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42 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Delightful and insightful: a mix of novel and history
This is a novel of an economic concept, The Central Plan, set in the Soviet Union of the 50's and 60s. But it is a novel that uses semi-fictional characters to tell some real economic history. It is amusing and very readable, but it also comes with 50 page of explanatory notes and references, and with multi-page chapter introductions gently explaining Soviet dreams,...
Published on January 17, 2011 by Graham

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27 of 36 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting topic, inadequate treatment
The "Red Plenty" in the title refers to the strategy officially adopted by Khrushchev-era USSR to demonstrate the superiority of socialism by outperforming capitalism economically. The book is about the attempt by a group of mathematicians, mathematical economists and computer scientists to achieve this by applying the principles of operations research to economic...
Published on October 3, 2010 by Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya


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42 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Delightful and insightful: a mix of novel and history, January 17, 2011
By 
Graham (Palo Alto, CA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Red Plenty (Hardcover)
This is a novel of an economic concept, The Central Plan, set in the Soviet Union of the 50's and 60s. But it is a novel that uses semi-fictional characters to tell some real economic history. It is amusing and very readable, but it also comes with 50 page of explanatory notes and references, and with multi-page chapter introductions gently explaining Soviet dreams, hopes and economics.

It does an excellent job of explaining one of the central tragedies of the USSR, showing how an idealistic economic dream for making the world a better place foundered so dramatically. It seemed so obvious at the time: a planned economy, optimally coordinating all resources and production would clearly be so much more efficient than the chaos of capitalism. It would build a better, rosier world for everyone. Except...

Spufford uses fluid fictional scenes to gently tease out the hopes and contradictions of the period. We see the initial genuine utopian fervor that centralized planning is the Right Answer; then the defensive cunning of plant managers in manipulating the system; the hopeful attempts at mathematical optimizations; the desire to have some kind of pricing mechanism to drive rational decision making; the fear of the authorities of the social unrest caused by price swings; the slow drift from Khrushchev's brash wild optimism and even wilder plans, to the slow acceptance of defeat and stagnation under Brezhnev.

Spufford writes well and is often very amusing as he explores the foibles and hypocrisies of Soviet life. Yes, the central thread is all about economics, but fear not, it is cleverly told, with short vivid episodes exploring Soviet life as well as gently exposing the dreams and tragedies as idealized economics encounters the real world. For example, a wonderful triplet of short scenes exhibits the sly maneuvers of one factory's management to meet their assigned production goals. This starts with the slow revelation that they have sabotaged one of their own giant machines so that they will be allowed to upgrade it, and ends with their woeful discovery that they must replace it "as is" because the new upgraded machine would be cheaper. Cheaper? Yes, we learn how that can be a fatal barrier in a planned economy.

Overall this is a very enjoyable work, both as a novel, and as an insightful exploration of a failed utopian vision.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fiction + History = Fascinating Synthesis of the Soviet Collapse, October 18, 2010
By 
Maximzodal (Houston, TX United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Red Plenty (Kindle Edition)
This review pertains to the hardback book which is not available from Amazon.

It never occurred to me, even into adulthood, that I would ever see the collapse of the Soviet Union in my lifetime. That it happened so quickly was a shock. How this happened has piqued my curiosity for twenty years. It is common knowledge today that the collapse of the Soviet economy was hugely instrumental in the collapse of that system but, knowing that and understanding how and why had not been clear to me. At university, economics was reputed to have the ability to anesthetize whole classrooms. But, with Francis Spufford's "Red Plenty", there is definitely no threat of anesthesia. Economics never bogs the reader down. Spufford's technique of combining fiction with some very intricate history and economics brings the subject alive to the extent that I could hardly put the book down. Who or what is killing the Soviet economy? How is it happening? The ways people and industries cope with the flawed economic system and the effort to try to build a new one are never contrived or unbelievable and always informative. The people, both fictional and real, are both sympathetic and believable. The book revolves around the effort to build a central planning system that would reputedly rival the economies of the west without resorting to capitalism. The inherent flaws in the Soviet model and the human foibles that continuously undermine the old economy and the new effort is just fascinating. Definitely one of the best books I've read this year. Highly recommended.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic work ... Let me explain why this book is totally amazing, March 20, 2013
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This review is from: Red Plenty (Paperback)
I happened to grew up in Soviet Union and actually met some of the people mentioned in this book ...

