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Red Plenty

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Once upon a time in the Soviet Union....

Strange as it may seem, the grey, oppressive USSR was founded on a fairytale. It was built on the twentieth-century magic called 'the planned economy', which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things that lands of capitalism could never match. And just for a little while, in the heady years of the late 1950's, the magic seemed to be working.

Red Plenty is about that moment in history, and how it came, and how it went away; about the brief era when, under the rash leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union looked forward to a future of rich communists and envious capitalists, when Moscow would out-glitter Manhattan, and every Lada would be better engineered than a Porsche. It's about the scientists who did their genuinely brilliant best to make the dream come true, it give the tyranny its happy ending. It's history, it's fiction. It's a comedy of ideas, and a novel about the cost of ideas.

By award-winning (and famously unpredictable) author of The Child That Books Built and Backroom Boys, Red Plenty is as ambitious as Sputnik, as uncompromising as an Aeroflot flight attendant - and as different from what you were expecting as a glass of Soviet champagne.

434 pages, Hardcover

First published August 19, 2010

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About the author

Francis Spufford

19 books500 followers
Spufford began as a writer of non-fiction, though always with a strong element of story-telling. Among his early books are I May Be Some Time, The Child That Books Built, and Backroom Boys. He has also edited two volumes of polar literature. But beginning in 2010 with Red Plenty, which explored the Soviet Union around the time of Sputnik using a mixture of fiction and history, he has been drawing steadily closer and closer to writing novels, and after a slight detour into religious controversy with Unapologetic, arrived definitely at fiction in 2016 with Golden Hill. It won the Costa First Novel Award for 2017 and three other prizes, and was shortlisted for three more. His next book Light Perpetual, due February 2021, shifts from New York to London, and from the eighteenth century to the second half of the twentieth.

Spufford studied English at Cambridge University. He was a Royal Literary Fund fellow at Anglia Ruskin University from 2005 to 2007, and since 2008 has taught at Goldsmiths College in London, where he is Professor of Creative Writing.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 555 reviews
Profile Image for Elf M..
95 reviews41 followers
February 1, 2013
Red Plenty is probably one of the finest, and saddest, books I have ever read. It's hard to tell what it is. The best description I've heard is that it's science fiction-- only the science is economics, and the fiction is entirely based on real history. Red Plenty is about the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, told in a series of stories-- anecdotes, in many cases-- of the lives of ordinary citizens, apparatchiks, and intelligenzia of the time.

Some of the vignettes feature an ordinary citizen we only see once-- to show us what Spufford wants us to see, life in the Soviet Union under Stalin, then Khrushchev, and finally Brezhnev. The central theme of the book is how close, how desperately close, the Soviet Union was to fulfilling its dream of red plenty, of turning Lenin's massive industrial push into a cornucopia machine that would crank out everything humanity ever needed, and how every opportunity the soviets had was squandered, in the end, by shortsightedness, by ideology, by political maneuvering, by sheer human perversity, by bad luck.

Spufford is a talented writer at setting up scenes, at drawing word paintings of places we've never been to and showing us the beauty and decay, the joy and terror. He's good at showing just how human Khrushchev was, and how desperately Khrushchev wanted to be a good man, and how badly he fared at it. If you want to read a book that makes you cringe, and sigh, and cheer, then Red Plenty is that book.

It starts in 1938, with the invention of Linear Algebra, and how this became the start of what we now call "big data." The soviets started a crash course in it, and in 1959 began cybernizing their command economy, trying desperately to organize networks of networks of industries to produce everything every citizen would ever want or need. It ends in 1970, with Khrushchev, retired and desperately depressed, looking back at all the potential wasted.

Every vignette ends with notes about what details are real, what quotes are authentic, and which Spufford crafted for dramatic effect. He's brutally honest with you, and himself, about how he's telescoped or compressed various events to make the drama more real. The EPUB version of the book is better than the print-- the notes are at the end of each chapters, and the truth of each note, dozens per story, are eye-opening. The print edition has the notes at the end of the book.

