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III: ASIATIC RESTORATION - Reclaiming Native Soil: Cultural Mythologies of Soil

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III: ASIATIC RESTORATION 


 


 


 
If Jasienski’s novel ties land-works to reeducation, it still raises the specter of the AMP in 
the violence on the construction (or reconstruction) site. Even under the Chekist’s watch, the 
relationship between human bodies and soil, and the improvement of each through the other, is 
governed here by the state and its violent, monumentalist projects. Evgeny Dobrenko writes, 
“The discourse of violence against nature grew into the discourse of violence against the human 
masses. Actually, Gor’kii's favorite phrases—‘the transformation of nature’ and ‘reforging 
[perekovka] of human material’—are synonymous [...].”
63
 Ernst Gellner notes the paradox of 
persistent state violence in the Soviet context and links it to the theoretical questions posed by 
the Asiatic mode of production: “By allowing coercion to be, in this manner, an independent 
agent in history, it destroys the optimistic theory that coercion is only a by-product of economic 
exploitation and can be finally eliminated when such exploitation ends. It thus encourages what 
Soviet anthropologists have called the ‘idealist theory of violence.’” 
64
 In 1923, Osip 
Mandel’shtam warned of the “monumentality of the forms in the social architecture that is 
approaching,” noting that “there are epochs which contend that they care nothing for man, that 
he is to be used like brick or cement, that he is to be built with, not for.”
65
 Mandel’shtam’s 
description of the new social architecture of the Soviet state makes clear the threat of a 
restoration of Oriental despotism with its monumental forms. He writes:  
 
The mountain cannot yet be seen, but already it casts its shadow 
upon us and we—unacustomed to monumental forms of social life, 
trained in the governmental and legal flatness of the XIXth 
century—we move about in this shadow with fear and 
bewilderment.
66
  
 
Mandel’shtam notes that this monumentalism was a feature of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, 
and the “Egyptians and Egyptian builders treat the human mass as a material of which there must 
be a sufficiency and which must be delivered in any desired quantity.”
67
 And he concludes, “If 
the social architecture of the future does not have as its basis a genuinely humanistic 
justification, it will crush man as Assyria and Babylonia crushed him.”
68
 As Jasienski’s Asian 
laborer is transformed not into an enlightened citizen but a “flattened mass,” and ultimately the 
literal material of the construction project, the 1920s’ vision of Asiatic restoration discussed by 
Mandel’shtam is carried with its essential features into socialist realist literature. 
The fullest interpretation of Stalinist Soviet space as the site of an Asiatic restoration can 
be found in Boris Pil’niak’s works of the early 1930s. The central plot of Pil’niak’s construction 
                                                 
63
 Evgeny Dobrenko, “Nadzirat’—nakazyvat’—nadzirat’: Sotsrealizm kak pribavochnyi produkt nasiliia,” Revue 
des études slaves 73:4 (2001), 671. 
64
 Ernest Gellner, foreword to Nomads and the Outside World, by Anatoly M. Khazanov (Madison: University of 
Wisconsin Press, 1994), xi. 
65
 Osip Mandel’shtam, “Gumanizm i sovremmenost,” translated and reprinted in Clarence Brown, Mandelshtam 
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 103. For the original, see Osip Mandel’shtam, Sochineniia v dvukh 
tomakh (Moscow, 1990), 2:205. 
66
 Ibid., 102.  
67
 Ibid., 102. 
68
 Ibid., 103. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
73 
novel, The Volga Falls to the Caspian Sea (Volga vpadaet v Kaspiiskoe more, 1930) concerns a 
plan to construct a dam in the ancient “Asiatic” city of Kolomna to reverse the course of the 
Moscow River according to the “science of Engels the sociologist and Engels the hydrologist.”
69
 
