Red Plenty: What were they thinking?

by Maria on June 7, 2012

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.

{ 31 comments }

1

Tom T. 06.08.12 at 3:09 am

To be fair, North Korea would probably seem truly bizarre to a Texan, too.

2

piglet 06.08.12 at 3:43 am

Why exactly is learning “how the USSR had been governed” a pointless exercise?

3

Bill Snowden 06.08.12 at 5:56 am

The course was a pointless exercise (to a college sophomore, mind) because it continued teaching how the USSR is governed and could take no notice of the sudden absence of its referent. Nobody is saying historiographical study of the USSR in retrospect is pointless; only it is subtly deflating to have to go on studying a thing which is not as though it were still there.

4

Belle Waring 06.08.12 at 6:28 am

Don’t be silly, piglet: a whole year of Irish university was meant to be spent studying the political structures of the USSR, and then the real thing fell in on itself, and the poor students (and poorer lecturer, as Maria notes) had to go on with the charade, unsure of what would happen next, but certain only that this set of facts would not be true. It’s no world-historical tragedy, to be sure, but it sounds like a huge waste of everyone’s time. They would have done much better learning about heresies in the Byzantine Church, or improvements on the repeating crossbow in the Three Kingdoms period. You know, something relevant.

5

Alexander S. 06.08.12 at 8:00 am

“The poorly dressed mathematician Leonid Vitalevich struggles home on a rush hour metro, inventing linear programming as he goes”.

I suspect it’s meant Mr. L.V. Kantorovich, USSR’s economist (mathematician indeed) and nobel laureate in economics in 1975? Funny!

6

ajay 06.08.12 at 8:27 am

Slightly off topic, at least for this post if not the seminar in general, but has anyone else noticed that the FT has been running articles taking a fairly cheerful line about the impending end of capitalism as we know it and the transition to post-scarcity economics? (Yes, I mean the Financial Times. Yes, the real one.)

7

chris y 06.08.12 at 10:42 am

Yes, I mean the Financial Times. Yes, the real one.

So in the absence of social/ism they have embraced barbarism? Not too surprising, really.

8

ajay 06.08.12 at 2:41 pm

Post-scarcity economics != barbarism, chris.

9

piglet 06.08.12 at 3:12 pm

“They would have done much better learning about heresies in the Byzantine Church, or improvements on the repeating crossbow in the Three Kingdoms period. You know, something relevant.”

Kind of begging the question. Same to Bill Snowden. It’s not (unless I am mistaken) that the Irish students were trained to become USSR aparatchiks. They studied the USSR system as an academic subject. The implosion of that system shouldn’t have rendered it less interesting as an academic subject. Of course any halfways competent lecturer would have been able to make the course more interesting and relevant at that historic moment. It’s not that nothing happened in the Soviet system until 1991 and then it suddenly disappeared. If that particular lecturer taught the Soviet system without discussing those changes, then it would have been a failure. But it strikes me as a weird thing to say that from 1991 on, the Soviet Union ceased to exist as an object worthy of study.

10

Pascal leduc 06.08.12 at 3:38 pm

I think the issue is not that the the Soviet union wasent an object worthy of study. But that since it no longer exists it was now a subject worthy of study to historians and not the political scientists who studied it beforehand.

I’m kinda curious about what happened to these people. Did they switch over the history department, or shift their research to studying to post soviet world or just plain retired?

11

Maria 06.08.12 at 4:00 pm

Bearing in mind I was 18 months out from the Leaving Cert, a two-year marathon of rote-learning with a 10 day regurgitation exam period to determine the entire course of the rest of my life, I think my 19 year old self was a pretty good judge of pointless memorisation exercises, thank you very much, Piglet!

There are any number of ways that course twenty years ago could have been made useful or interesting. They’re guided by the questions asked nowadays by people learning about the historic Soviet Union, for example, ‘was it really marxism/leninism?’, ‘how did commodity prices contribute to the collapse?’, ‘what were the real power flows, as opposed to the nominal structures?’, and, not least, ‘wtf were they thinking, towards the end?’.

But my point is that we weren’t doing any of that. We were learning the nominal power structures as set out in doctrine, and – crucially – in the present tense. As if a recent, relevant and monumental change in the world’s history simply hadn’t happened. Believe me, it was a complete and demoralising waste of time. A perfect pump and dump. And, as I say – and the reason I mention it – the complete opposite of what Spufford is up to.

12

Maria 06.08.12 at 4:02 pm

Pascal, I don’t remember exactly what happened to the lecturer. I have the idea he wasn’t on the permanent staff but could be wrong about that. If so, his dismay wasn’t just intellectual but financial. I think ultimately many of the Russianists re-tooled, but my vague memory is this guy was, at that moment at least, unable to muster the enthusiasm for it.

13

ajay 06.08.12 at 4:03 pm

I’m kinda curious about what happened to these people. Did they switch over the history department, or shift their research to studying to post soviet world or just plain retired?

One of them, IIRC, went on to become US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. (OK, she was actually a specialist in communist Czechoslovakia, but near enough.)

The implosion of that system shouldn’t have rendered it less interesting as an academic subject.

This strikes me as a pretty utopian thing to say. You really can’t see any reason why people might be more interested in studying the political system of an actually-existing world superpower than the political system of an imploded and non-existent superpower? Because, what, it should all be about the pure joy of intellectual effort rather than anything grubby like “relevance”?

14

Maria 06.08.12 at 4:03 pm

“But it strikes me as a weird thing to say that from 1991 on, the Soviet Union ceased to exist as an object worthy of study.”

