Long, long ago, in a country far, far away, Nikita Kruschev was the Soviet Premier and he made a very bold claim. He said “We will bury you!” Twenty-five years later a pop star named Sting included that line in a song criticizing mutually assured destruction. Thus proving that Sting is not nearly as smart as he thinks.
Kruschev wasn’t talking about war. He was talking about production. He was asserting that communism as practiced by the Soviet Union was so superior to capitalism that they would surpass the West in terms of standard of living by 1980.
I did say it was a bold claim.
Obviously, it didn’t happen. That goal, the attempt to achieve it and why it failed is the theme of Francis Spufford’s “Red Plenty””.
While that sounds like a good book plot, it isn’t the plot of this book, just the theme. There is no cohesive plot here; it is a story-less story. Instead there are a series of fictional vignettes interspersed with bits of history and Russian folklore that explores the theme. If there is a protagonist, it is the Soviet economy. The writing is wonderful – by turns playful and poignant. In one scene, Zoya flirts with grad students at a bar in a closed city, the dialogue is full of witty repartee. In another vignette, Spufford describes how smoking causes cancer while a computer scientist waits for an appointment that will never be kept.
I love this book. I think it captures the sense of optimism and purpose that many people felt. The Soviet Union had won the war, Stalin was behind them, and they were now part of something bigger than themselves – building a socialist future of plenty. No more hunger, no more cold, and all their material wants satisfied if only they could sacrifice for just a little longer. And yet, that optimism and hope has a backdrop of paranoia and fear. I highly recommend this book and think it ought to be assigned in every Introduction to Macroeconomics class. More erudite commentary can be found here.
Along with “Red Plenty, I also read “Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets” by Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel prize for literature. It is an oral history of the fall of the Soviet Union. If “Red Plenty” is hope and optimism, then “Secondhand Time is about nostalgia and despair for what was lost and what might have been. It is fascinating, grim, and, at times, horrifying.
The book was written over a period of years. Alexievich interviewed, it seems, hundreds of people. The book covers everything – the protests, the ethnic violence after the fall, life in the camps, falling in love, and losing hope. Through those stories, in people’s own words, you learn what people were hoping for in 1991 and what they actually got. How they feel betrayed and why they long for the certainty of the past, and especially that sense of being part of something special.
You also learn how the lessons of the past are already forgotten. One man explains that his family have always been dissidents. They protested proudly in the 1990s. Now, he laments that his son, who is attending university, is reading Marx and wearing Che t-shirts.
I don’t love this book. Instead, I feel about it the way I feel about Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin”. It is an important book, by which I mean it is important to read it to understand the events described. But reading it is almost traumatizing. Still, I recommend it.