Red Plenty Book Review
While the “Russia” shelves of American bookstores groan under the weight of heavy tomes on the horrors of Stalin and the Gulag, the relatively liberal period that followed has attracted little interest from authors, scholars and publishers. This neglect is unsurprising as Khrushchev’s reign included much less slavery and killing, so the story is not all that dramatic.
Yet during the 1950s and early ’60s the arts briefly flourished and the USSR enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom, enjoying the fastest levels of growth in the world. The planned economy, it seemed, really worked … maybe.
In Red Plenty, English author Francis Spufford seeks to redress this imbalance with a book dedicated to the USSR’s long experiment with the planned economy that is at once history and novel and yet neither. Dense with research, Spufford takes the fruit of his reading and presents it to us through a series of internal monologues attributed to fictional and real individuals, scientists, economists and party leaders.
Thus the book is not merely an attempt to provide facts and analysis but rather a subjective, emotional, imaginative reconstruction of what it felt like to be a Soviet citizen when the USSR challenged the United States for global economic dominance.
Although this may be unusual in English, Alexander Solzhenitsyn used a similar but more complex “polyphonic” technique in his great historical novel In The First Circle and not-so-great Red Wheel cycle.
This structure of interlinked but separate monologues is mostly effective, although the opening disquisition on how best to maximize the production of plywood may be a deal-breaker for some readers (it nearly was for me.) But the book picks up once Spufford climbs inside Khrushchev’s head during his legendary tour of America in 1959. From this point on Red Plenty revels in acute psychological insights and sympathetic portrayals of a complex reality—and only occasionally gets bogged down in statistics and theorizing.
Solzhenitysn is not the only Russian/Soviet analogue for Red Plenty. The first half of the book reads like a superior version of the notorious “production novel,” Socialist Realist works dedicated to heroic tales of construction. For example, Valentin Kataev’s Time Forward (1933) is a stirring tale about breaking the world record for mixing the most batches of concrete in a day. Kataev’s heroes, like Spufford’s, are true believers, dedicated to developing the USSR, and exhorting the reader to thrill at the progress of soviet construction.
But Spufford has the freedom to write honestly, to discuss sex, doubt and violence, and then to show us how it all went wrong.
Red Plenty makes known that which was (mostly) unknown and is thus to be applauded. The book’s main flaw is Spufford’s attempt to root the dream of the planned economy in Russia’s tradition of skazki—fairytales, where material goods exist in abundance and nobody works very hard. The dream of eternal bliss exists not only in fairytales but also in the biblical idea of the Millennium, a future period when heavenly conditions shall prevail on earth.
Russia has a history of apocalyptic millenarian movements, of which the Bolsheviks were the historical culmination. Fairytales do not inspire people to kill and enslave others. The apocalypse, and the millennial dream of heaven on earth however, are a different matter.
As Spufford has Khrushchev state: “So much blood, and only one justification for it … .”
Dallas Morning News 17 Feb 2012