Red Plenty by Francis Spufford
Dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
As a product of the 1980s and 90s, I’ve never had a strong sense of what Russian people were truly like. During the Cold War I knew enough to fear the Reds, and practiced for nuclear apocalypse by ducking under my elementary school desk. By the time the USSR began to fracture in my adolescence, I couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to any legitimate news, much less the political and economic fortunes of people with clothes and haircuts that had departed any realm of stylishness years before (and, note, most of which have returned).
To this day, most of my knowledge of Russians comes from movies. Bad movies. Seriously bad movies. The best of the worst examples is “The Experts,” a John Travolta vehicle (technically a buddy movie, but the buddy is played by an actor I keep confusing for the guy who’s not Sarah Silverman’s brother from “Weekend at Bernies”) in which two “hip” Americans are secretly transported to a faked American town in Siberia and studied for some unclear reason. Russians are portrayed not so much as people with a unique culture and a rich, complicated history, but as people who really just wanted to be Americans and drink Pepsis — and you’ll never guess what happens in the end. To illustrate the accuracy of the movie’s portrayal of anything at all, I offer the following scene:
I advise you to only watch as much as you need to get the point. It doesn’t get better.
I watched more than one movie like this as a kid, and it’s possible that somewhere between Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Ivan Drago and “The Experts,” I may have missed something. Fortunately, a remedy has arrived in Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, a novel-history hybrid about the development and growth of the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century, and a thoughtful, sympathetic exploration of what it was like to be a Russian citizen in those days.
Spufford calls Red Plenty “the story of an idea,” but decides that, in another sense, it is “Best to call this a fairy tale.” The book itself straddles different forms in the same way, functioning as both a meticulous history and creative fiction. Spufford dramatizes real events, but as the copious endnotes prove, he pulls even small details from historical sources. His characters are less invented than inserted into what’s happening, and the “idea” is not the evil, arched-eyebrows Communism most of us know it in the West, but the Communism that promised equality, prosperity and harmony through the calibration and control of economic inputs and outputs. This is not a Communism that sought to conquer through invasion and oppression, but a Communism that saw a future in which “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs” could outpace capitalism on its merits.
We know enough to know that it didn’t happen that way. But a better way to tell the story of that idea is to tell the story of the people who lived under its influence for generations. In Red Plenty lives overlap and intersect as the system dictates their fates. An industrial mathematician having a Eureka moment on a crowded train; Khrushchev considering a hamburger vendor on a limo ride during his 1959 trip to New York City; a young scientist arriving at her Siberian outpost; a young party member witnessing a massacre; a fixer plying his trade for upstanding citizens and black-market thugs. The best chapter — a point-by-point explanation of how lung cancer has taken hold inside a man sitting inside an Party-office waiting room — is stark and stunning and expertly executed, while it also illustrates the inevitable collapse of even the best built systems. The people’s stories are where we see the fairy tale. There are no magic beans, only human beings.
Red Plenty is beautifully and (sorry) economically written, which is important in a piece that weaves together the harsh, industrial realities of scarcity with the lush, romantic dreams of progress. What we get to see are people, not the cartoonish Rooskies or the Evil Empire. Just people who took — or were forced down — a different path to find the things we all claim to want. It’s nice to know them better.
– Michael Moats