Reviewer: Gideon Haigh
Empires proverbially look permanent until the last five minutes. The Soviet Union was no exception. In hindsight, its fall is seen as inevitable. Yet in the period of the thaw following the death of Stalin, its political stability, scientific progress and military inculcated a curious temporary confidence, embodied in the florid dogmatist Khrushchev whose his shoe-banging bluster conveyed the threat to the west that ‘we will bury you.’ It is this confidence, true and false, that is Francis Spufford’s subject in Red Plenty, a book of astonishing ingenuity.
Spufford is a versatile critic, essayist and journalist, also the writer of one historical fiction, 2016’s Golden Hill. Yet Red Plenty occupies a genre of one. It is not a work of history, although it is rigorously researched; it is not a book of short stories, even though it is broken into sections; it is more like a series of scenes or vignettes casting characters, real and imagined, into meditations, conversations and choices, as though the Soviet imperium is talking to itself, reflecting on whether its promise is genuine and its problems soluble.
Khrushchev himself is a character, first in ‘Mr Chairman’ on his 1959 visit to the US, ‘Trading Down’ concerning his ouster and ‘The Pensioner’ about his exile. Other characters recur also, such as the economist Leonid Vitalevich Kantorovich, father of linear programming, and scientist Sergey Lebedev, who designed the first Soviet computer. Their agnosticism of the system is tolerated, but ultimately cannot be allowed to prevail. As is explained in the village tale of ‘White Dust’: ‘Politicians gave the orders in the economy of the USSR, and economists were allowed to find reasons why the orders already given were admirable.’ Character after character is tantalised by freedom; the promises are bottomlessly false. As Spufford explains in one of his pithy authorial interventions: ‘Stalin had been a gangster who really believed he was a social scientist; Khrushchev was a gangster who hoped he was a social scientist. But the moment was drawing irresistibly closer when the idealism would rot away by one more degree, and the Soviet Union would be governed by gangsters who were only pretending to be social scientists….’
The real gift is that Spufford writes so well and so variously. He can describe childbirth, cancer, corruption and computer science with equal facility; he can turn engineering and econometrics into literature. The settings are academies, bureaucracies, formal meetings, informal interactions; the consequences tumble forth. ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ concerns a face-saving act of industrial sabotage at a viscose plant; in ‘Method of Balances’, a central planner pauses over the matter of sending a new PNSh-180-14S continuous-action engine to that plant; in ‘Favours’, a fixer, who by shrewd schemes and personal charm greases the system’s slow-grinding wheels, must deal with the consequences. The parallels in Russian literature are not so much with Tolstoy and Gogol, or even Solzhenitsyn or Pasternak, but Isaac Babel and Vladimir Dudinstev. It’s clever and funny and laden with doom, because we know how everything ends.
Reviewed by: Mr Gideon Haigh, Journalist and Author
Gideon Haigh has been a journalist since 1984, contributed to more than 100 newspapers and magazines, written thirty-four books and edited seven others. His most recent book is An Eye on Cricket (2017) His next book, A Scandal in Bohemia: The Life and Death of Mollie Dean will be published in April 2018.