(Perhaps we are to understand that Engels’ sociology is equal to hydrology, fused in a hydraulic 
despotism.) At the time of the novel’s publication, Soviet and anti-Soviet critics bitterly 
contested its ideological orientation. Subsequent scholarship has largely ignored or dismissed the 
novel, probably because of its formal, as well as ideological, awkwardness.  
While Volga expresses ambivalent values, juxtaposing it with Pil’niak’s sketches from 
Tajikistan, The Seventh Soviet (Sed’maia sovetskaia, 1931), provides some additional leverage 
for interpretation. Although scholarship has never treated them together, these two works can be 
read as a nearly-continuous text, whose concern with starina, Asiatic heritage, and the 
transformation of nature collapses the geographic and historical spaces of the Russian center and 
the Asian periphery into a continuous narrative. In The Volga Falls, Pil’niak creates a dense 
structure of associations between a familiar topos in his work—the Asiatic past of Russia—and 
the topos of the AMP and the Asiatic restoration, with the flow of the river connecting the topoi 
in time.  
While Pil’niak has been almost universally critiqued, on both aesthetic and ideological 
grounds, for working the plot of his previous, condemned novel Mahogany into The Volga Falls, 
the confluence of topoi in the two novels takes on surprising new resonances in relation to the 
AMP. The antique dealers Pavel and Stepan Bezdetov actually specialize in “Asiatic 
restoration”: in their rooms on “a typical Asiatic Moscow street,” Zhivoderka, the Bezdetovs 
collect and restore mahogany furniture which reflects the styles under a succession of Asiatic 
despots. “Political epochs”  are “overlaid” on the mahogany while never fundamentally altering 
the nature of the material.
70
 These restorers “construct nothing now. They merely restore 
antiques; but they have preserved the habits and traditions of their uncles.”
71
 The superficial 
refashioning of antiques echoes the plan to reverse the course of rivers, for “rivers are the 
highroads of antiquities.”
72
 When Pil’niak writes that “again the Oka will flow from man’s will, 
not nature” it seems that the metaphorical river of history has been turned back to the primitive 
socio-political order of Asiatic despotism.
73
 Throughout the novel, Pil’niak flamboyantly refers 
to the dam that will reverse the river’s flow as a “monolith.”
74
 The associations between the 
monolith of the future and the ruins of the past are further emphasized in the subplot of Liubov 
Pimenova, an archeologist and the daughter of the chief engineer of the monolith, who examines 
antiquities as they are excavated from the canal bed. The construction site and the archeological 
site are the same, collapsing past and future planes and suggesting the eventual ruin of the 
“monolith.”  
Liubov’s father, the engineer Pimen Poletika is motivated by his fear of the advancing 
deserts and he attributes famine in the Russian heartland to winds from Asia, including the 
sukhovei and the afganets. Poletika’s technocratic solution to this “Asiatic” threat is irrigation 
and monumental waterworks. However, his discussion of the fall of past civilizations raises the 
disturbing paradox that irrigation itself might restore Asiatic despotism in the Soviet Union. This 
                                                 
69
 Boris Pilnyak, The Volga Falls to the Caspian, trans. Charles Malamuth (New York: Cosmopolitan, 1931), 193. 
[B. A. Pil’niak, Sobranie sochinenii v shesti tomakh (Moscow: Terra, 2003), 4:362.] 
70
 Ibid., 4:50. 
71
 Ibid. 
72
 Ibid., 4:188. 
73
 Ibid., 4:202. 
74
 Ibid., 4:3, 27, 32, 38, 88, 117, 141, 181, 202, 222, 339.  

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
74 
Asian threat plausibly encodes a political threat from within “Asiatic” Russia, not a climatic 
threat from without as Solov’ev had warned of. It is not only desert, drought, and hot winds that 
are Asiatic; the waterworks that combat them also resemble the monuments of Oriental despots. 
Poletika dreams of past civilizations that have fallen to the “ominous advance of aridity”:
75
 
 
The Arabian desert of bygone times had been a very rich and 
flourishing country of culture, science, religion; the red sands of 
Egypt had flourished once. And the Tatars? Five centuries ago, 
within the memory of Russian history there were exceedingly 
prosperous Tatar cities on the lower Volga […]. Now even the very 
traces of these cities are lost in the sands—the waterless heat of the 
sands has come on to the Volga region, as far as Nizhnyi Novgorod 
to the Donets Basin, to the Kuban—sands, scorching heat, death, 
which made the faces of the Tatars as yellow and dry as the sands.
76
 
 
Pil’niak associates Atlantis, the ultimate technological utopia, with the fallen Oriental 
despotisms of Assyria, Babylonia, and Mesopotamia in Poletika’s speech about his next 
hydroengineering project: 
 
