"Chance!" repeated Chiklin, and hit the peasant full in the face to get him to start living consciously. The peasant staggered, but was careful not to lean over too far in case Chiklin thought he had kulak intentions himself, and so he moved even closer to him, hoping to pick up some more serious injuries and so win entitlement to a poor peasant's right to life. Seeing what a miserable creature he was, Chiklin clobbered him mechanically in the guts, whereupon the peasant closed his yellow eyes and toppled over.
Yelisey had been standing quietly to one side, but after a while he told Chiklin that the peasant had snuffed it.
The Foundation Pit, by Andrey Platonov (1899-1951), is the sort of book where each passage seems like a microcosm of the whole, and so it is with that quoted above: the disdainful brutality with which people wield power against anyone further down the food chain, even those they are supposed to help, on the slightest provocation; the meaningless jargon ("kulak intentions") that breeds both weary cynicism ("...and so win entitlement") and licence for repression; the dehumanisation and emptiness of even the violence ("mechanistically"); the bathetic language ("snuffed it"); the dark, absurdist, nihilistic humour ("get him to start living consciously", the peasant's hope of "more serious injuries"); and the numb un-surprise, the inability to react, on the part of the spectator.
Written in the late 1920s, but unpublished in Russia until the 1980s - it was seen as too critical of the system even before Platonov, a disillusioned former Party member, fell under sustained suspicion and persecution in the paranoid climate of the early 1930s - The Foundation Pit is a savage and despairing book. It is set in an unspecified village, during the forced collectivisation of peasant farms that was implemented by the Soviet regime from 1928. It centres on a group of "skilled workers", who have been sent to the village to dig the foundations for an enormous communal house that will "house the whole of the local proletariat" and replace all those nasty private homes; meanwhile, a handful of incompetent and unsupported government officials attempt to collectivise the surrounding land with only the power of socialist sloganeering, and some exclusionary rhetoric about the scapegoats du jour, kulaks (rich[er] peasants).
Or, put another way:
"Our task, according to the Plenum, is to liquidate them [the kulaks] as a class and nothing less - so the poor peasants and the entire proletariat can be orphaned from their enemies!"
"Who will you be left with then?"
"We'll be left with work to do, with the hard line of further measures to be taken. Get the idea?"
"Yes," answered the girl. "You mean to kill off the baddies so they don't outnumber the goodies."
It goes about as well as might be expected, given that the "skilled workers" consist of the likes of brutish Chiklin, dreamy Voshchev (our sort-of viewpoint character, who is digging the pit after being sacked elsewhere for "a situation of ongoing personal weakness and thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labour"), true believer Safronov ("'It's time we dealt with these prosperous parasites once and for all!'"), and suck-up Kozlov (who is too busy reporting others for not working - at the contemplation of which he feels himself "consumed by an ardent social joy" - to actually do any work himself, and whose professed goal in life gives this post its title). Or, as they're seen, well, collectively, through Voshchev's eyes:
The men were all as thin as if they were dead; each of them had nothing but veins occupying the cramped space between skin and bone, and it was clear from the way the veins bulged how much blood must course through them when the men were hard at work. The cotton shirts afforded a precise glimpse of the slow work of revival being carried out by the sleepers' hearts - there they were beating away close by, hidden within the darkness of each devastated body.
In truth, they're little better off than the peasants, but having been convinced that they are on the side of right, they have both the power and the excuse to let loose their brutality. Nor are they the only ones to exploit others' fear; one of the most repulsive characters is parasitical Zhachev, who spends his days extorting food from Party officials' limited stocks, by threatening to denounce them to their comrades - and, when necessary, making good on his threats:
Pashkin's wife remembered the time Zhachev had denounced her husband to the Regional Party Committee. The investigation had dragged on for an entire month and they had even made a fuss about her husband's first names. Why Leon and then Ilyich? Just whose side was he on?
Here, as in the opening passage, there is a certain delirious hilarity - perhaps the most extreme example of 'if you don't laugh, you'll cry' I've ever come across - entwined with the anecdotes of oppression and violence. (It really is, horribly, quite funny in places, as in the bloodthirstily enthusiastic way that orphaned Nastya - the 'girl' in the above quotation about "baddies" - embraces the tenets and attendent violence of collectivisation.) This absurdist streak runs throughout the novel, from the official who writes not only seriously but "avidly" about a scheme to liquidate the kulaks by "floating them off on a raft" (all the while being "unable to use commas since there had been none in the original directive"...), to the foundation pit itself - which, we learn towards the end of the story, is to be filled back up with rubble again in the spring.
We are left with a clear sense of a repressive governmental machine running out of control; the only way to not be crushed by it is to stay aboard, to embrace the absurd as if it made perfect sense, or else to exploit others' fear, as Zhachev does. Above all, never dare to stop, as Voshchev does, and think, because to think is to despair.
Indeed, The Foundation Pit shows a range of responses to collectivisation. There are the entitled ones, like Zhachev, who use the whole thing as an excuse to let others do the work. There are the paranoid ones, who assume that no-one else can possibly be working as hard as they are, and thus that they must somehow be paying for everyone else's upkeep. There are the petty ones, who burn down their orchards and poison their meat rather than share it with anyone 'undeserving'. There are the zealous (or the cynical) ones, who demonstrate how hard-working they are by denouncing others ("'We should kick him out of the collective farm and have done with it! Why should we all lose out because of him? Answer me that!'"). There are those who are terrified of the extra responsibility of living communally:
When [Yelisey] had had a farm of his own, he had lain awake at night, worrying that one of his animals might die, that his horse might eat or drink too much or that the cow might turn moody; but now, since there was no one else he could rely on, he had to look after the whole collective farm, the entire local world - and his insides were being eaten away by the terror of owning so much.
"We'll all crack up!" said a middle peasant who had lived through the entire Revolution without uttering a word. "In the old days there was only my own family to worry about, but now we're expected to look after everyone! It'll be the death of us all!"
(This does, of course, rather beg the question of what happened to those who had no-one to worry about them, before...)
There is even one - notably a bear, as if Platonov can't quite believe this of human nature - who is delighted by the idea of the collective endeavour of the kulak-purged village, and gets on with his work "with even greater relish in his heart". But most pervasive, among the villagers, is incomprehension and despair, the loss of any sense of purpose or hope in the face of the 'progress' being forced upon them:
[The peasants were] still up on their feet, wrestling with the vanity of their souls, except that one of the activist's subordinates had taught them they didn't have any souls, only an urge to acquire property - and so now they had no idea what would become of them, since their property was to be taken away. Some of them bent down and began to beat their breasts, listening out for some thought to emerge from in there, but their hearts went on beating faintly and sadly, as though they were empty and incapable of answer.
As we might expect, the villagers and the workers present a full spectrum of human desperation and selfishness - leavened with some small sparks of altruism, quickly crushed by the cruelty and folly of both the system and its victims - when faced with collectivisation.
But Platonov goes further. Eventually, even this humanity, however flawed, is stripped away by the process - and all individuality is lost in the purposeless toil:
Chiklin took a crowbar and a fresh spade and plodded over to the far side of the foundation pit. There he once again began to excavate the unyielding earth, since he was unable to cry, and he went on digging, lacking the strength to exhaust himself, until nightfall, and then all through the night, until he heard the bones begin the crack in his toiling body. Then he stopped and looked around. The collective farm had followed him, and they too were digging flat out; the poor and middle peasants were all working with a furious zeal for life, as though they were seeking eternal salvation in the abyss of the foundation pit.