Despite being modestly defined as a Russian fairytale by its author, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty combines, in an original way, Russian style fiction and social science. Its originality lies in making the history of an idea into fiction and doing it in such a way that the combination of documentary and fiction does not come across as false history or as historical literature, but as a complex, engaging, exciting epic illuminating questions of economics and politics that are normally too dry for art. By interweaving the stories of numerous characters with historical events and a grand narrative describing economic and social processes of several decades, Spufford fits into the best traditions of Russian fiction, but his focus on ideas rather than emotions makes his approach profoundly un-Russian. This is, to my mind, rather a plus than a weakness of the book, since the great Russian writers of the 19th and 20th century are unrivalled in portraying the great mysteries of the human soul in turbulent times. What they have not done, what hardly anyone has done, is to make a calm, objective, almost scientific investigation of the ideas and relationships that made the success of the Soviet regime possible in the 1950s and 1960s, at the genuine and idealistic belief of citizens and elites at the time that, as Spufford’s Kantorovich character reasons, ‘if he could solve the problems people brought to the institute, it made the world a fraction better’ (p. 11).
Thus Red Plenty is a book for social scientists in more ways than one. First because it draws on history and uses a great amount of documentary material, economic and social history of the Soviet Union to tell the story of the communist dream of abundance for all. And second, and perhaps more important, because its evidence driven narrative aims to answer several typical social science questions, especially for a social scientists interested in communism’s rise and fall. How could the Soviet planning economy be so successful in producing serious economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s, how could the Soviet system produce the science and innovation that led to space exploration and many other scientific achievements? And why did it then fail to continue doing so, to keep the pace of economic growth and scientific discovery?
Among Spufford’s many achievements in this book is that he provides some direct and some indirect answers to these questions. Even though he leads us to the answers by telling the stories of characters that are convincing and fully capable of engaging the reader’s interest in their destiny, he manages somehow to explore mechanisms that are structural and not personal. Despite the attention for Khrushchev and other historical figures from the Soviet Union, the personal vignettes are embedded in a narrative in which science, even more so than the idea of plenty – is the hero. This is perhaps best represented in by the prominent and fairly convincing character and the fate of the mathematician and economist Kantorovich. Other Red Plenty characters remain, as the planner Maksim Mokhov, ‘a confabulated embodiment of (the) institution’ (p. 395).
In contrast to many other books written about the Soviet period and especially about Stalinism, Spufford’s account is not emotional, grim and dramatic, does not aim to show the suffering of ordinary people or their disillusionment with the system as has already been done with unrivalled mastery by the classical works of Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak or Bulgakov, to name but a few. Instead, he shows the various characters influenced not so much by the cruel decisions, but by the dreams of the communist leaders. The leaders who, in accordance with Marxist dogma, pretended (Stalin) or hoped (Khrushchev) that they were social scientists and in Spufford’s interpretation harbored dreams of achieving abundance for all – Red Plenty. A dream that seemed to come true for a while by building on the idealism and enthusiasm of ordinary people and of talented scientists like the mathematician Kantorovich and his students and followers.
Spufford’s approach to the period, in my view, is a success despite his self confessed lack of knowledge of Russian and the occasional unrealistic dialogue (for example, the dialogue between the ‘fixer’ Chekushkin and the factory director representative Stepovoi – pp. 234-245- rings somehow untrue pitched half way between the dry formal register of Soviet apparatchiks and the very informal everyday talk among drinking buddies). Even as his dialogue does not always achieve authenticity – and it seems that Spufford does not, rightly, aim to do so, (for example by using comrade instead of Mr. as a form of address) – the characters and their relationships are convincing and reveal a kind of deeper truth about human behavior. As all good fiction, the book achieves a truthful representation of the social forces and personal relationships and in doing so, helps the reader to understand the Soviet system better.
And as with all good fiction, Red Plenty provides, through the fate of its characters, the possibility of reaching for other conclusions than the author may have intended, of reflecting on other questions than the one defined as central by him. For me, even more important than Spufford’s quest to understand the Soviet planning economy and its failure, is the question what mechanisms and relationships caused the moral failure of the communist system, the political decline which, arguably, preceded the economic failure by destroying the initiative and idealism which gave the communist regimes their energy and strength at the beginning.
In the rest of this contribution I will highlight the characters and reflections in Red Plenty that, to my mind, contribute pieces to resolving the puzzle of the decline of communism as a political system and a set of social rules and relationships.
The character of the fixer, Chekushkin, represents the well known fact that as the planning economy did not work and neither did the formal rules by which communist bureaucracy and society were meant to operate, there were informal channels and ways to get things done, that served as the grease helping the turning of the heavy cogs and wheels in the machinery of the plan. I am not entirely convinced if it was really possible for anyone to play the exact role that Spufford imagined Chekushkin playing, of a spider in the middle of a web of economic relationships, trading favors to make the Plan work. In my personal experience, the trading of favors was a process that was so informal and embedded in everyday relationships that it could not be used for large scale, economic correction of the inflexibilities of communist planning. Still, the character is convincing even without being realistic as he fulfills a role that needed to be fulfilled for the system to function. His existence provides also some insights in the legacy of informality and corruption that plagues post communist regimes to this very day.
