In August 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Television screens in the early days of the 24-hour news cycle told and re-told the confused but familiar tale of tanks in Red Square and a damaged leader confined to his dacha. I watched from Hofstra University, where I was working that summer, visiting America for the first time. I watched Oprah, went to the mall and rescued textbooks from campus bins, astonished at just how much of everything there was in America. In October, I flew back to Ireland at the last possible moment, excitedly telling first-day classmates at University College Dublin that I’d only arrived in that morning. And then the iron fist of reality came down with a thump.
There hadn’t been time to replace the compulsory second year course, Soviet Politics. In January 1992, we knuckled down to learn the defunct super-power’s committee structures, nominal reporting lines and some elementary Kremlinology. The lecturer delivered it in a state of mumbling hopelessness, his life’s work having evaporated in the middle of his career. The following summer, almost a year after the Soviet Union’s collapse, I regurgitated into three scrawled exam essays the precise textbook details of how the USSR had been governed. I may even have used the present tense. It was easily the most pointless and brain-numbing thing I’ve ever done.
Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty is the precise and delightful opposite of all that. It should be dull – a not-quite-novel about economic planning in the USSR - but it’s as stimulating for the policy wonkery as it is for the human drama. A progression of characters waxes prolific on topics such as shadow pricing, linear programming and genetics, managing not to be boring or didactic. Spufford combines neat sketches of fictional and historical characters with well-chosen moments of crisis and exposition to dramatise how planning for abundance was conceived, cultivated and ultimately killed off.
Red Plenty is the Bildungsroman of an idea, starting at the moment it became possible to believe that a planned economy could transform Russia’s violently bootstrapped heavy industry into a responsive system to bring everyday luxury to non-apparatchiks. Kruschev arrives in New York and in his boorish confusion insults the assembled capitalists who don’t realize how much America and the Soviet Union have in common. The poorly dressed mathematician Leonid Vitalevich struggles home on a rush hour metro, inventing linear programming as he goes. Only in a planned economy, he believes, can complexity be modeled and results optimized to bring about a golden age in which he imagines ‘faces, faces the length of the car, relaxing, losing the worry lines and the hungry looks and all the assorted toothmarks of necessity.’
The idea ultimately dies off-stage, murdered by Russian fatalism and political necessity (and perhaps also the falling price of oil, though that’s not much discussed). After Khrushchev’s dismissal, Gosplan’s chair, Kosygin, declares the worst possible fudge; factories will be told to measure output by quality, but prices will still be set by committee and goals by Gosplan. Kosygin elects to buy a few more decades of political stability with artificially low prices, instead of trying to reverse its productivity death spiral. Fictional economist Emil naively lectures Kosygin and returns home to witness the snuffing out of a brief moment of academic freedom. The ending is as poignant as the beginning is exciting. Notably, the only note of hope for the future is Max, Zoya’s son, who leans toward literature, not science.
In introducing us to this epic scale and bulging dramatis personae, Spufford subtly confounds Western readers’ expectations of Russian literature. We are attracted to the greatness of the so-called Slavic soul; its vastness, cruelty and improbably fine sensibility. Russian characters embrace their tragic ends because they simply cannot conceive of being other than who they are. But Spufford’s interlocutors are technocrats and academics whose tidy personal lives funnel their passions toward political and intellectual spade-work. The mathematician, Leonid Vitalevich and the economist, Emil, live in unremarked domestic set-ups. The biologist, Zoya, dismisses an early marriage and decamps with her son to the intellectual paradise of Akademgorodok. Only would-be apparatchik Galina, whose resentment and envy at her limited prospects are unleashed in a painful clash with a black American man, messes up her personal life and comes, professionally, to nothing. In Red Plenty, willfulness against society and all odds belongs to the ideal, not the individual.
Several times, I thought I saw Spufford give an ironic nod to the imaginary Russia of the Western imagination. Galich, the doubting apologist and literary gadfly, takes a taxi with a newspaper editor to the Writers Union for a slap-up lunch. In a scene ironically reminiscent of Bulgakov, two foreigners finally gain access to the culinary riches within. But instead of wild antics and loving descriptions of multi-course meals, we get two Soviet insiders cagily determining how many political misgivings they dare to confide. Bemoaning the imaginative poverty of the Soviet elite, Galich dismisses the notion of the consumerist utopia to be reached by the 1980s:
‘That’s it?’ he said. ‘That’s it? The dream of the ages and it all comes down to mashed potatoes, wooly socks and shared use of a trombone?’
Earlier, the furtive excitement of the post-Stalin thaw is dramatised by Emil, a gifted young economist who walks excitedly through the countryside to his fiancee’s collective farm in the summer of 1953. The wonder of that moment is lyrically expressed:
‘Every time he put a foot down, it muted the insects in a circle round about it, as if he had a disc of silence attached to each leg, but the moment he’d passed they started up again. In the air, dopplered strands of song flitted by.’
As Emil hikes a rutted track for miles in high summer, the young technocrat curses the Russian countryside. His best suit is ruined by dust and pollen. We can smell the composty vapours and sweat. It’s a comical inversion of Tolstoy’s famous scene of Levin swinging his scythe joyfully alongside his peasants, perfectly at peace with his place in the world. The lesson is the same for both men, though; the cultivated mind shouldn’t even yearn to escape from earthy reality. Emil tells himself: ‘Just you remember, Mr. Economist, any time you start to take the big enclosing terms you use for the actions and things they represent, just remember that the world is really sweat and dirt.’
Red Plenty is stocked with tasty morsels; Russia ’s central planners almost invent the Internet, women scientists are shunted into low status fields like medicine, and Soviet economists are said to know the value of everything and the price of nothing. Over 360 pages and through the eyes of a dozen main characters, Spufford builds up the effect of what it was to be Soviet.
Defamiliarisation here isn’t just a novelist’s trick, but the whole effect of the book. Spufford shows us America through the eyes of the Soviets, and dramatizes how that made them feel. (The recent and marvelous Orphan Master’s Son, also makes the reader experience how truly bizarre Texas appears to a North Korean.) Red Plenty brought me right back to how sinfully odd TV America appeared to me as a child; the shocking size and abundance of its fridges, orange juice every day and not just for Christmas, toys so numerous they were counted in armfuls and stored in trunks. Seen from a distance in time or ideology, the market economy really does appear bizarre. When Spufford writes that, for Soviets, ‘for a society to produce less than it could, because people could not ‘afford’ the extra production, was ridiculous’, it does, for a moment, seem strange that this is so. More than anything else I’ve read, Red Plenty answers the question we all asked in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse; ‘what were they thinking?’
Red Plenty is a fairy tale of magic carpets and cooking pots, set in a place ‘like’ Russia. It recalls an impossibly distant time when governments – both capitalist and communist – regarded the economy as something that served the people, and not the other way round. How do you describe the birth, life and death of a system or an idea? By memorizing org charts and carefully articulated distinctions between party and power structure? No, you do it by meeting the people who nurtured, disdained, lived and mourned the idea of communist abundance. If we read because life is too rich and varied to only be experienced from the confines of our own heads, then Red Plenty is a means to live, through the imagination, as others have and never will again.