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Red Plenty Paperback – February 14, 2012
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"Spufford cunningly maps out a literary genre of his own . . . Freewheeling and fabulous." ―The Times (London)
Strange as it may seem, the gray, oppressive USSR was founded on a fairy tale. It was built on the twentieth-century magic called "the planned economy," which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things that the lands of capitalism could never match. And just for a little while, in the heady years of the late 1950s, the magic seemed to be working. Red Plenty is about that moment in history, and how it came, and how it went away; about the brief era when, under the rash leadership of Khrushchev, the Soviet Union looked forward to a future of rich communists and envious capitalists, when Moscow would out-glitter Manhattan and every Lada would be better engineered than a Porsche. It's about the scientists who did their genuinely brilliant best to make the dream come true, to give the tyranny its happy ending.
Red Plenty is history, it's fiction, it's as ambitious as Sputnik, as uncompromising as an Aeroflot flight attendant, and as different from what you were expecting as a glass of Soviet champagne.
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"At the end of the first chapter... I printed a nerdy but heartfelt word: 'Bravo'. I felt like giving the author a little bow, or maybe a one-man standing O." -- Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"An engrossing, and at times deeply moving historical drama." -- Max McGuinness, The Daily Beast
About the Author
Francis Spufford is the author of several highly praised books of nonfiction, including his debut, I May Be Some Time, which won the Writers’ Guild Award for Best Nonfiction Book of 1996, the Banff Mountain Book Prize, and a Somerset Maugham Award. It was followed by The Child That Books Built, Backroom Boys, Red Plenty (translated into nine languages), and Unapologetic. His first novel, Golden Hill, won the Costa First Novel Award. In 2007 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He teaches writing at Goldsmiths College and lives near Cambridge.
- Publisher : Graywolf Press; Original edition (February 14, 2012)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 448 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1555976042
- ISBN-13 : 978-1555976040
- Item Weight : 1.24 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.62 x 1.27 x 8.27 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #395,835 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from the United States
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Wow, as i got into it, the overall narrative blew my mind. The stories are actually connected in a powerful way. they take you from a grad student looking at a new life with a new wife, up to (middle of the book) riots caused by food prices and a subsequent massacre by the army. Each story involves a different person, but they reference either the job function described in previous stories, or the actual characters themselves.
So, i'm half way through the book, and i realize that the overall narrative is one that examines how a planned economy approach of a communist country works, implicitly comparing and contrasting to a market approach. The logical thinking is impeccable - after the first few chapters I was thinking that a planned approach has to work by default, there are too many advantages related to system optimizations. Towards the middle, it's all falling apart and you realize that the micro optimizations and redundancy created by a market economy are major strengths that have to be handled with such an administrative overhead in a planned economy that it is ridiculous. It's a very powerful way to explain how the system worked, how the good intentions eventually filter down into some crazy actions, some bizarre checks and balances.
Hats off to the author, the writing is superb. I have no idea if this is what the USSR was actually like, but this has given me much more of a human connection to the types of things i think people dealt with on a daily basis. I now intuitively "feel" the weight of the planned system, and have new respect for both the planned approach (good intentions, far too many limitations both human and academic) and the market approach (duplication, survival of the fittest). I'm currently working for one of the largest organizations in the world, and many of the details of the Gosplan planning process have analogs in my company.
I'd rate this as one of the best books I have ever read. It has expanded my mind in many ways, and I find myself just zoning out thinking about the implications.
Ultimately this is a collection of vignettes (interspersed with the author's own historical commentary) about a large cast of real and fictional characters either directly or tangentially related to the decades-long scientific, political and economic machinations of creating a more perfectly planned economy that can achieve a true post-scarcity techo-communism. There is a core group of central characters (mostly involved in computer science, thus the almost sci-fi element of some parts of the book), but new characters are added all the time, sometimes as one-offs, sometimes to appear in passing in someone else's story later on. Some of these tales could be brilliantly adapted to a comic-drama TV format (as gauche as this may sound) - particularly the episode where bumbling plant managers conspire to destroy one of their machines in an "accident" to explain a production shortfall, or the adjacent chapter about a Willy Loman-esque salesman hustling one client after another, getting shaken down and beaten up by police at lunchtime, staggering back to make a dinnertime meeting, and doing it all again the next day.
