Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

Okay, the "golden age" of Soviet Russia might be pushing it.  But, coming off the back of Stalin, the Khrushchev era was pretty rosy in comparison.  This book's about the new hopes and dreams people had at that time in Russia, and what went wrong.

First off, it's not really a history - it's mostly a collection of short stories, featuring both fictional and real characters.  

You get Khrushchev's thoughts as he visits New York, filled with confidence about a fair and honest competition between socialism and capitalism.  Young, confused party workers visiting the American Exhibition in Moscow.  Starry eyed idealists in a Siberian academy-town who finally think they've got a model for a command economy which actually works.  Black marketeers who walk a profitable but dangerous line between the command economy and the real economy.  Factory owners who wreck their own machines because of the twisted logic of communism.  And factory workers being massacred when everyone's best laid plans have unintended consequences.

I enjoyed all short stories, and some have a real touch of magic.  Some of the economics stuff tends to the abstruse, but the passion of those involved is infectious.  It's a great look into a Soviet Union we never really see.  What's interesting especially is what isn't covered in much detail - the space race;  Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" denouncing Stalin.  That's more for the West - the Russians had different priorities at the time.

In between the stories are small sections of more straightforward history - again, from an engaging and unusual viewpoint - and tiny snippets of Russian fairytales, which seem central to the book:  impossible tasks, capricious kings, and wishes which turn into nightmares.

There's a lot of hope in this book, but with massive lorry loads of melancholy.  Was it doomed to failure?  I reckon so.  Even if you had the perfect system, with banks of quantum computers calculating everyone's needs and abilities, it still needs the iron fist.  You can't risk the people messing up your perfect system.

I'm pretty sure I had more to say on this book, but I must've finished it a month ago so it's starting to fade.  A big recommendation though if you're into communists, Russians and beautiful short stories.

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