Every time you read how the SU screwed up-- how the cyberneticists simplified planning in 1960 by valuing every piece of factory equipment, no matter how simple or complex, no matter how hard or how barely used, by its weight-- how the "shadow pricing" system meant to simulate a demand economy without being a market economy was repeatedly overriden by politicians trying to keep the marketplace "familiar" to ordinary Russians-- how the soviets banned "bureaucracy" as they understood Americans did it, and thereby created a system of favors and graft-- how the soviets invented the Lamaze birth technique, then neglected to teach it to expectant mothers but forbade physicians from otherwise helping those women give birth-- how in the 1970s the Soviet Union stagnated because there was no program for tearing down factories, no notion of upgrading from a manufacturing base-- you die a little inside. So much suffering, and yet Spufford convinces you that they meant well. They really thought they were going to create paradise on Earth. They were no more evil than Americans, or Europeans, or anyone else on Earth. They really tried.

The most remarkable thing about Perestroika, at the end of the book, is that Gorbachev was a true believer. He wanted to believe that red plenty could happen; it was Brezhnev and his "managed socialism" that had led to stagnation. The great program of cybernizing the economy, Soviet Union, of making the great chain from farm and mine to consumer and back, could actually really work. But twenty years of slow decay had led the young people to give up. When he started to institute his reforms, popular sentiment revolted. The wall fell. The Soviet Union was over.

These little glimpses into many lives, 18 in all, obviously don't tell the whole story. But they do give concrete examples of why the system failed, and more importantly, why it couldn't recover: there were no alternatives. Exceptional experiments were not allowed. Scientific investigation was "administered" rather than "supported." You can't command what you don't know you want: and nobody knew what they really wanted from computers, or the economy, or industry. And without that freedom to fail, they never had a chance to succeed. No matter how close they were.

If you ever want to know what the Soviets were thinking, Red Plenty will give you a heavy dose of understanding. Worth every second of your time.
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,174 followers
May 20, 2021
This is not a novel. It has too much to explain, to be one of those. But it is not a history either, for it does its explaining in the form of a story; only the story is the story of an idea, first of all, and only afterwards, glimpsed through the chinks of the idea’s fate, the story of the people involved. The idea is the hero. It is the idea that sets forth, into a world of hazards and illusions, monsters and transformations, helped by some of those it meets along the way and hindered by others. Best to call this a fairytale then - though it really happened, or something like it. And not just any fairytale, but specifically a Russian fairy tale, to go alongside the stories of Baba Yaga and the Glass Mountain that Afanaseyev the folklorist collected when he rode out over the black earth of Russia, under it's wide sky, in the nineteenth century.

Francis Spufford's Golden Hill was a deserving winner of the 2016 Costa Book Award for First Novel - deservedly, except that one might debate whether 2010's Red Plenty was actually his first novel.

Golden Hill also won the 2017 RSL Ondaatje Prize for a for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place (a prize for which Red Plenty was also shortlisted). The judges citation read: This is that rare thing - an ingenious novel that draws on profound research to evoke the spirit of another age, yet wears that research lightly. An astonishing achievement, intoxicating in its virtuosity.

Red Plenty certainly draws on profound research to evoke the spirit of another age, but it doesn't wear that research lightly, but unashamedly. If this is a novel, it is one where the the footnotes, albeit this is a contradiction in terms, are front and centre. Or it is a non-fiction book that uses storytelling (fiction) to illustrate its themes.

It tells the story of Soviet Russia in the Khrushchev era, when competition between the regime and the West was more on economic than military grounds, and for a while it seemed the Soviet economy might actually be winning:

For a while in the late 1950s and early 1960s, people in the West felt the same mesmerised disquiet over Soviet growth that they were going to feel for Japanese growth in the 1970s and 1980s, and for Chinese and Indian growth from the 1990s on. Nor were they being deceived. Beneath several layers of varnish, the phenomenon was real.

Red Plenty tells the tale of how the Soviet economy tried to move from brute-force authoritarian growth based on maximising output, to a more scientific (and benign) approach, using linear programming, a technique invented in 1939 by the Russian economist Leonid Kantorovich (who won the Nobel Prize for this in 1975), to optimise economic production, with a "profit" incentive created but with mathematically determined shadow prices used to measure the value of goods rather than the invisible hand of supply-and-demand.

