Francis Spufford’s sprawling mosaic of the Soviet Union in the 1960s at first reminds one of Vasily Grossman’s account of Stalinism and the Second World War in Life and Fate. Both use a variety of characters—workers and soldiers, technical elite and normal party cadre—to shift places and perspectives, in order to reveal the hopes, contradictions, and failures of the periods they describe. Both are eminently historical novels, based on extensive scholarly reading in Spufford’s case and vast journalistic experience in Grossman’s.
But there the similarity ends; each novel has a quite different point. Life and Fate is horribly tragic. The Red Army soldiers in Stalingrad are marked for death by the Germans and by “resolute” party cadre behind the lines at the same time. Juxtaposed to the horrific image of the woman hugging the child in the gas chamber is the postwar anti-Semitism that seeps through the pores of late Stalinism. Red Plenty, by contrast, despite the wretched fates of some of its characters, reads like a comedy, at times a dark one. The hopes of the mathematicians and cyberneticians prove mere wishful thinking within the real system of state socialism—the actual subject of the novel. In the first chapter, the prodigy Leonid Kantorovich thinks his deep thoughts on how to optimize the Soviet system—”All he would have to do was to persuade the appropriate authorities to listen”—while tuning out the reality of the bus. “He could tune up the whole Soviet orchestra, if they’d let him. His left foot dripped. He really must find a way to get new shoes.” Idea confronts reality; were this filmed, it could be slapstick.
Comedy in this sense need not be free of pain and despair; it need not be happy. Nor need the employment of a fictional genre imply a lack of historical rigor. The “emplotment” of historical moments, to use Hayden White’s term from so many years ago, is not arbitrary; genres are necessary parts of historical work, serving to provide the broader meanings that connect historical actors with their moment. By using fiction, Spufford is able to make abstract accounts of how the Soviet system operated concrete, and concretely horrible. The collage of stories allows him both to portray individuals striving to reach goals and the overarching system that encompasses those individuals.
The two chapters of Part Three, for example, work by juxtaposing two places: the new, isolated Akademgorodok, which Spufford wonderfully translates as “Academyville,” and the grimy industrial town of Novocherkossk. Akademgorodok is a place of freely available food and liquor, even an automobile at the disposal of Kantorovich; here thought can be free from party restraints, even love can be free. The connection between the two chapters appears as the young thinkers influenced by systems theory declare the need for “optimal pricing”—and the newcomer, the biologist Zoya Vaynshteyn (i.e. a German-Jewish name; like Grossman, Spufford weaves ethnicity into his account), thinks: “Spoken like somebody who doesn’t do the shopping” (178). Juxtaposition: Novocherkossk, the workers and citizens use the symbols of the regime to protest price hikes, and the political leadership, which the young cyberneticians would like to convince, can do nothing but swear, panic, and retaliate against their apparent enemies, shooting them down. The young party cadre Kolodya has expected something better, something less brutish at the top; the top turns out to be as brutish and violent as the party cadres at the bottom. Akademgorodok dreaming slams into the hard cement floor of dictatorship.
The method works even better in Part Four, which makes its way through the reality of the “planning” process: the arbitrary judgment of the Gosplan official; the game of the plant managers, aptly rendered as a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma; the reality of how the economy functions through favors (the infamous Russian term “blat”), described in the form of one man with connections to managers, planners, gangsters, truckers, and waiters. Yes, Chekushin is not quite believable as a single person. But through him Spufford can crystallize the marvelous stories that the late Joseph Berliner found when he undertook his interviews of managers who had defected from the Soviet Union, during the height of the Cold War. Kantorovich hoped to optimize the plan; by the end of Part Four, one can see little optimization in practice, and indeed not much in the way of a plan.
By the time one finishes Part Four, the novel has made its point—before the Kosygin reforms have even begun. The last two parts of the book read like an extended death sentence on the Soviet Union. “Externalities” weave their way in—cancer and environmental degradation, everyday anti-Semitism and the demoralizing political trials in the academy. The last part of the book is no longer describing optimal and suboptimal socialism; it’s describing the grimy realities of a modern, industrial dictatorship. If the novel’s chief protaganist is the system itself, then the novel is a kind of anti-Bildungsroman, a narrative of de-formation.
In this context, I must admit that the last words of the novel seemed out of place to me. “Hope” in the sense of hoping for redemption through planning has not just been ground into the dust by events, it has lost its connection to reality; Red Plenty seems like “wishful thinking,” i.e. an unfounded yearning for a different world, rather than a “concrete utopia,” a vision of the future grounded in the possibilities of the present, to use Ernst Bloch’s terms. When the economist Emil Arslanovich Shaidullin confronts Kosygin in Part Five on how the plan for shadow pricing requires coherent inputs to start with—when he in fact calls for the planners to give up their power and also their security—he is shocked by the incomprehension of the party leadership. A confrontation occurs between the economist and the politician, between the theorist of optimal pricing and the politician who knows that radical price shifts can occasion civil unrest. Emil is left despondent. The section ends (301): “’Can I hope, then?’ said Emil, despite himself. ‘Oh, you can always hope,’ said Mokhov [of Gosplan] warmly. ‘Be my guest.’” And then the final words of the novel (361): “The Soviet Union falls. The dance of commodities resumes. And the wind in the trees of Akademgorodok says: can it be otherwise? Can it be, can it be, can it ever be otherwise?”
But what does “hope” mean in this context? And why should Akademgorodok be the place where hope in embodied? After all, didn’t Academyville rather embody the logic of the system—its claim to scientifically plan from above, its faith in science and industry, its separation of the privileged from the unprivileged? Didn’t it serve both to symbolize progress and to isolate possible dissent from technical experts? And why should the most important change with the end of the Soviet Union be “the dance of commodities,” i.e. capitalism—not the opening of possibilities for challenging environmental pollution, corruption, official arrogance, and dictatorship?
These rhetorical questions point back to the formal question about the relationship between historical and fictional writing that Spufford has posed throughout the book. The relationship is in fact quite close. The historian must also consider the mode of representing a historical moment: as a system, as a linear narrative, as a moment of crisis? He or she must also consider the viability of challenges, the meaning of twists in the plot line. In some cases, the historian develops fictional characters as well, such as the average worker or average party cadre. Without such abstractions, social history is pretty much impossible. So there isn’t much distance between the genres in many respects.
But in Red Plenty, the two genres remain distinct. The fictional account here seeks to describe through events and dialogue; the over 50 pages of historical notes that accompany the fictional one describe through assertive statements. The difference is at times jarring. In the confrontation between Shaidullin and Kosygin mentioned above, for example, Spufford’s note on p. 405 suggests that Kosygin’s counter argument consisted “of shrewd realism as well as self-interest and incomprehension.” I think that he’s probably right from a historical perspective, but the note seems to dictate to the reader how to understand the writer. Similarly, when the young Shaidullin visits a collective farm near the start of the book, he asks, “Did something bad happen here?” The question (at p. 75) seems to come out of the blue; the historical note at p. 375 fills the gap by providing an authoritative reference to Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow. In other words, the scholarly annotation claims an objective voice, in contrast with the voices in history in the main text.
Which brings me back to the contrast between Life and Fate and Red Plenty. There is no place outside of the text in Life and Fate; precisely the all-encompassing nature of the narrative makes the results so horrible, indeed forces the reader to put the book down at times, unable to face the next scene. The narrative of historical fiction and the narrative of history in Red Plenty, however, have an asymmetric relationship: the historical notes stabilize the fiction. Therefore the reference to hope at the end of the novel seems so out of place. Because the omniscient historian has in fact eliminated hope from the narrative.