Monday, October 22, 2012

Francis Spufford's Red Plenty

Francis Spufford's Red Plenty is a curious novel. Essentially it is a series of roughly inter-connecting vignettes, sometimes with recurring figures--many real, or at least based on real people--and sometimes not. Put together, they form a chronological look at the belief in creating a world of plenty in the Soviet Union, and then the destruction of that belief by the end of the 1960s.

It's about thinking big, and then fearing thinking bigger. We see intellectuals who are excited about the possibilities of planned economies to create wealth for everyone, and then how they are beaten down as their ideas become too big, and too distanced from the demands of the Communist Party. The extravagant dreams of a semi-crazed Nikita Khrushchev were extinguished and he was put to pasture along with a lot of other characters in the novel (note: Khrushchev is not portrayed as some positive figure, but rather as a dreamer and later a "retired monster").

But even the big plans for plenty were so materialistic and impersonal that they ignored human beings. Researchers hoped to create computer programs that would obviate humans and even money entirely. Schemers and thieves took advantage of lopsided realities of supply and demand. Ultimately, planners just decided to make bad copies of American and European products.

It's not the grim "this life sucks" portrayal of the Soviet Union, but rather a clear-eyed view of how the economy really worked and how people navigated it (and, at least for a while, believed in it).

If you want some serious analysis of the book, check out the ebook that contributors at Crooked Timber put togethers.


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