The world was sweaty, the world was dusty, but it all made sense, because beneath the thousand thousand physical differences of things, economics saw one substance which mattered, perpetually being created and destroyed, being distributed, being poured from vessel to vessel, and in the process keeping the whole of society in motion. It wasn't money, this one common element shining through all its temporary disguises; money only expressed it. It wasn't labour either, although labour created it. It was value. Value shone in material things once labour had made them useful, and then they could be used or, since value gave the world a common denominator, exchanges for other useful things; which might look as dissimilar from one another as a trained elephant did from a cut diamond, and consequently as hard to compare, yet which, just then, contained equal value for their possessors, the proof being that they were willing to make the exchange.

But Marx had drawn a nightmare picture of what happened to human life under capitalism, when everything was produced only in order to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded. Then the makers and the things made alike turned into commodities, and there motion of society turned into a kind of zombie dance, a grim cavorting whirl in which objects and people blurred together till the objects were half alive and the people were half dead.

And what would be the alternative? The consciously arranged alternative? A dance of another nature, [he] presumed. A dance to the music of use.

Spufford proceeds, as I have indicated, via a rather unusual blend of fact and fiction. Each section of the story is introduced by Spufford himself, providing his own overview and commentary on the next stage of developments in the economic history. There then follows the fictional story, to illustrate what occurred at a personal and detailed level. And at the end of the book, detailed notes explain which characters and incidents are rooted in the history, with references, and which are purely fictional and which involve some authorial tweaking (typically a foreshortening of timelines to aid the flow of the story and heighten the drama).

The effect is certainly absorbing although not without its flaws.

At its best it works brilliantly. My favourite section consisted of a story of factory, struggling to meet production targets, sabotaging a key piece of machinery to obtain a better replacement. One chapter is set in the factory showing the constraints the factory managers must work under, a second in the central planning bureau as the chief planner wrestles with how to accommodate the unforeseen development with the least disruption to the rest of the inter-linked economy, and the third the story of a fixer (a function just as if not more necessary under communism as capitalism) greasing palms and calling in favours to make it all work. As well as showing the real human decisions that underlie the smooth models of the economists, it also neatly illustrated one ultimately fatal flaw with the new approach: the politicians were prepared to switch the economy to maximising "profit" rather than production, but forced the use of prices set not by the algorithm but rather by political considerations.

But at times the fictional sections seem like a series of tableaux and the characters (which as the novel admits are not the heros) rather two-dimensional. I was reminded of my children's end of term school primary school productions when kids dressed as key historical figures are wheeled on and off to say their piece to illustrate The Great Fire of London, or the Victorian era.

Spufford's research at times also takes him into odd territories. One chapter documents the development of lung-cancer at the molecular level, and another, rather incongruously for a male author, a highly detailed account from a woman's experience of labour.

Overall - strongly recommended both for the topic matter and the fascinating narrative approach.

I would also strongly recommend Hadrian's excellent review and the paper he points to on the mathematical tractability of what the theoretical econometrician's proposed: http://crookedtimber.org/2012/05/30/i...
Profile Image for George Kaslov.
97 reviews130 followers
August 9, 2019
This is a story of how a dream is born and how it dies.

The book is written as a novel, but it is definitely nonfiction, or maybe better, it is a dramatization. Yes, this is a dramatization of a usually dry and academic subject of planed economy and creating true Communism in the 50s and 60s. It starts with glorious optimism that came with the death of Stalin and the Khrushchev takeover (this is quite relative) and launch of Sputnik. With the demonstration of Sputnik, Khrushchev puts all of his hopes into matching and surpassing the Americans with the use of science and technology. The Universities flourish (if you are an engineer), information sciences are of the ground and cyberneticians are brave enough to question party s economic dogma and solve the problem of making true utopia. With this our main characters, some real people, some emagined embark to make this dream come true. The story follows them from their graduation to the end of their careers in the 80s.

Unfortunately the reality was not cooperating, and by this the party apparatchiks were dragging their feet and obsessed with their own self interest and advancement in the party. The Author manged to present the realities of life in the Soviet union in a novel way, that appeals to way more people than any academic paper can. Of course he could not write a strictly linear story and he had to take a number of detours to explain some larger events and harsh truths and would come back to his characters to hammer the point in.

This was an interesting read, that had me thinking for a long while I was reading a historic, or alternate history novel. I was confused on this point for good first 100+ pages. Anyway, if by any chance you are interested into taking a nosedive into this weird topic I recommend "From Newspeak to Cyberspeak" and "How Not to Network a Nation", but these are a bit dry.
Profile Image for Doug.
42 reviews5 followers
January 7, 2014
Easily my book of the year so far, this is a remarkably original and entertaining book.