The party cadres and party secretaries – to whom Spufford devotes some of his documentary style, reflective sections – are also worth paying closer attention to. His portrayal of them as the managers of the planned economy – and the change in their character and recruitment over time – inspires reflections on the gradual and to a great extent voluntary stifling of personal autonomy and initiative that led to societal and economic stagnation.
The systematic selection of the opportunistic young men and women for communist party membership and the selection of the most ignorant and opportunistic of these for higher level party posts was, to my mind, a key contributing factor to the decline of communism. The party secretaries: who were initially, in Spufford’s description ‘progress chasers, fixers, seducers, talent scouts, comedians, therapists, judges, executioners…’ (270), became later … ‘the most ambitious, the most domineering, the most manipulative, the most greedy, the most sycophantic’ elites of the communist regime. Spufford describes how this resulted in foul-mouthed language in Party meetings. But it is worth pausing to consider the more profound consequences for governance of the systematic, decades long selection of the most opportunistic and most mediocre members of society as its leaders. The party elites own ability to recognize innovation and brilliant inventions in all areas of society was limited and the party ideology made them also blind for the need to foster personal initiative and innovation.
To me, even if it may not be its main goal, Red Plenty shows how this organizational and structural principle of reproducing mediocrity combined with the role of Marxist-Leninist ideology led the communist system to stagnation and eventually, destruction.
As the ideology of Marxism Leninism was indispensable for maintaining the collective belief in the bright future of communism, it remained enshrined by the party apparatchiks as unassailable social science doctrine that provided the only ‘true’ representation of real developments.
Spufford’s book provides an excellent illustration how and why this fusion of opportunistic but ignorant elites and an ideology claiming to be the only social science became harmful for science, for the arts and for intellectual life and morality through the individual stories of the scientists, inventors and artists. The scientists saw their own initiatives, driven by idealism and the love of progress that fuelled the initial boom of the Soviet economy, abandoned and stifled as ideology became more important than real progress and mediocrity ruled without need for innovation or creativity. Brezhnev’s advisor Kosygin, as the planner Mokhov explains to the economist Shaidulin, ‘has a lively sense that our system has better not be broken by we—meaning experiments’ (p. 298).
The vignettes of disappointed and disillusioned scientists become more prominent as the book progresses through the decades of Soviet history, from the Khrushchev to the Brezhnev era: the leading cybernetics research professor Lebedev (e.g. p. 337), who does not manage to convince Kosygin and Brezhnev to support the original Soviet computer industry, the brilliant geneticist Zoya, the economists and mathematicians that prepared the reform that was to rescue the planning economy itself only to come against Politburo’s opposition against ‘market prices’.
The fates of Spufford’s scientists and his popular artist turned dissident, Galitch, ultimately turn out to be determined by the Party’s ability to accept and utilize change. Through their stories he shows that one of the main the causes of stagnation was not simply the impossibility of efficient central planning, but the political commitment to ideology above reality, the growing gap between the predictions and tenets of Marxism-Leninism and real developments in economy and society. Spufford illustrated this, for example, with his imagined dialogue between the economist Emil Shaidulin and Brezhnev’s advisor Kosygin on the proposed pricing reform.
Not only did the Soviet system produce elites that were not equipped with any knowledge or tools to evaluate societal and economic trends (and Spufford comes with several extremely informative and perceptive passages on the educational reform that achieved this result), but the communist ideology, masquerading as social science, required them to believe that what it predicted was actually happening, contrary to evidence supplied by their own experiences. As Spufford says, ‘By definition, friends of truth, friends of thought and reason and humanity and beauty were friends of the Party; friends of Stalin. To be opposed to the Party would be to become an enemy of truth….’ (p. 145). This excellent observation can be used as a definition of something close to a law of social behavior, guiding the elites and party apparatchiks through all the decades after the Stalin period, in all communist regimes until the very collapse of the system: to be opposed to the party was seen as to be opposed to truth and if truth, social reality appeared to be different from what the party was saying, then social reality was rejected in favor of the ‘higher truth’. In other words, all elites and ultimately, most citizens of these regimes learned to live in a state of deep hypocrisy: what we would think was happening was not happening, what was really happening was what the Party told us would happen.
Never mind that, as Spufford also reminds us, ‘the scientific method itself taught lessons’ and so did the reading of classics of Russian literature, so already by the 1960s it was possible for scientists to start realizing that, in Spufford’s succinct formulation, ‘what was enthroned in Russia, after all, might be stupidity’. Marxism Leninism turned out to be a perverse kind of post modernism – if the theory did not really make existence better, then it would construct a reality in which it did, in which pretense was all there was.
The consequences of this all pervasive hypocrisy, of the practice of ‘psychoprophylaxis’ (p. 302)– pretending that the world was better than it was –Spufford’s most glaring example of it being the women giving birth who were required to pretend that it did not hurt – cannot be overestimated. Millions of people that have been born and socialized into the ‘pretend-the-world-better’ system of socialism find it, to this very day, near impossible to believe in the objective consequences of their actions in a social context. Truth about society or the economy, facts and data are underestimated and suspected not to exist – after all, millions were taught facts they could observe did not really exist – only the party’s version of them did. If everything is pretend, then no one can contribute much to society – take a new initiative, build something, start a business – and there is no need to try. This exuberant irrationality can be seen as the last revenge of communism on all of those who ever were reluctant participants in its experiment.