III: ASIATIC RESTORATION - Reclaiming Native Soil: Cultural Mythologies of Soil
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 [...].”
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.’”
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.”
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
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.”
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.”
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
Evgeny Dobrenko, “Nadzirat’—nakazyvat’—nadzirat’: Sotsrealizm kak pribavochnyi produkt nasiliia,” Revue
des études slaves 73:4 (2001), 671.
Ernest Gellner, foreword to Nomads and the Outside World, by Anatoly M. Khazanov (Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press, 1994), xi.
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.
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.”
(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
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.
These restorers “construct nothing now. They merely restore
antiques; but they have preserved the habits and traditions of their uncles.”
refashioning of antiques echoes the plan to reverse the course of rivers, for “rivers are the
highroads of antiquities.”
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.
Throughout the novel, Pil’niak flamboyantly refers
to the dam that will reverse the river’s flow as a “monolith.”
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
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
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.]
Ibid., 4:3, 27, 32, 38, 88, 117, 141, 181, 202, 222, 339.
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”:
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.
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
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.
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 […].
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
Boris Pil’niak, Sed’maia sovetskaia (Leningrad: Izd. pisatelei, 1931), 26.
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.
Further, the novel abounds with
phastasmagoria and camerae obscura, suggesting an epistemological shadow world.
character even notes that they are “living in allegories.”
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.
agent visits the site to investigate saboteurs.
Major construction works using forced labor such
as Dnieprostroi, Turksib, and Magnitogorsk are discussed.
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.”
All of this, however, is circumstantial and Pilniak
places the only unambiguous critique of Soviet waterworks as a despotism in the mouth of the
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.
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
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.
Pilnyak (2003), 4:148.
Ibid., 4:164; 209, 213, 219, 262, 294, 300, 317.
Boris Pil’niak, Mne vypala gor’kaia slava: Pis’ma 1915-1937 (Moscow: Agraf, 2002), 345.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
He referred to his
rented room as a “prison cell” and wrote that “Tambov is penal servitude” [Tambov—katorga].
His letters to his wife reveal not only professional troubles, but major financial troubles and the
suggestion of actual hunger.
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’ [...].”
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.
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.
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
Andrei Platonov, “Epifanskie shliuzi,” in Sobranie: efirnyi trakt (2009), 101.
Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv literatury i iskusstva, Arkhiv A.P. Platonova (Moscow: IMLI-RAN, 2009), 446.
Vladimir Vasil’ev, “Prozhekty i deistvitel’nost,’” in Andrei Platonov: ocherk zhizni i tvorchestva (Moscow:
Sovremennik, 1982), 79-81.
E. Antonova, “O nekotorykh istochnikakh prozy A. Platonova 1926-1927 gg.,” in Strana filosofov: Andreia
Platonova: problemy tvorchestva (Moscow, 2000), 4:460-485.
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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.”
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].
to bring the “age of construction” to India when he completes his contract in Russia.
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.
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.
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.
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 […].”
Perry has based his calculations of rainfall on data from an anomalous year, 1682, which
Paola Ferretti, “Platonov and Paustovskii: Unexpected Affinities and Predictable Differences between Two
Povesti,” in Europa Orientalis 23:2 (2004), 112.
See Ian R Christie, The Benthams in Russia, 1780-1791 (Oxford; Providence: Berg, 1993).
Jeremy Bentham vigorously attacked the institution of penal colonies.
Andrei Platonov, “Epifanskie shliuzy,” 95.
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).
See Eric Naiman, “V zhopu prorubit okno: Seksualnaia patologiia kak ideologicheskii kalambur u Andreia
Platonova” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie 32 (1998).
Platonov, “Epifanskie shliuzi,” 118.
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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