This is a mixed fiction/non-fiction book about economics. Please don't let it put you off - this is not just a book for geeks and wonks (although they'll love it too), this is a story ultimately of people, and how people just won't do what they ought to, no matter what.

The unassailable position of Capitalism in it's current form is not due to the inherent greatness of Capitalism, but because of the manifest failure of other ways of trying to order economies.

This book details the most honest attempt to try and produce real plenty from a command economy - the period of the 1950's and 60's where the Soviet Union attempted to achieve what Marx had always promised for Communism - to deliver the fruits of labour to the workers themselves.

Spufford manages to convey the bizarre attitude to money, the practicalities of a command economy and the Kafkaesque position that it placed middle management in, across all Soviet industry.

Ultimately he also explains very vividly why and how the system failed.

This is not a paean to Capitalism however - the failings of the command economy were certainly human failings, but they don't necessarily imply the kind of wholesale Capitalism until recently in vogue across the world. This book should prompt in everyone serious thought about how some of the ideas tried during this period might be re-evaluated for use in the future.
Profile Image for Emmkay.
1,169 reviews73 followers
March 27, 2020
Face it, you've been waiting all your life for a fictional account of the intricacies of mid-twentieth century Soviet economic planning, WITH FOOTNOTES, and you didn't even know it! The author usually writes non-fiction, and initially set out to do so here, but somewhere along the line he settled on a marvelous structure of interrelated fictional vignettes, each section framed both by a quotation from a Russian fairy tale and by an italicized non-fiction introduction to the historical developments in question. The particular focus is on the USSR's mid-century shift to try to move from the quick ramping up of an industrial economy to the creation of 'plenty' for its citizens, and its challenges. Well-explained, and the stories are funny, poignant, and illuminating. There is an entire chapter in which a character applies linear programming methods to the distribution of potatoes. I loved it.
Profile Image for Micah.
Author 6 books174 followers
May 27, 2021
I actually don't think this book is flawlessly executed. The novelistic portions bog down at points. But the concept is so audacious and original, more so than any other book I've read in recent memory, that it gets five stars from me. Red Plenty takes the Soviet dream of post-scarcity seriously, as a utopian vision that was noble and worth attempting even if it never really had a chance of succeeding, without shying away from the horrors of Stalinism. My favorite part by far is the chapter on the bureaucrat at the plywood factory who's trying to figure out how to squeeze more productivity out of the production process as part of his dedication to the Soviet project and the project of eliminating want from the country and the planet. How often does a nobody like that at a boring outpost like a plywood factory get such a rich and even heroic treatment??
Profile Image for Paul Ataua.
1,288 reviews121 followers
May 31, 2016
A fascinating mix of history and fiction focusing on the Soviet Union from the late 1950s to 1970 and its attempt to engineer the economy into prosperity and to outpace the Capitalist economies of the West. It is the story of the collapse of the Soviet dream. A really interesting read, and one that opens up the possibility that one day someone might write a similar book about the collapse of the American dream.
Profile Image for Lea.
441 reviews78 followers
March 10, 2012
4.5 stars

Normally whenever I've decided to add a half star I give the book the lower star rating -- 4 stars for a 4.5 star book, for example. But the writing here was just sooooo good, I'm willing to give it a full 5 stars and then round down half a star.

Make sense? No? Oh well . . .

Let's see . . . I won this though a FirstReads giveaway -- thanks!

Okay, so I've read a lot of other reviews about this book, and I'm really glad I did. Most of them focus on the economics presented in this book -- oddly enough, if you'd asked me what this book was about, economics wouldn't' have sprung immediately to mind, although it is EXACTLY what this book is about!

The author here takes a subject like economics -- or the Soviet Union in general -- and illustrates the ideas by combining historical fact with fictional events and characters. It's complicated and odd -- I can't remember reading another book quite like this one -- but the writing is amazing and gorgeous, and the characters are interesting (and mostly heartbreaking).

I grew up at the end of the Cold War, so the Soviet Union has always been a kind of "boogie man" to me. After the changes in the late 80s/early 90s, I really didn't give much consideration to how the people's lives there must have changed -- or even how they lived under communism. I mean, sure, we heard about the perpetual shortages of even necessities, but I never really thought about why those shortages existed. I guess I just chalked it all up to innate human greed and an overriding system of corruption.