All we are now building is, strictly speaking, a trifle, compared with 
what we hydrotechnicians can achieve. Remember the globe. 
Nothing of Atlantis has remained to humanity; it was burned out by 
the sun and buried under the sand. In the memory of mankind 
flourishing countries have disappeared—Assyria, Babylonia, 
Mesopotamia. The Tigris and Euphrates were once an earthly 
paradise, an enormous garden; now sands are there and scorching 
heat and desert.
77
 
 
Probing the text, we could argue that Pil’niak makes the hydrotechnician the common term 
between technological utopia and Oriental despotism. Pil’niak also implicates hydroengineers in 
despotism in his travel sketches of Tajikistan. In 1931, soon after the publication of The Volga 
Falls, Pil’niak had travelled to the new autonomous Soviet republic that had been carved out of 
the Bukharan Emirate, and the material of his unfinished novel was published the same year 
under the title Seventh Soviet. In this work, Pil’niak describes local irrigation canals: 
 
The apparatus which is known as the canal head and which, in 
antiquity, was built over decades with thousands of people under the 
direction of half-divine mirabs, […] now is done by engineers and 
workers with mathematical calculations […].
78
 
 
Pil’niak’s equivalencies between the “half-divine mirabs” and Soviet engineeers hardly does 
credit to Soviet works projects; he sets up so many equivalencies between “feudal” systems and 
                                                 
75
 Ibid., 4:14. 
76
 Ibid., 4:24. 
77
 Ibid., 4:283. 
78
 Boris Pil’niak, Sed’maia sovetskaia (Leningrad: Izd. pisatelei, 1931), 26.  

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
75 
Soviet irrigation that the reader doubts that the change is a matter of expertise and not 
terminology. These engineers are the middlemen between the will of the despot and the labor 
needed to carry it out. 
Reading Poletika’s speech about the fall of Atlantis more conservatively, we could 
discern the standard theme of nature as a constant enemy of human civilization. In this case, 
Poletika fails to see the hubris of Soviet hydroengineering, and, by analogy with the 
technological utopia of Atlantis, that Soviet civilization, too, will fall. The failure of self-
recognition is a recurrent theme of the novel. As Kenneth Brostrom notes, the chief engineer of 
the project, Pimen, is the namesake of several Eastern saints, although he lacks the self-
awareness to identify their character traits in himself. Pil’niak also refers to Plato’s cave allegory 
with asphalt serving as the surface for the projections.
79
 Further, the novel abounds with 
phastasmagoria and camerae obscura, suggesting an epistemological shadow world.
80
 One 
character even notes that they are “living in allegories.”
81
  
Traces of the disciplinary topos appear as evidence of that allegory’s content in The 
Volga Falls: Moscow, the Asiatic center from which all the bureaucratic and planning activity of 
the hydroengineering projects emanates, is punned as being perekovany i perekopany (reforged 
and re-dug), evoking the broader topos of disciplinary reforging through land work.
82
 A GPU 
agent visits the site to investigate saboteurs.
83
 Major construction works using forced labor such 
as Dnieprostroi, Turksib, and Magnitogorsk are discussed.
84
 Finally, the engineer Edgar Laszlo is 
writing an article on the psychological transformation of workers, gathering “material for an 
interesting theoretical article; he observed the transformation in the psychology of the workers 
and the psychology of the transformation.”
85
 All of this, however, is circumstantial and Pilniak 
places the only unambiguous critique of Soviet waterworks as a despotism in the mouth of the 
madman, Ozhogov: 
 
Not only are the Bolsheviks letting Moscow River run backward, but 
also Russia. […] It is permissible to kill; human life is as cheap as 
the dust of the roads. We have no men; we have organizations.
86
   
 
Ozhogov’s powerful statement goes unanswered in the text, mitigated only by the reader’s 
acceptance of his “madness.” Pil’niak apparently offered Volga Falls to Stalin as one of “my 
bricks that are in our construction,” however his contribution to the Soviet production novel is so 
unstable that it subverts the genre and challenges the Soviet hydroengineering plot from the 
inside.
87
 
 
Andrei Platonov struggled through his career to appropriately place the meliorator in the 
Soviet story. His ambivalent depictions of land reclamation provide an engineer’s vision of the 
Asiatic restoration that Mandel’shtam and Pil’niak imagined from a distance. 
                                                 
