on February 16, 2002
Happy Moscow is a wonderful, though difficult, book. A cross between satire and the picaresque, it's loaded with symbolism. To get the most out of it, I think one must have at least a rudimentary knowledge of Stalinist Russia.
Happy Moscow, through its heroine, Moscow Chestnova, sets aside blithe idealism and explores the gulf that, in reality, existed between Stalin's "triumphant" socialism and the low living standards and bleak expectations of the people.
Moscow Chestnova, the heroine of Happy Moscow, was never meant to be seen as an individual. She's Every Citizen, the idea and the ideal of Stalinist Collectivity. More than anything, Moscow Chestnova cares; she embraces fully Dostoyevsky's mandate that "All are responsible for all." She cares about cleanliness, the proper heating of water, the driving of piles into the Moscow River. Following Stalinist ideology, she's the ideal every man desires and she gives of herself freely to anyone who asks. In Moscow Chestnova's world, as in Stalin's Moscow, there will always be room for "one more."
Just as Moscow Chestnova seeks to transcend the limits of individuality in favor of collectivity, so do the other characters in this book. One, in particular, buys a new passport and thus changes his identity. He goes on to acquire a new job, a new wife and a new family...all in the name of communist idealism.
Moscow Chestnova, of course, is eventually repelled by what she had, at first, embraced. She feels the isolation of the people, the lack of peace in their homes and in their lives and the oppressive sadness that covers the city like a blanket. Moscow finally comes to realize that even as individuals have been ignored, collectivity has gone to hell.
The language used in Happy Moscow ranges from the hilarious to the grotesque. Stylistically, the book is often absurd in its juxtapositions. Puns are rarely used for comic effect alone; they often contain important ideological or philosophical commentary. Platonov also has a unique ability of recontextualizing Stalin's rhetoric (drawn from his own speeches) in ludicrous parody and metaphor.
Happy Moscow is a gem of a book. It is a book, that, like the city of Moscow, herself, is, by turns, comic, creative, grotesque, and bizarre, yet ultimately crippled. It's a shame this book is not more widely read and better known.
First, let's break down this book into its components. The longest section is HAPPY MOSCOW, a 110-page novella written by Platonov in the 1930s, but published posthumously only in 1991; more on this in a moment. The remaining 150 pages are essentially supportive materials, appendices, and footnotes. There are three essays by the principal translator, Robert Chandler, which are both scholarly and helpful. Then there are two short stories, an essay, and a screenplay, each of which explores similar themes to the novella, uses the same symbols, or features some of the same characters; the longest of them, "The Moscow Violin," is especially interesting in that it recycles almost identical passages, but in a different order and to different effect. The book ends with thirty pages of scholarly notes set in small type, and a bibliography. So rather than being a collection of stories, this is more like a complete kit for understanding the title novella and placing it in historical and scholarly context. While the novella itself is relatively approachable, the volume as a whole is not for the casual reader.
Reading HAPPY MOSCOW itself, I could only think of words beginning with the letter S: symbolic, surrealistic, satirical. None of these terms entirely fits, but in combination they do. Moscow, of course, is the name of the city; it is also the first name of the principal female character, Moscow Ivanova Chestnova. An orphan, brought up in a state children's home, she is sponsored by an idealistic apparatchik to train as a pilot and parachutist, reaching fame and notoriety when her parachute catches fire and she descends on the city like a sparkling firework. Numerous men fall in love with her, and the book follows her as she moves from one to the other, even as her own life symbolically descends from the skies to under the earth, when she becomes a construction worker on the new Moscow metro.
In a helpful stroke early in his introduction, the translator quotes a visitor to Moscow in 1935 complaining that the only maps available of the city portrayed either Moscow's past or its future, but not its present. There were maps from 1924, showing buildings that had since been torn down and roads rerouted. There were maps showing what the city would look like following the Ten Year Reconstruction Plan. But people were so intent on looking at the great leap forward that they had no interest in the temporary state of the city under their feet. Platonov's book is full of a similar idealism. This is most clearly shown by the men who help the heroine. We have the civil servant Bozhko, who uses Esperanto to correspond all over the world, in the hope of recruiting others to Socialist ideals. We have the engineer Sartorius, who is convinced that the problems of collectivization can be solved by the invention of a more perfect balance beam for weighing produce. We have the surgeon Sambikin, who has located the precise site of the soul in the large intestine, and claims to have found the essence of eternal life released in the bodies of the newly dead.
Symbolism, surrealism, satire. Moscow the person is clearly in part a symbol for Moscow the city, but not all her actions are easily translatable. Many of Platonov's descriptions verge on surrealism, but then I suspect that Soviet Russia had more than a little surrealism of its own. And while Platonov's writing seems satirical, Chandler suggests that he may initially have been trying to win the approval of his political masters, whose own propaganda was scarcely less fantastic. In short, this is a unique and often brilliant book, but a perplexing one -- and there is far more here that any but the most serious student could want.