But the author makes very clear in this book that a great deal (if not most) of the problems stemmed from a certain naiveté, a genuine belief in communism that made it possible for people to sacrifice so much in the (supposed) short term in order to have a better life in the future.

There are a couple of passages that really stood out to me -- the young Soviet woman seeing plastic drinking cups (Tupperware?) at an exposition, for example. She can overlook so many of the difficulties of living her life under communism, but the plastic cups fill her with such an overwhelming sense of longing and despair that she will never have this small thing, that she will never have the nonchalant ease that Americans take for granted . . . so touching and enlightening.

There's another part where a man has gone to visit his fiancee's family for the first time -- they live not far outside the city, but it could be an entirely different country. There is no road through the swamp that surrounds the village, and the only transportation is by tractor. The author describes the oppressive heat, the bugs, the dust covering the man's fine suit as he trudges along, all hopes for making a good impression lost . . . This is set at a time when Americans were happily speeding along the newly built highway system (which most of us probably have never lived without), again showing the vast differences between the two countries.

The author follows an interesting pattern in the layout of this book -- each section opens with a brief passage from a Russian fairy tale, then we are given a brief look at the historical perspective. After that, the author presents a few short chapters which combine fictional and real events and characters. At the end of the book, the author includes notes on each chapter, as well as a bibliography for further reading.

It was very interesting to read the notes and to see what was true and what was invented -- I found the blending of the two to be seamless, and the author's notes were fascinating.

The only reason I'm not giving this book a full 5 stars is because I was anticipating more of a connection between the various characters. We are given a glimpse of several of them at different times during their lives and careers, but I thought their lives would be more intertwined than they actually were. I really enjoy seeing connections between disparate characters, especially when the author ties it all together towards the end of the book. That really didn't happen here, but I don't think it was the author's intention to do that -- just something I would have enjoyed.

I will be reading more by this author, and I highly recommend this book!
Profile Image for Nigeyb.
1,201 reviews260 followers
May 17, 2020
I loved Golden Hill, which is also by Francis Spufford, and so came to Red Plenty: Inside the Fifties' Soviet Dream with high expectations.

It's set in Soviet Russia, during the Khrushchev era, primarily the late 1950s through to the early 1970s, and comprises a series of short stories which highlight the failings of the Soviet planned economy. For a brief period in the 1950s, the Soviet Union was one of the fastest growing economies, and with the stated aim of becoming a Marxist utopia where every citizen could enjoy ordinary luxuries. At this time it seemed a centrally planned economy might be a viable way to organise manufacture and distribution. Through a combination of real people and fictional people, Francis Spufford gives the reader an insight into the kind of discussions and decision making of the era via this hybrid novel/history book.

I enjoyed it but, ultimately, found the episodic structure a little distracting and disjointed. I'd rather have explored the era and its issues through a smaller cast and fewer narrative strands.


Once upon a time in the Soviet Union....

Strange as it may seem, the grey, oppressive USSR was founded on a fairytale. It was built on the twentieth-century magic called 'the planned economy', which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things that lands of capitalism could never match. And just for a little while, in the heady years of the late 1950's, the magic seemed to be working.

Red Plenty is about that moment in history, and how it came, and how it went away; about the brief era when, under the rash leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union looked forward to a future of rich communists and envious capitalists, when Moscow would out-glitter Manhattan, and every Lada would be better engineered than a Porsche. It's about the scientists who did their genuinely brilliant best to make the dream come true, it give the tyranny its happy ending. It's history, it's fiction. It's a comedy of ideas, and a novel about the cost of ideas.

By award-winning (and famously unpredictable) author of The Child That Books Built and Backroom Boys, Red Plenty is as ambitious as Sputnik, as uncompromising as an Aeroflot flight attendant - and as different from what you were expecting as a glass of Soviet champagne.

Profile Image for Kathrin Passig.
Author 49 books392 followers
February 1, 2023
(2023 ergänzt) Wieso habe ich zu diesem fantastischen Buch hier drin eigentlich nie was geschrieben? Es ist erstens vom Konzept her sehr gut. Im Buch erklärt eine Figur vorsichtshalber, wie es gemeint ist: Es sind die Geschichten verschiedener Personen, die in anderen Romanen über die Liebe o.ä. miteinander verbunden wären, aber hier ist es die Wirtschaft, die sie verbindet.