This book is totally mind blowing ... It's unbelievable how a foreigner who doesn't even speak Russian could capture the spirit of that time with the littlest details and at the same time summarize the grandest historic forces shaping up the superpowers of the XX century.

The book shows what people of that time were thinking about, how they lived their daily lives, but it also goes very deep into exposing the fundamental conflicts of the non market economy.

I've read a lot about Soviet Union, both in Russian and English, and most of the Russian books have strong prejudgement and they are either showing socialism in a very positive or a very negative light. The English sources might be more or less objective, but their lack of understanding of the culture sometimes make them simply laughable.

Mr. Spufford managed to keep his point of view very objective and filled the book with the finest very authentic details.

So if you want to learn about life in Soviet Union in 1950s-1970s, understand how that Superpower was ruled and what socialism was about and why it ultimately lost the historic race - I can't think of any better single source.

Just one more note. This books is a peculiar mixture of some very accurately presented historic facts with some fiction and they are blended together so it might be not clear which is which. The author is not trying to distort your perception, it's actually opposite, by filling in some fictional details, he is giving you a better idea of what it was, just like some careful restoration can give you a better idea of what the artist intention was. However, you should be careful if you want to quote names or facts - not everything is real. To be fair, the author did a great job of providing references and clearly stating what is real and what is not.

Overall, it's an amazing amazing work! Taking my hat off...
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable and informative, October 14, 2010
By 
Peter Pearson (Aptos, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Red Plenty (Kindle Edition)
Fun to read and meticulously documented, this is the best explanation I've seen of the mysterious process by which the Soviet system could combine the efforts of industrious, intelligent, well-intentioned workers, bureaucrats, and leaders, to produce such disappointing results.

Spufford takes us on a tour through the minds of several actors in the Soviet saga, sketching a plausible combination of interests, concerns, and motives that make each player's actions seem reasonable and perhaps even inevitable.

The writing is delightfully spiced with novel and strikingly effective phrasing, with a notable jewel every few pages. Among my favorites are "rubbery gabbling and squeaking" to describe sounds from a walkie-talkie, and casual mention of a a ground-to-air rocket battery as a computer's output device. Unusual scenery also appears in an electron-level description of the functioning of a computer, and later in a molecular-level description of carcinogenesis.
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27 of 36 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting topic, inadequate treatment, October 3, 2010
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This review is from: Red Plenty (Kindle Edition)
The "Red Plenty" in the title refers to the strategy officially adopted by Khrushchev-era USSR to demonstrate the superiority of socialism by outperforming capitalism economically. The book is about the attempt by a group of mathematicians, mathematical economists and computer scientists to achieve this by applying the principles of operations research to economic planning.

Rather than writing a straight-out non-fiction work the author has chosen to present his material in the form of fictionalised episodes involving historical characters followed by detailed notes and references to secondary sources.

The result is unsatisfactory. The episodes are well-written but do not have enough in terms of character development and plot complexity to make the book enjoyable as a work of fiction. On the other hand the facts are presented very sketchily and provide only a broad-brush picture of what was happening.

The author must be congratulated for providing a useful bibliography. To save you the trouble of buying the book just for this, here are the major sources that the author refers to:
Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s
Planning Problems in the USSR: The Contribution of Mathematical Economics to their Solution 1960-1971 (Department of Applied Economics Monographs)
Khrushchev: The Man and His Era
From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics
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17 of 23 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Is it Really Fiction?, February 26, 2012
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This review is from: Red Plenty (Paperback)
Red Plenty may be one of those fictional works that do a great job of telling us the truth. I just don't know, however, because it is fiction. Francis Spufford does a great job presenting a believable window into the minds of "typical" Russians in the fifties and sixties, and explaining both the flaws of the Russian economic model, and the effects those flaws had on the economy and its participants.