79
 Pilnyak (2003), 4:148. 
80
 Ibid., 4:164; 209, 213, 219, 262, 294, 300, 317. 
81
 Ibid., 4:230. 
82
 Ibid., 4:100. 
83
 Ibid., 4:271. 
84
 Ibid., 4:332-333. 
85
 Ibid., 4:238. 
86
 Ibid., 4:81. 
87
 Boris Pil’niak, Mne vypala gor’kaia slava: Pis’ma 1915-1937 (Moscow: Agraf, 2002), 345. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
76 
 
In a story that marked a crucial turning point in Platonov’s professional life as a writer 
and engineer, “The Locks of Epifan” (1927), Platonov describes a hydroengineering project 
commissioned by Peter the Great to “rally the rivers of our empire into a single body of water.”
88
 
The English engineer Bertrand Perry is invited by his brother, William, also an engineer who has 
served the tsar for several years, to come to Russia for the purposes of designing and building a 
“complete waterway between the Baltic, Black, and Caspian Seas in order to overcome the vast 
expanses of the continent to India, the Mediterranean, and Europe.”
89
  
Platonov wrote the story during an intense period of personal crisis in 1926, while 
working as a land improvement engineer in Tambov. His disillusioned letters complain of 
“squabbling and terrrible intrigues” within Narkomzem, a lack of expertise among staff, and 
resistance from the local laborers. Platonov wrote to his wife, Mariia, that “the land reclamation 
staff is undisciplined, they are uniformed cretins and informers. The good specialists are helpless 
and their hands are tied.”
90
 Aside from his difficulties with both bureaucrats and laborers in 
Tambov, Platonov was shocked by the bleakness of life in the provinces: “Wandering through 
these backwaters, I’ve seen such sad things that you wouldn’t believe that there could exist in the 
world any such luxurious place as Moscow, or such things as art and prose.”
91
 He referred to his 
rented room as a “prison cell” and wrote that “Tambov is penal servitude” [Tambov—katorga].
92
 
His letters to his wife reveal not only professional troubles, but major financial troubles and the 
suggestion of actual hunger.
93 
Platonov devoted his free hours in Tambov to “The Locks of Epifan.” As he wrote to 
Mariia: “I’ll close here, my work on Peter’s Volga-Don Canal awaits. Very little historical 
material, again I’m obliged to rely on my ‘muse’ [...].”
94
 As Platonov “worked on” Peter’s canal, 
his muse filled in for the lack of historical material, and his tale endures as an allegory of Soviet 
power rather than a work of historical fiction. Not only does Bertrand Perry’s story resemble 
Platonov’s experience in Tambov, but Peter’s grand project to build a canal between the Oka and 
the Don evokes the massive engineering projects of the Soviet “hydraulic dystopia.”
 
Given the stated lack of historical material, a comparison between historical sources and 
Platonov’s invention is illuminating. Platonov is likely to have based Bertrand Perry on the 
minor historical figure, Captain John Perry, whose account of his time in Russia, The State of 
Russia under the Present Czar, was translated into Russian in 1871.
95
 Elena Antonova argues 
that Platonov more likely read a historical text by a Russian engineer, Anton Iosifovich Legun, 
based on Perry’s account of working on the Voronezh-Rostov waterway.
96
 Captain John Perry 
returned home safely to England and there is no historical record of anything resembling the 
Lake Ivan project that Platonov depicts in his story, however. Paola Ferreti suggests another 
possible inspiration for Perry: Samuel Bentham, the brother of Jeremy Bentham, who worked as 
an engineer and shipbuilder for Catherine the Great and constructed the first panopticon in 
                                                 
88
 Andrei Platonov, “Epifanskie shliuzi,” in Sobranie: efirnyi trakt (2009), 101. 
89
 Ibid., 96. 
90
 Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv literatury i iskusstva, Arkhiv A.P. Platonova (Moscow: IMLI-RAN, 2009), 446. 
91
 Ibid., 446. 
92
 Ibid., 449. 
93
 Ibid., 453. 
94
 Ibid., 459. 
95
 Vladimir Vasil’ev, “Prozhekty i deistvitel’nost,’” in Andrei Platonov: ocherk zhizni i tvorchestva (Moscow: 
Sovremennik, 1982), 79-81. 
96
 E. Antonova, “O nekotorykh istochnikakh prozy A. Platonova 1926-1927 gg.,” in Strana filosofov: Andreia 
Platonova: problemy tvorchestva (Moscow, 2000), 4:460-485. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
77 
Russia.
97
 Samuel and Jeremy collaborated closely (the panopticon was originally Samuel’s 
invention), and Jeremy visited Samuel in Russia for an extended period, during which time he 
formulated his Defence of Usury, a political work written in the form of letters from Russia.
98
 