"In fact he was having a new idea. He was thinking to himself that an economy told a kind of story, though not the sort you would find in a novel. In this story, many of the major characters would never even meet, yet they would act on each other's lives just as surely as if they jostled for space inside a single house, through the long chains by which value moved about. Tiny decisions in one place could have cascading, giant effects elsewhere; conversely, what most absorbed the conscious attention of the characters - what broke their hearts, what they thought ordered or justified their lives - might have no effect whatsoever, dying away as if it had never happened at all. Yet impersonal forces could have drastically personal consequences, in this story, altering the whole basis on which people hoped and loved and worked. It would be a strange story to hear. At first it would seem to be a buzzing confusion, extending arbitrarily in directions that seemed to have nothing to do with each other. But little by little, if you were patient, its peculiar laws would become plain. In the end it would all make sense. Yes, thought Emil, it would all make sense in the end."

Und es enthält zweitens eine sowohl erklärtechnisch großartige als auch gänsehauterzeugende Szene, in der es darum geht, wie Krebs entsteht (im Körper eines sowjetischen Politikers). This only has to happen once. Schon wieder elf Jahre her, ich muss es unbedingt noch mal lesen.

Die deutsche Übersetzung ist, glaube ich, nicht so gut, ich erinnere mich dunkel an Beschwerden von Leuten, die sie zu lesen versucht haben.
Profile Image for Steffi.
268 reviews227 followers
August 11, 2019
This novel ‘Red Plenty’ (2010) by UK writer Francis Spufford is a nerd project extraordinaire! A historic fiction novel on central planning, set mainly in 1950s and 1960s Khrushchev Soviet Russia.

Once upon a time, when Stalin was dead and the Soviet Union was one of the fasted growing economies in the world, and when it seemed, for a little while, that the time of sacrifice is over and that the time of communist paradise, cars, washing machines and so much more of the ‘red plenty’ is within reach!

The novel is a fine example of very skilled story telling of ordinary apparatchiks, gosplan directors, plant managers, engineers and scientists trying to liberate humanity from the realm of ‘need’ through central planning based on early advances in cybernetics so the ‘real human life’ can begin. While at it, the public servants of communism are also having a good time with vodka, hard boiled eggs and very, very mayonnaise intense salad at a kind of Soviet silicon valley science campus in early 1960s Siberia.

While the novel is about central planning it’s of course not about central planning. Central planning is not about central planning, it’s about devising a system that can satisfy everybody’s needs and end avoidable suffering so humanity is free to engage in what’s truly human, things like love, art, knowledge and of course the unavoidable suffering that comes with the human condition. Yes, people will still be heartbroken in socialism!
Profile Image for Ints.
725 reviews72 followers
October 23, 2016
Turpinu lasīt visas grāmatblogeru Ziemassvētkos dāvanās saņemtās grāmatas. Šo man iedāvināja Vilis. Citēju “No savas puses dāvinu Spaforda “Red Plenty: Inside the Fifties’ Soviet Dream”, jo izskatās pēc kā tāda, kas būs īsti vietā pēc padomju laika sēriju(-ām) pievarēšanas”. Te nāktos atzīties, ka padomjlaika sērija ir palikusi nepievārēta, lai gan piecgades plānā tā ir ierakstīta kā obligāti izpildāms pasākums. Nedaudz par šo grāmatu paokšķerēju internetā un nopirku uz kindle jau pērnajā decembrī.

Padomju Savienības pamatideja nudien nebija visus sadzīt lēģeros un ziedot visus resursus armijai. Galvenais bija uzcelt komunismu, armija bija vajadzīga tikai šī procesa aizsardzībai. Komunisms nozīmēja arī katram pēc spējām un katram pēc vajadzībām. Komunismu nevar uzcelt vienā dienā, bet uz 1980. gadu tam vajadzēja būt gatavam. Un tas nozīmētu vienu - PSRS kļūtu pārāka par kapitālismu. Parādītu, ka brīvais tirgus ir fikcija, un ir iespējams arī savādāk. Ir iespējams ignorēt tirgus spēkus un tik un tā nodrošināt pārpilnību. Viens no šīs pārpilnības centrālajiem instrumentiem bija Centralizētā plānošana. Stāsts sākas trīsdesmitajos gados ar jaunu matemātiķi...
Ar šīs grāmatas lasīšanas uzsākšanu man nevedās. Galvenā problēma bija autors - kā gan cilvēks var uzrakstīt par PSRS neprotot krievu valodu un nedzīvojot kaut laiku PSRS? Mēģināju grāmatu uzsākt lasīt kādas trīs reizes. Izlasīju pāris lapaspuses un atradu ko interesantāku. Nožēlojami, jo ceturtajā reizē man no grāmatas bija grūti atrauties.

