Thursday, February 21, 2013

Chevengur by Andrei Platonov: a leader derives his essential from the mass

Chevengur by Andrei Platonov (Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers, 1978), translated by Anthony Olcott

I'll apologize in advance for lack of moving the story forward...

After Kopenkin and Sasha leave Chernovka, Sasha heads home and experiences the first fruits of the New Economic Policy. Shumilin, the person Sasha was to report to about possible spontaneous developments of communism in the countryside, chides Sasha for overstepping his authority. Sasha attends a provincial meeting (and at almost the halfway point of the novel) and he, and the reader, hear the first mention of Chevengur. Sasha is intrigued by the man in front of him at the meeting so he stops to talk with him after the meeting. Chepurny, otherwise known as "the Jap" (for his looks), is the president of Chevengur’s Revolutionary Committee. He tells Sasha about Chevengur, where communism has truly taken hold. In Chepurny's thoughts, 'the citizens had long preferred a happy life to labor of any sort.' (149) Sasha, intrigued by the possibility of true communism, writes to his friend Kopenkin to check out the town of Chevengur to see what is happening there.

More on the ideology and reality of Chevengur next week, but I wanted to correct an omission in the previous post. There is an aside within the description of Sasha traveling by train that stands out (appropriately?) for some of what follows in the novel, maybe capturing one aspect of the tendency to acquiesce before a strong leader. This scene takes place in a railway car that has just left the station:
Wherever there is a mass of people, a leader immediately appears as well. The mass insures their vain hopes with a leader, while a leader derives his essential from the mass. The brake platform of the car, where some twenty people had found a place, acknowledged as their leader that man who had squeezed them all onto the platform as he could get on himself. The leader knew nothing, but made announcements about everything. For this reason the people believed him. (88)

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