betweenness. This traumatic past is still the main point of reference, especially when it comes to the analysis of the current political and social problems, like today’s Ukrainian-Russian conflict. If one side of the conflict is struggling for the dismantle of the “post”, i.e. the dismantle of everything associated with the Soviet experience: monuments, symbols and infrastructures, another side of the conflict is confusing the socialist past with Russian capitalist present and/or Russian Empire. The irony of the history is that today the agenda of class has been replaced by the nationalist consolidation around the symbols and narratives of the Soviet past. Probably, it won't seem so strange and confusing if we address to the Soviet history the question of its class formation. This class formation was expressed first in the doctrine of socialist primitive accumulation and then was realized in violent collectivization. Moreover, the specific class relations and imaginary  post-Soviet identities had formed by both previous Soviet experience and reconfiguration of the class during the economic ‘shock therapy’ in 1990s. In this sense, A. Platonov’s ‘The Motherland of Electricity’ is metaphorical returning to the origin. Starting from here, I would like to address the question of class through its representation in literature, cinema and contemporary art in order to establish genealogical analysis of the class formation and to problematize contemporary 'declassification' in broader perspective.

Andrei Platonov is the Soviet avant-garde writer, whose novels and short stories are often dedicated to the problematization of class and post-revolutionary thinking of communism. The avant-garde language of his novels is based on the mixture of Bolsheviks abstract categories, the new party jargon and the concrete thinking in peasantry speech. The subject of this peculiar language is a poor peasant or a working class community. The driving force of the Platonov’s characters is the desire of communism, although the realisation of the communist agenda is usually far from the ideal. 'The Motherland of Electricity' (1939) was published in the issue of the journal 'Industry of Socialism' dedicated to the 20th anniversary of Electrification plan. The protagonist of the story is young worker. He is going to the small village on a party errand to repair the electricity supply. However, in the village he faces hunger and drought. The electricity here works from a motorcycle motor and local people are pray for rain. After the sleepless days and nights of hard work, his efforts to supply electricity for the irrigation of the dry earth had ended by boiler explosion.

The story refers to the origin of the Soviet Power. After the October revolution, the urgent task of transition to the socialism was expressed in famous Lenin’s plan of electrification. In the peasantry country, suffering from drought and hunger, electricity was a luxury good, literally, a ray of light in the realm of darkness. The plan of electrification was more than just the economic program of modernization and industrialization. It was a romantic project of Soviet Enlightenment. Electricity was a synonym of education and progress. The modernization had political goal of the eradication of illiteracy and transition from the mass poverty to the working class country. At the same time the story is based on writer’s own working experience at Russian province as an electrical engineer in 1920s. Platonov asks himself, how can you bring the light (both Enlightenment and electricity) without the transformation of life as such? Indeed, before the great projects are realized, the poverty and class differences should be abolished. The contradiction between the utopia of the early revolutionary electrification plan and the reality of the forced industrialization in 1930s is the allegorical level of Platonov’s story. The ‘electro-shock’ of collectivization did not abolish the reactionary and archaic forms of life as romantics of the Soviet Enlightenment has expected, but brought paradoxical coexistence of the old and new, the utopian and dystopian, the barbaric slavery and some progressive socialist elements. However, the hope for a better future is still there. That is why the story starts with the poetic explanation of the means of electricity for the poor villagers:  ‘We saw a light in the gloomy dark of a destitute and barren space... we saw wires hung on old wattle fencing; and our hope for the future world of communism, a hope essential to us in the difficult existence we led day after day, a hope which alone made us human -- this hope of ours turned into electrical power, even if the only light it had lit so far was in some far-off little huts made of straw'1

In mid 1960s, the Soviet film director Larisa Shepitko filmed “The Motherland of Electricity” for the collection of the sort films dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the October revolution. (The film was banned and released only in 1987). Shepitko seems to be the only film director who was able to grasp the peculiar materiality of Platonov’s language through the medium of the film image. She transmits its broken and abusive nature, while creating the ascetic black and white pictures and combining the realist portraits of her non-professional actors with the fragments from Platonov’s text. The result is that the avant-garde language of Platonov is transformed into the realist picture. This picture tells us (in existential manner of the Soviet 1960s) the story of the poor village. Thanks to Shepitko we are able to see the face of the poverty. This face of poverty, however, is not only melancholy, but also a hope for a better future:

                     

“The Motherland of Electricity” can be also seen as a criticism of the violent collectivization, which brought industrialization into the village together with the new class war and hierarchies in the peasantry communities. The great class war not only between the old and the new classes, but also between the poor and the poorest had flooded the cities and villages in 1930s. We can observe that declassed multitude of people in the post-revolutionary society did not belong to any class category existing in Marxist theory. The majority of the population was represented by the poor peasants and there were only a few percent of industrial workers and educated intellectuals. What were made of it are no more than imaginary class identification. It was enough to point at someone to declare that s/he is the class enemy or anti-Soviet element. The national identities construction and the crystallization of the Soviet hierarchies was a result of this process. In other words, the marxist ground for analyses of the class identity in relation to the means of production was replaced by rough identity politics. From today’s perspective, the collecting the Soviet singularities and forming from them one simple unity was a failure, resulting in a number of precarious and weak post-Soviet states after the final collapse. In Platonov’s novels and short stories we often deal with all these imaginary identities. He portrays the new class and group identities in the age of the early Soviet class formation and somehow predicts their monstrous reincarnation in Post-Soviet future, when maybe we have more Marxism and less Marxism-Leninism, but still no communism.

  • 1. Platonov, A., 1999. The Return and Other Stories. Translated from the Russian by R. and E. Chandler, A. Livingstone. London: Harvill.