Andrei Platonov wrote The Foundation Pit in Russia between December 1929 and April 1930. Though timeless in its themes of absurdity and existentialism, the period in which is was wrote consigns it to a context of political significance. Joseph Stalin had recently initiated the Five Year Plan and collectivization in the countryside. Futurism, a style that endeavored to build life from art, was ending, and socialist realism was quickly becoming the sole acceptable form of writing. Neither art nor artist had a clear place in society. Platonov, who supported communism and served in the civil war, became disenchanted with the practice of socialism in Russia. After taking a hiatus from writing in the mid-20s to concentrate on being a productive member of the party, he began again, albeit with a much more critical pen. His assessment of Soviet era Russia was decried, condemned, and accordingly censored. Aspersions of every form were cast upon his patriotism. Relatively young, he died impoverished and the majority of his work was published posthumously. While some artists are able to limit the influence of their personal lives and political views in their work, Platonov was not one of them; his experiences and opinions permeate his writing. The meaninglessness of life and the inability of their work to achieve the goals of communism are direct consequences of the misdirected enterprises of the Soviet Union.
Ironically, while the characters in The Foundation Pit commit their lives to the betterment of society, the continuation of pointless episodic violence desensitizes them. Death is more than an abstract concept of justice against the kulaks and bourgeoisie; it is the only process by which the proletariat and communism may come to power. Chiklin, who assumes the role of Nastya’s benefactor, teacher, and protector, is particularly violent. While in the countryside, he “hit the peasant in the face, so he’d live consciously” (79). For the workers of the foundation pit, pain ceases to be an effect of a certain lifestyle and is instead a necessary component of communist existence. Because pain was essentially inevitable in post-WWI, post-civil war Russia, because the proletariat had to endure it, Chiklin adopts it as a symbol of the class. The peasant whom Chiklin hits “fell, but he was afraid to move back too far, or Chiklin might think something prosperous about him, and he stood up even closer to him, hoping to get maimed still worse, and earn by his suffering the right to live as a poor man” (80). That pain beyond that of indigence should be inflicted for the philosophy of communism is counterintuitive to Platonov. Egalitarianism is the primary goal of communism, and as such is meant to ameliorate living standards for the masses. Violence and pain are demonstrably nonsensical.
Platonov’s characters are harbingers of his own misfortune; they personify the vacuum that has, though Soviet measures to create a communist consciousness and lifestyle, replaced the soul. Etiolated and depressed, they dig the foundation pit without emotion or even particular purpose. Some believe in the ideals; some dig simply because no other option is available. All are exhausted and most are indifferent to their very existence. Prushevsky, who, like Voshchev, strives to find truth and meaning, is resigned to his fate: “Instead of hope, he had only patience left; and somewhere beyond the succession of nights, beyond the blossoming and the decline of gardens, beyond the people encountered and lost, there was a time when he would have to stretch out on his cot, turn his face to the wall, and die, without ever having learned to weep” (The Foundation Pit 27). Weeping, a catharsis of disappointment, requires an initial emotional investment in the subject of discontent. Whether it is merely his own wasted life or a prognostication of the failure of the communist party for which Prushevsky cannot weep is ambiguous. Neither Prushevsky nor the other workers have the strength to support their bodies and their emotions; thus, they work without thought, and life passes without feeling. Gazing at the stars, Voshchev “wondered when a resolution would be passed up there concerning the discontinuation of the eternity of time and the redemption of life’s weariness” (74). Satirical in its interpretation of the state’s aims of control, it is also indicative of the general attitude toward life. Voshchev accepts the Soviet Union, its promulgated objectives and the methods of implementation, without contestation. It is the nature of life, not the manner of it, which should be controlled to ease pain. The absurdity of the speculation subversively criticizes the state and its incomprehensible, comprehensive measures.
To classify The Foundation Pit as an absurdist or existentialist novel, however, is not wholly accurate. Though certainly the characters are despondent and aimless, their ambitions largely futile, and their dismal environment reflective of their lives, Platonov suggests that it is not an incontrovertible state of humanity but the dissuasion of both thought and meaningful interpersonal relationships make living absurd and vain. When Nastya dies, Voshchev loses his faith: “He no longer knew where communism would now be on earth if it didn’t exist first in a child’s feeling and convinced impression. What need had he now of the meaning of life and the truth of universal origin, if there was no small, true human being in whom the truth would turn into joy and movement?” (140). While Voshchev seems to abandon both communism and his search for the essence of life, Platonov continued to strive for both. Beyond the denotation of Voshchev’s despair, that life without Nastya and all that she symbolizes is without meaning, is the connotation of Platonov’s personal beliefs. Like the characters of the novel, he champions the proletariat and lives to construct a better future for the younger generation. Without a future for the party, life itself is a consequently barren state of existence. Because Nastya is an embodiment of communist ideals, her death signifies the inability of the current system to sustain the standards for which its advocates ostensibly labor. Platonov supports the principles but is aware that the execution of the goals is simultaneously the execution of the people. The psychological despondency felt by all of the characters clearly permeates the corporeal and is a predominate factor in the failure of the foundation pit to fulfill its purpose. For Platonov, contemplative pursuits must not only be allowed but also cultivated in order to create the communism in which he believes.
The Foundation Pit is symbolic to the action in as well as of the novel itself. As a metaphor, it represents the inefficacy of the particular forms of labor to realize the goals of Soviet era Russia. For Platonov, the novel is his own foundation pit. Just as the men dug in order to form a literal and figurative substratum of communism, Platonov wrote in order to promote his own communist ideals. The foundation pit is the origin of proletariat equality, and writing, which inevitably involves and induces thought, is a necessary component of any society, communist included. Unfortunately, neither was able to accomplish the objectives for which it was begun. What little meaning that can be derived from their work in the foundation pit is eclipsed by its failure. Voshchev muses, “Man will make a building and unmake himself. Who will live in it then?” (12). The foundation pit becomes a symbolic grave; no walls are ever raised, no people ever inhabit it, and the workers languish inside it along with their aspirations. Similarly, because of censorship in the Soviet Union, The Foundation Pit was never read, thus it could never promote a more efficacious form of communism, and the political repercussions of its existence enervated Platonov and his destroyed his career.
The Foundation Pit is at once a satire of Platonov’s contemporary society, a caution against its philosophies taken to the logical extreme, and a plea for change. The measures taken by the Soviet Union to build communism contributed to the dehumanization of the communists themselves. The concentration on the annihilation of capitalists perpetuated the violence and oppression against which communists formerly fought and continued to devalue individual human lives. Meanwhile, the production that was intended to solidify the foundation of communism only fatigued and demoralized the laborers. Though hope for the class existed in the children and the proletariat house in which the future generations would eventually live, because of the pervasive poverty and subdued spirits of the workers, they could neither finish the building nor care for the children. The foundation pit is thus nothing more than a hole in the ground and the soul is nothing more than a hole in the heart. Voshchev, whose feelings are most aligned with Platonov’s, is left spiritually bereft and politically indifferent without Nastya. Without a system of communism that can sustain the populace both physically and mentally, Voshchev’s fate will be Russia’s.