The Soviet Union was founded on a fairytale. It was built on 20th-century magic called 'the planned economy', which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things that the penny-pinching lands of capitalism could never match. And just for a little while, in the heady years of the late 1950s, the magic seemed to be working. "Red Plenty" is about that moment in history, and how it came, and how it went away; about the brief era when, under the rash leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union looked forward to a future of rich communists and envious capitalists, when Moscow would out-glitter Manhattan, every Lada would be better engineered than a Porsche and sputniks would lead the way to the stars. And it's about the scientists who did their genuinely brilliant best to make the dream come true, to give the tyranny its happy ending.
- Format: Hardback
- Pages: 448 pages
- Publisher: Faber & Faber
- Publication Date: 19/08/2010
- Category: General & world history
- ISBN: 9780571225231
Showing 1 - 4 of 4 reviews.
Review by RobertDay
An interesting book, straddling the divide between fiction and non-fiction. Its premise is the vision of the future that existed in Soviet Russia, which painted a picture where communism would have won and ordinary Soviet citizens would enjoy lives of ease and comfort in the perfect workers' state. The reality was different, where the internal pressures and problems of running a centrally-managed economy caused the system to fail. Meanwhile, economists battled with ideology, politics and reality - all of which pulled in different directions - to try to make sufficient changes to bring about the perfect society by 1980.Meanwhile, a selection of Soviet citizens, real and fictional, try to get on with their lives as best they can, navigating their way through the complexities of the system. But there is no perfect society, either capitalist or socialist; and this book is an important object lesson in this. Spufford came to Soviet Russia with hindsight and with no previous knowledge of his subject. Starting without preconceptions, he brings the clarity of new discovery to his work; so he shows us that the Soviet economy was growing faster than the USA's in the 1950s, even when all the propaganda and double accounting are stripped out; or he explains some of the basics of Marxism that suggest that capitalism has not, as some commentators put it, "won" and socialism "lost", but rather that capitalism just hasn't reached the end of its useful life just yet and socialism's time may still be to come.
Review by dukedom_enough
We all plan, right? We plan our work, our meals, our travel - our lives, so far as we can. Our parents taught us to do that, and we know it’s best to plan. Wouldn’t our entire society - our economy, especially - work better if it were planned, optimized?Much of the twentieth century was shaped, at least nominally, by an ideological disagreement about this ultimate level of planning. The West, especially the US, stood for free enterprise, while the East, especially the Soviet Union, stood for a planned economy. <i>Red Plenty</i> is the story of what the Soviets thought they were doing with planning in the 1950s and 1960s, and how they hoped to improved their methods, finally to overtake the West in civilian material development, thus fulfilling the promise of the Russian Revolution.During the 1950s, the USSR grew economically faster than any nation except Japan. The world just commemorated the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight, one of a number of events which seemed to presage the hoped-for surpassing of the West. But growth slowed with the years. The Soviet planners hoped to do much better using modern mathematical techniques, but those hopes foundered on the constraints of the existing system.Francis Spufford’s book is a nonfiction novel, a hybrid of the two forms. It has the endnotes and extensive bibliography of a well-written nonfiction summary in the secondary literature, and the major sections are introduced with nonfiction discussions of about ten pages each. But the bulk of the book consists of fictional vignettes, with characters both historical and invented, showing how the policy moves played out in the lives of the Russian people.These vignettes illustrate the great scope of an economy and the complex interactions of the people in it. Spufford is excellent at showing us the variety of the world and peoples’ motivations. In the introduction to part 4, and its first fictional subsection, “The Method of Balances,” we see an important bureaucrat carrying out part of the “balancing” that was needed to ensure that factories produced enough of the right materials to supply industrial and consumer needs. The central quest in the book is the search for ways to use the science of linear programming, implemented on computers, to replace the price signals that a free market economy uses to the same end.There’s not actually a lot of economics in this book. See Spufford’s bibliography if you want pointers to thorough analyses. The vignettes show us scientists hoping to perfect planning methods, politicians facing success and failure, and everyday people, coping with a Soviet system where money was nearly useless next to connections as a means of getting what one wanted - where a factory manager might reasonably conclude that sabotaging a machine central to his factory might be the only way to save his career.Spufford is good at imagining the mindset of people who must always choose their words carefully, and who know just what can and cannot be said - a limit which changed over time, and was fairly permissive during the early 1960s, tightening after Krushchev was deposed. These are people whose environment may not be materially comfortable, but who at least can finally do some real biology, say, which was next to impossible under Stalin. Yet still they believe in communism. Spufford illuminates some aspects of the utopian nature of Soviet thought by referencing science fiction writers - books by Jack Womack, H. G. Wells, Ken Macleod, and Boris and Arkady Strugatsky all come up in the endnotes.Despite its many excellences, I like this book less well than commentary around the web led me to expect. Spufford has not managed the novelist’s feat of creating believable, sympathetic characters, nor the short story writer’s trick of capturing some particularity. If anything, he has taken the science-fiction writer’s approach: acting out the interplay of ideas through somewhat generic, everyperson viewpoints. The book might have been better at greater length, letting us have more than a few pages to get to know the single-mother scientist moving to Academgorodok, or the clever, rising manager, or the young woman whose plans for future success are derailed at an exhibition of US consumer goods. The major exception is the longer chapter, “Favours,” about the bad day of an entrepreneurial dealmaker, or “fixer”, both needed and despised by a system in which his work was illegal. I would like to hear more about Comrade Chekuskin, whose story could probably expand to a novel’s length.Spufford’s book shows us how smart, basically well-meaning people will behave in essentially insane ways when so constrained by their social system. I live in a country on the winning side of the last century’s competition, but our economic and political trends of recent decades suggest that we are not immune from this sort of insanity. That alone might be reason enough to read the book.
Review by jorgearanda
An ambitious novel of the USSR's central planning efforts, told from the points of view of many disparate citizens and players in the economic system. The novel falls fairly flat, but despite its failures it's an interesting read.
Review by comixminx
Engaging, interesting, educational. Really liked this a lot. I enjoyed the semi-historical, semi-novelistic way of putting across the overall narrative, especially the fact that Spufford was quite clear in the end-matter about what was real and what was fictionalised, without cluttering up the main body of the book itself.