Jeremy Bentham’s work “Panopticon; or The Inspection House” was written as letters to a friend 
in England from the city of Krichev, Belorus. The Bentham connection remains intriguing as a 
nexus of associations between engineering and the topos of punishment, colonization, and state 
violence.
99
   
Petrine Russia, as focalized through the experience of the the English characters, is an 
Oriental despotism nearly continuous with the Mongol yoke. Bertrand’s brother, William, tells 
him that Russia lies in the “depths of the Asian continent” and describes the Russians as 
“obedient and tolerant in their long and hard labors, but wild and gloomy in their ignorance.”
100
 
Bertrand confesses that back in Newcastle, he admired Peter and secretly nursed the desire to 
collaborate with the tsar in “civilizing the wild and mysterious nation.”
101
 As presented to the 
reader, Peter’s plan is a topological catalogue of imperial ambition; he hopes to extend his land 
empire to “India, the Mediterranean and Europe,” and “from Persia to St. Petersburg and from 
Athens to Moscow, and also the Urals, Ladoga, the Kalmyk Steppe and beyond.”
102
 This 
disorderly collection of toponyms from east to west reflects Peter’s ambition to conquer and 
colonize the entire Eurasian subcontinent right up to the borders of Europe. 
As a foreign specialist, Perry facilitates the tsar’s project of colonization. In letters, the 
engineer’s fiancee, Mary, compares Perry repeatedly to Tamerlane, Attila, and Alexander the 
Great, and Perry’s middle name is “Ramsey” [Ramsei], evoking Ramses [Ramses].
103
 Perry plans 
to bring the “age of construction” to India when he completes his contract in Russia.
104
 Finally, 
when Mary finally breaks off the engagement with Perry, she writes that he can “take [his] 
colonies!” just as she will take a new husband.
105
 As many scholars have discussed, ideology is 
visibly inscribed upon the body in Platonov’s works; in this case, colonialism is, somewhat 
predictably, compared to erotic possession.
106
 Perry, however, is not only an agent of 
colonization, he is a subject, and if we have come to believe, like Mary, that Perry the 
hydroengineer is a colonizer, then it is all the more shocking when we learn that Peter’s 
executioner has taken brutal sexual and political “possession” of Perry’s body at the conclusion 
of the story.
107
  
Perry’s troubles begin when he realizes that the construction plans he drew up in 
Petersburg “had not taken into account local conditions, and especially the droughts […].”
108
 
Perry has based his calculations of rainfall on data from an anomalous year, 1682, which 
                                                 
97
 Paola Ferretti, “Platonov and Paustovskii: Unexpected Affinities and Predictable Differences between Two 
Povesti,” in Europa Orientalis 23:2 (2004), 112. 
98
 See Ian R Christie, The Benthams in Russia, 1780-1791 (Oxford; Providence: Berg, 1993). 
99
 Jeremy Bentham vigorously attacked the institution of penal colonies.  
100
 Andrei Platonov, “Epifanskie shliuzy,” 95.  
101
 Ibid. 
102
 Ibid., 96-97. 
103
 Ibid., 98. 
104
 Ibid., 100.  
105
 Ibid., 104. 
106
 For more on the embodiment of ideology in Platonov’s work, see Keith Livers, Constructing the Stalinist Body: 
Fictional Representations of Corporeality in the Stalinist 1930s (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004). 
107
 See Eric Naiman, “V zhopu prorubit okno: Seksualnaia patologiia kak ideologicheskii kalambur u Andreia 
Platonova” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie 32 (1998).  
108
 Platonov, “Epifanskie shliuzi,” 118. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
78 
happens to be the year that Peter was appointed co-ruler of Russia. This misleading data means 
that Perry’s project was doomed from the beginning, for there is simply too little water to fill the 
canal. Peter’s entire civilizing project, headed up by Perry, fails altogether to take account of 
local conditions: the laborers, who, like slaves, have no stake in the project, die or flee in vast 
numbers and Perry’s team of engineers—Balts, Germans and Muscovites—are unaccustomed to 
local malarial conditions and succumb to fever.  

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