There is no way that a book about this subject matter should work, but here we are. Part of this is because the author has a way of personifying vastly intricate systems. His descriptions of how a 60s era computer works or how a cancer cell is created are simply magisterial. In the same way, the otherwise distant concept of the national economy can be read as a living, breathing, human thing. It's instructive to the reader too.
I think it certainly helps if the reader comes into the book already with some knowledge and interest in this area. (Would a die-hard anti-communist read this book in the first place though?)
Top reviews from other countries
Spufford, though "merely" a writer, truly gets why the Soviet system was doomed to fail in a manner that many supposed experts have long proven incapable of grasping: given the unwillingness of Stalin's successors to replace personal incentives with the Gulag and the NKVD operative's truncheon (or bullet) as motivation, it was inevitable that the Soviet system would gradually come to a crawl as citizens pretended to work at jobs where they were given wages they couldn't use to actually buy much of value.
The arguments Spufford gives life to in this book are not new, and have been made over the decades by voices as varied as Ludwig von Mises and Joseph Stieglitz. What is genuinely innovative here is that said arguments aren't put across in the dry, technical language of economists addressing each other in peer-reviewed journals, nor even in the factual but jargon-free tone one might expect of an Economist survey article; instead Spufford uses the lives and frustrations of ordinary people to get the message across, showing how the perversities of the Soviet system manifested themselves in how one worked, how one interacted with colleagues, how one did business (or the Soviet Union's closest approximation to business) and how one dealt with officialdom, especially when what one might need to say was not what they wished to hear. The book succeeds in showing that the inhumanity and wastefulness of the Soviet economy wasn't some incidental aspect of the system but intrinsic to it, just as the perverse workarounds and sordid compromises it forced on the citizenry was an intrinsic flaw in the weave. Communism simply doesn't work on anything larger than the scale of a few hunter-gatherers, no matter the virtues of those who try to establish it as the basis of a state, or the amount of intellectual firepower they try to throw at it.
This one is a collection of fictional stories from late 50s / early 60s Soviet Union featuring Party members, economists and random folk picturing various aspects and problems of a planned economy. Now, the author definitely did a massive amount of reading on the topic, and it shows. The stories are nicely written indeed.
The problem with this approach to non-fiction is that it's overly dumbed down. The are maybe 5-10 pages of facts there, the rest being just impressions and visions and opinions. I could have guess edfrom all the quotes praising storytelling and not the factual side of things...
Why Red Plenty? Because it describes an attempt to beat capitalism on its own terms and to make Soviet citizens the richest in the world. And for a time in the 1950's and early 60's it looked as though it was going to succeed. Certainly improvements in housing, nutrition, education and health surpassed any other country in the World at this time. Apparently the rise of Russia at this time was viewed like China's development is viewed today - with awe and trepidation.
An original method of referencing not so much facts but feelings or attitudes or speeches or occasions to published books or periodicals at the end of each chapter underlines the authenticity of the attitudes being expressed. For example one reference was to a description "she had added a green leather belt bought at the flea market". The reference at the end of the chapter goes on to describe in great detail the legal car boot sales allowed so long as you had made the item and were not reselling . It lays out details of Article 154 of the Criminal Code dealing with the intricacies of the Soviet rules governing personal property. And there are copious such references at the end of each chapter which you do not have to read but add authority to the book.
The depth into which a variety of subjects are investigated is impressive. For example how the economy was planned with a sophisticated discussion on linear programming and shadow pricing and the move from production targets to efficiency, or profit targets, in state manufacturing operations. Or how lung cancer develops at the cellular level and how the continuous exposure of the cells to chemicals leads to mutation and eventually the growth of tumours is described in fascinating detail.
Whilst tackling the big issues in Russia at the time with seriousness, the way in which the story is told, and Francis Spufford calls it a fairy story, makes for an immensely readable book.
Spanning just over a decade of Soviet life jumping between characters and events, the book is intricately designed drip feeding the reader a wealth of USSR information (all of which is referenced in depth at the end of the book with superb extra reading lists). What I enjoyed the most about Red Plenty however wasn't its masterful use of form, thrilling prose or 'unputdownable nature', it was how effortlessly Spufford makes us experience a feel for the highs and lows of these characters, and for that matter the Soviet dream in general.