russian history

Review: Red Plenty: Inside the Fifties’ Soviet Dream

There are many engaging ways for an author to deliver a history lesson to the reader. Some books stick strictly to nonfiction formula – presenting history in chronological order and interpreting it; while others examine history through the lens of a story where fictional characters interact against the backdrop of real events. But what happens when one tries to do both? In the case of Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty: Inside the Fifties’ Soviet Dream, you get an awkward read that struggles to work as either a history book or a narrative.

Red Plenty explores the Khrushchev years where the Soviet Union was advancing in science and industry. It was a tipping point of the Soviet Union, a time – according to Spufford – when many believed the Soviet Union could plan and grow an economy that would outpace that of the West. When Moscow would out-glitter Manhattan, and every Lada would be better engineered than a Porsche. The book attempts to explain how that dream came about, and why it went away.

Comparing the two elements (fiction and nonfiction) in Red Plenty, I think I would have preferred a straightforward narrative history over fiction. The expository essays that begin each section of the book are well-done on the whole. I also found it interesting to read through Spufford’s footnotes, which suggest that the research was there to produce a well-documented nonfiction text.

However, all too often I found myself wanting a clearer explanation of the historical context or more insight into the workings of the Soviet centrally planned economy. I already understood that the Soviets had a serious problem valuing their economic inputs and outputs (and thus assessing their net gains) because they lacked pricing feedback on the consumption side due to a lack of markets combined with a political system that largely ignored the expression of people’s desires as consumers. Spufford describes how the Soviets were also unable to collect accurate data for their planning processes from the production side of the equation, because nobody would accurately report existing inefficiencies.

But the explanation of just how some Soviet intellectuals and economists hoped to control a modern economy through central planning isn’t as clear. In fact, thanks to a rather lengthy aside near the end of the book, I have a much better idea of how smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer than I do of how shadow prices and linear programming were supposed to guarantee economic growth and plenty. So this is largely a story of corruption, venality, and a refusal to accept things as they were as opposed to things as they should have been from an ideological perspective. But that’s not a new story by any means, and without more historical detail to provide a stronger sense of cause, effect, and chronology, it isn’t particularly engaging, either.

The fictional aspects, on the other hand, consist of a loosely interlinked series of vignettes that fall short of working as complete, independent stories while also failing to tie together to provide a clear, satisfying story arc in which we see characters really develop and change over time. This is due in part to the large number of characters who are introduced and the fashion in which Spufford jumps from topic to topic. I found myself wishing for a smaller cast and/or much stronger thematic connection between the stories told in each section.

For me, by far the most coherent and successful section of the book is Part IV, consisting of the short pieces “The Method of Balances,” “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” and “Favours.” Here we get three different sets of perspectives on the troubles afflicting a single factory. I thought this worked well in terms of presenting economic cause and effect in the Soviet system. Maybe if the rest of the book had been written in the same fashion, my review would have been more positive. It’s largely for the quality of that section and the quality of the footnotes that I gave Red Plenty 3 stars instead of 2. On the whole, Spufford’s fiction-nonfiction hybrid is an awkward read that did not teach me as much history as I wanted or draw me into its characters enough for me to care about them.

★ ★ ★

Red Plenty: Inside the Fifties’ Soviet Dream by Francis Spufford. Pub. 2010 by Faber & Faber. Hardcover, 434 pages. ISBN13: 9780571225231

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