So much has been written about the Soviet Union, and yet so many gaps remain to be filled. Red Plenty does just that: it covers the overlooked interlude that followed the horrors of Stalinism; it examines the cyber-economics that would have enabled the success of central planning; and, it gives a vivid portrait of what it all meant to individual lives. This book defies labelling; it is neither a history text, or an economic treatise or a novel, and yet achieves more than either of those could separately. If you are interested in Russian 20th century history, or in political economy, or simply looking for good reading material, this book is for you. Spufford writes brilliantly, as the rigorously researched factual and fictionalised passages equally attest.
I enjoyed this book throughout, from the introduction to the notes (which are remarkably well written, entertaining and interesting), and am sure you will too.
This is really a series of short stories recounting the dream of the communist party's attempt to create an economy of plenty. The book begins with Brezhnev travelling to New York to talk to the most powerful businessmen in the country. Ironically, he travels in a car designed after an American luxury vehicle. Brezhnev is wants to transfer the same dedication used by the Soviet Union to increase industrial production that was a focus of the Stalin to years to the production of consumer goods. As well as politicians, there are academics, economists and bureaucrats and criminals populating the rest of the book. The stories are well written and engaging however the transition between them can be jarring. I just became interested in one character and Mr. Spufford is moving onto the next. The book does however provide a terrific insight of how the Brezhnev’s dream of creating a consumer paradise based on communist principles turns into more of the same after Khrushchev comes to power. It’s a story of high ideals and noble ambitions turned to a bureaucratic quagmire.
on July 4, 2013
Having grown up during the Cold War (I was a teenager when Gorbachev was shaking things up in the USSR), I've always had a bit of a fascination with life behind the "Iron Curtain". The communist countries seemed so different than my own comfortable existence here in North America -- the USSR and its allies had deliberately chosen a radically different system than Capitalism. But how did that system work? Did it actually work at all? What was daily life like for people in those countries?
Although the USSR disappeared a long time ago, I continue to have a lot of curiosity about life under systems other than Capitalism. It's not that I harbour any nostalgia or empathy for Communism -- absolutely not. But I enjoy reading about these "alternative systems" because they illuminate the human psyche. There are significant lessons to be learned by reading about these countries, how they operated (for better or worse), and why ultimately they radically shifted course in the late 1980's and early 1990's.
Mr. Spufford has written a very engaging book. It's not quite fiction, nor does it pretend to be a truly historical account of life in the USSR. It's a compendium of short stories, each story told from a different character's perspective. The majority of the characters are based on real people, and Mr. Spufford goes to great lengths (in the introduction and the addendum) to explain how he "padded" the real lives of these people in order to create a narrative.
The book straddles numerous actual historical events, diverse subjects, and ties everything together into an "almost" true-to-life drama that evolves over many years, from the death of Stalin in the 1950's, to the ascendance of Brezhnev in the 1970's. Within those decades, Mr. Spufford creatively isolates characters within their worlds in order to explain what the USSR was like: we visit collectivized farms, a central planning office, a Soviet hospital, etc. ... as you read about how each character struggles with their lot in life, you really begin to empathize with them, and the difficulties and opportunities that Communism presented them.
Hard-line believers in Communism (of whatever flavour) will probably not like this book. They would probably find Mr. Spufford's perspective to be reductionist, biased, and/or flawed. The picture that Mr. Spufford paints is not a pretty one. 21st-century Communists would probably label him as "revisionist" and, if they could, set him up for a spectacular show-trial and death-by-firing squad. Fortunately, we've moved beyond that paradigm.
If you're an armchair history fanatic with a love of Cold War intrigue, or if you have interest in Socialism and life in the USSR, you'll really enjoy this book. Highly recommended!