I get nervous, however, when authors present economic ideas in a work of fiction, however because the set piece explanations lead to easy generalizations and ignore the painful details required by economic choice. If Spufford is writing fairly as a result of his economic and social research, I am very impressed, with his economic and social insight. If he is spinning like Ayn Rand to support some political goal, I would like a little notice.

In the end, I recommend the book, but don't know if the economic story it tells is as accurate as Spufford makes it seem. Because the economic story is the heart of the book, my three star rating is based on that uncertainty, because the book is not about the characters and their situations, rather the characters and their situations are used to tell an economic tale.

As an aside, toward the end of the book is a simply brilliant explanation of the biological process that leads to lung cancer. While that description does little to advance the story, that description is worth reading for itself and should be in every high school biology book.

I will await Spufford's next work with eagerness and as he establishes a track record and as I get a better idea where he is coming from, I hope my recommendation of Red Plenty will rise.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read for armchair political economists, August 24, 2013
This review is from: Red Plenty (Paperback)
5 stars for the author pulling off so beautifully what he was trying to accomplish. The very effective use of a combination of expository historical writing and story telling to convey essential historical truths and explain complex, not intuitive concepts. Most of all a totally fun, thought provoking read if you are into this kind of thing. Excellent end notes and bibliography. The author is meticulous in documenting what is fact and fiction and generous in describing the overall limitations of what he is trying to do.

1 and 2 star reviewers don't seem to get what the book is about.

The book had me thinking about how critical honest prices and the free flow of information that enables them is to the proper functioning of an economy. This importance is often over shadowed by absolutist views on the rights of property and contract which I now think are probably of secondary importance and if anything are commonly used to undermine the price mechanism. Read about the Irish Potato Famine for a look at the consequences of absolutist property rights. Read the recent NY Times article on the use of contract to hide negotiated prices and thwart the price mechanism by the manufacturers of hip joints.

As is so often the temptation when reading history one cant help spinning What If scenarios. In this case what if Khrushchev had stayed in power another year or two and had implemented the full reforms worked out? What if the technology and maths had been worked out and rolled out in the mid 50s or earlier? I suspect that the political side of the soviet political economic equation would have prevented anything from working. Also I'm not sure that introducing a much better price mechanism would have addressed another fundamental problem of Soviet economics pointed out in the book, that it grew based on expanding external outputs rather than by increasing internal productivity as was happening in the capitalist world. I don't think there was an equivalent to "creative destruction" and I wonder how what passed for entrepreneurship and innovation worked besides copying specific products from the West.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very clever book, August 1, 2013
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This review is from: Red Plenty (Paperback)
It's difficult to review this book. It's written like a novel but is very much based in real historical events and people. It's a great read but what I really liked about it was the way it gave me a view of what it was like for ordinary Russians during the cold war period; how they lived, their hardships, their philosophy and what they believed.

It can be difficult for us in the West to understand how they could accept such terrible hardship as the norm without rebelling against it. The book brilliantly shows how the ideal of communism managed to remain a pure and sought after thing while the awful reality bore no resemblance. The belief in the general populace that this was just a phase on the way to utopia is wonderfully brought to life.

Their belief was that it had to be true that when everybody worked together for the same goal with total efficiency it was a better system than the west where everybody competed and tried to trip each other up.

This book is certainly no fan of communism but it does brilliantly in showing how you can get sucked in to the kool-aid. It really made me look at things differently and I feel I have a far greater understanding of what was a bizarre social experiment.

It gives you how the whole thing set off on the wrong track from the beginning with a naive faith and it does all this while reading like a great novel.

I wish I could articulate my review better as this book deserves it but it is a great read, hugely informative and very though provoking.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars There's No Fiction Like Red Fiction, October 27, 2012
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This review is from: Red Plenty (Kindle Edition)
Red Plenty is a number of things.