Which is precisely what I didn’t say…

15

Ellis Goldberg 06.08.12 at 4:32 pm

Assuming your experience was common (and I suspect it was), it makes me wonder why the American academic response to the collapse of the USSR was so different from the American academic response to the “Arab spring” and especially the collapse of autocracy in Tunisia and Egypt. As far as I know nobody continued to teach the same old course and large numbers of academics immediately showed up in Cairo (less so in Tunis) for “revolutionary tourist” visits. Curricula were re-written on the fly. I can think of a couple of explanations but I’d be more interested to hear what others think.

16

piglet 06.08.12 at 5:01 pm

“You really can’t see any reason why people might be more interested in studying the political system of an actually-existing world superpower than the political system of an imploded and non-existent superpower?”

You notice Mr. smartass that I was responding to somebody saying “They would have done much better learning about heresies in the Byzantine Church”?

It is sometimes revealing what dismissive responses one gets for asking a simple question. Maybe it was the right question to ask if so many people feel pissed by it. And Maria, forgive me for not “Bearing in mind I was 18 months out from the Leaving Cert” – whatever that is, I don’t think I need to know. Thank you very much.

17

tomslee 06.08.12 at 5:18 pm

I can think of a couple of explanations but I’d be more interested to hear what others think.

But some of us “others” are more interested in what you think. A couple of explanations please…

18

ajay 06.08.12 at 5:21 pm

Maybe it was the right question to ask if so many people feel pissed by it.

“The fact that you’re all mad at me proves I was right” is one of the internet traditions that quite a few people are aware of.

19

hartal 06.08.12 at 5:50 pm

I don’t know whether anyone here cares, but Chris Betram has put me on moderation on the question of the legitimacy of the use of drones. What is that guy’s problem? Why do the CT people tolerate him?

20

rf 06.08.12 at 6:32 pm

This must be one of the most derailled threads I’ve ever come across. Nice post though. I really cant see the appeal of 400 pages, of fiction, on the Soviet system, but it appears much better than I would have thought. Still probably wont read it unfortunately (I say that fully aware of piglets views on such matters)

21

Jim Harrison 06.09.12 at 1:18 am

The reason Red Plenty seems so relevant at present is not that we’ve all developed a keen interest in the 1960s. It’s that we’re living in another era when a politically potent ideology is standing in the way of rationalizing the economic life of a great nation. Like the Soviets of 1965, we can’t bring ourselves to invest in genuine economic growth because it would rock too many boats, not to mention the difficulty of shifting the dead weight of neoliberal orthodoxy.

22

Schmoe 06.09.12 at 4:31 am

@rf: The CT’s comment threads, derailed or not, make for great, and elucidating, spectating; irregardless of the excellent posts.

@Jim Harrison: By Jove, sir! I’m with you!

23

rf 06.09.12 at 10:55 am

Agreed, there really isnt any living in this world unless you’re willing to get on the train with the gravy fiends

24

Belle Waring 06.09.12 at 11:52 am

I apologize for my part in the derailment. It is an excellent post and deserves more sensible comments. If I thought it would help, I would pretend to have read the novel, but it doesn’t seem quite the thing. Marginally on topic, I would like to note that my children, living in Singapore and having access to juices of every conceivable sort at the hawker centre juice stalls, can now get yuzu juice in the school canteen, in boxes. “Yuzu” is the Japanese name for it, because the Chinese word yuzu means pomelo. This seems unnecessarily complex, but I’m the wiseass who signed her children up for Mandarin school, after all. Yuzu juice is delicious. I hope Maria can try it soon.

25

Maria 06.09.12 at 3:35 pm

You know, we could go all meta and talk about how thread derailments aren’t always a bad thing. I sometimes wonder if I’ve simply been acculturated into believing they’re bad, when in fact I often find my mind happily skipping off after them.

For example, I’m intrigued by Ajay’s comment on the FT going all post-apocalyptic already, and wondering if he will provide urls to an example or two?

Though back on topic, I want to second, third and fourth Jim Harrison’s comment that one reason RP is of such sharp interest – apart from its overall awesomeness – is “that we’re living in another era when a politically potent ideology is standing in the way of rationalizing the economic life of a great nation.”

Also, thanks for the juice, Belle!

26

rf 06.09.12 at 10:22 pm

If further thread derailment isnt rude then, I’d certainly be interested in Ellis Goldberg elaborating on the point @15 (if that was possible of course)

27

Bruce Wilder 06.09.12 at 10:51 pm

Plume

I don’t deprecate planning. Why do you deprecate conflict?

28

ajay 06.10.12 at 10:29 am

“I’m intrigued by Ajay’s comment on the FT going all post-apocalyptic already, and wondering if he will provide urls to an example or two?”

With pleasure. I was rather hoping that one of the CT Big Brains might take a look at it, because it’s all a bit above my level, but what I can understand of it looks fairly interesting; not so much post-apocalyptic as proto-Cultural.

There’s a series of articles on the Alphaville group blog: only two so far but more to come.
http://ftalphaville.ft.com/blog/series/beyond-scarcity/

29

Phil 06.10.12 at 10:11 pm

FT AlphaVille is the enfant terrible of the FT, given licence to explore things that probably won’t ever appear in the main paper. It’s also probably the best blog on the topic of finance and macroeconomics in existence today, not necessarily for it’s original content but for it’s aggregation of high quality links to the rest of the financial blogosphere.

(It’s also very British: irreverent & intent on not taking itself seriously unless the situation demands it.)

30

Maria 06.12.12 at 12:35 am

Thanks for the links, Ajay. They’re interesting pieces, though I’m with Phil in thinking they’re provocative trial balloons at most, not a shift in perspective or interest. But I’m glad you linked to them as I’d not paid much attention to Alphaville before, and found it fascinating.

31

Maria 06.12.12 at 12:36 am

Then again, I’m certainly not one of CT’s bigbrains!

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