It's a thoughtful, plausible, depiction of the human impact resulting from an attempt to structure macro-economics in purely material, political, and scientific, terms. It's also a pitch-perfect satire on the preposterous idea that was the centrally-planned economy. Finally, it's a brilliant illustration of the volatility and unpredictability of the results which stem from the combination of the tiniest and seemingly most insignificant of events.

If that sounds boring, take heart, it's not. This is wonderful writing. A story of what happens when economics becomes the lodestone of a culture: it's the little people who get hurt.

One more thing to understand about Red Plenty: this is a work of fiction. If you're looking for an economics text addressing socialism or soviet communism that is heavy on theory, this isn't it. There's certainly a thorough-enough handling of the ideology, both its soundness and its absurdity, but that's not the thrust here. This book is about the people who were tasked with making the thing work and the price they paid - no pun intended - when it didn't. Because, well, it couldn't and wouldn't. Ever. (an aside: if you're looking to conflate this book into an indictment of the economic policies of the American President Obama, well, congratulations on the potency of your imagination. You should try you hand at writing fiction.) Ultimately, there may be no better way to write an economics textbook. Whether we're talking capitalism or socialism or some combination of the two, fiction is well-suited to the subject matter.

The author remarks in the afterword that he doesn't read or speak Russian. I do, and to me, he has the sense and, more often than not, the tone, just right. That authorial lack of facility in the language renders Red Plenty an even more remarkable achievement, in my view.

A little note: in a two or three paragraph description toward the middle of the book, the author gives one of the most vivid depictions of the function and purpose of the Communist Party and the role that it played in the everyday lives of the soviet people - (20 years after the collapse of the USSR, it's still fulfilling that role to an extent) - that I've ever read, anywhere.

It's been said that 'every question is an economics question'. I disagree. I think every question is a human question. A lesson that economists, whatever their stripe, would do well to remember. A lesson Red Plenty got right.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unusual and Interesting; 4.5 Stars, April 13, 2012
By 
R. Albin (Ann Arbor, Michigan United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Red Plenty (Paperback)
How many novels have an extensive bibliography and endnotes? This unusual book is aimed at depicting important aspects of the Soviet Union including its command economy and efforts to rescue it by resort to sophisticated econometric modeling and computer technology. Organized as a series of chronologically arranged vignettes, Spufford combines purely fictional episodes, recreation of some historic events, and some didactic sections. His characters are a mixture of real personages, fictional characters based on historic figures, and purely fictional characters recreating typical figures in the Soviet Union. I suspect that Spufford has written Red Plenty partly as a bookend to Babel's famous Red Cavalry, the latter related to the early years of the Soviet Union, the former to its demise.

Set mainly during Krushchev's reign, Red Plenty centers around efforts to reform the Stalinist state, specifically its command economy. By the end of the 1950s, the Soviet economic miracle was starting to show signs of strain. Declining growth rates and wretched productivity were increasingly apparent. In a society besotted with technology, many Soviet intellectuals and policy makers thought that the command economy could be rescued by complex linear programming models developed originally by the mathematician Leonid Kantorovich. Combined with computer technology that could implement the enormous calculations required for modeling a whole economy, this technological fix would be the savior of the Soviet economy and fulfill the promise of Soviet cornucopia. Needless to say, it didn't work out like this. Beyond its intrinsic difficulties, factors intrinsic to the increasingly ossified state prevented its real implementation.

Spufford does a very nice job of displaying the genuine idealism of this period, the realities of the enormous kludge that was the Soviet economy, and the intrinsic contradiction of trying to get people to behave freely in an authoritarian state with a command economy. The sections dealing with the demise of reformism and the transition to the stagnation of the Brezhnev era are displayed particularly well.

Its now easy to make fun of these kinds of reform efforts but this book is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of faith in technology. As recent events on Wall Street have shown, Soviet economists are hardly the last people who placed too much emphasis on formal economic models. The idea that a technological miracle will relatively painlessly solve difficult problems is common among global warming skeptics.
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Red Plenty
Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (Paperback - February 14, 2012)
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