Grāmata sastāv no daudziem stāstiem - īsākiem un garākiem, kas katrs veltīts kādam no lielās pārpilnības ieviešanas soļiem. Te ir matemātiķis, kurš saprot, ka ar lineārās programmēšanas palīdzību var optimizēt ražošanu. Pats Kruščovs ar savu pārliecību, ka apdzīs kapitālistus un satrieks viņus pīšļos. Rūpnīcas direktors, kurš sabotē pats savas mašīnas, lai tiktu pie plāna pārdales. Kāds darbonis, kurš nodarbojas ar barteru, it kā nelegāli, bet tai pat laikā visiem ir vajadzīgs. Jauna komuniste, kura gatava darīt visu, lai izsistos uz augšu. Gosplana ierēdnis, kura rokās ir milzīga vara, kurai līdzi nāk sapratne, ka centralizētā plānošana ir fikcija. Jauna zinātniece, kura dzīvo zinātniskajā pilsētiņā, kur pārpilnība jau ir iestājusies. Ir vēl arī citi, un viņu dzīves ir veids kā parādīt centrālās plānošanas sistēmas attīstību un norietu.

Lai nepadomju lasītājam būtu skaidras visas nianses, katru grāmatas nodaļu ievada neliels vēsturisks atskats. Tur var izlasīt gan par komunisma pamatnostādnēm un ar ko staļinisms atšķiras no marksisma, šo to par lineāro programmēšanu un PSRS vēsturi vispār.

Grāmata nav vēstures grāmata, lai gan autoram apbrīnojami labi izdodas radīt realitātes sajūtu lasītājā. Varbūt tādēļ, ka te ir pietiekoši daudz atstāts nepateikts, lai pats piedomātu klāt no savas pieredzes. Varoņi ir interesanti un labi ilustrē, kā dižu ideju var norakt cilvēka daba pat bez ļauna nodoma. Tikai pustraks matemātiķis spēj iedomāties, ka ir iespējams tīru matemātisko modeli realizēt dabā. Vēl jo vairāk autors izcili ilustrē šīs plānošanas pamatproblēmu (neekonomistam varbūt tas šķitīs kā mušu džinkstoņa).

PSRS nebija tāda koncepta kā peļņa, tas bija kaut kas kapitālistisks. Bet kā optimizēt ražošanu, sadali un patēriņu? Ja peļņu izmet, tad atliek resursu izmantojums, taču peļņa ir kaut kas tāds, ko nosaka tirgus. To nevar aizstāt ar fiksētām cenām vai shadow prices (alternatīvās cenas izteiktas citos produktos), tas izrauj no modeļa pieprasījumu un kvalitāti. Plāna veidotāji to apzinājās un mēģināja atrast izeju, kas ļautu kaut kā peļņu inkorporēt plānā, bet nekas nesanāca. Otra problēma bija cilvēki un viņu atskaites. Cilvēks pēc dabas ir slinks - pat padomju cilvēks, viņš centīsies ieplānot viegli sasniedzamus plānu, prasīs kaut ko vairāk nekā vajadzētu un labprāt ražos vienus un tos pašus zābakus divdesmit gadus, jo valsts visu nopirks.

Nekad vēl nebija nācies lasīt grāmatu, kuras centrālais tēls ir PSRS plānošanas sistēmas evolūcija. Es pat nevarēju iedomāties, ka kaut ko tādu ir iespējams uzrakstīt, neieslīgstot vēstures avotu citātos un input output modeļa parametru sensitivitātes analīzē. Autors ne tikai apraksta, viņš arī izglīto.

Grāmatai lieku 10 no 10 ballēm. Nudien no šī literārā darba nebiju gaidījis tādu izpratni par lineārās programmēšanas problēmām un PSRS laika centrālās plānošanas pamatproblēmu, kā izmērīt vērtību. Izcili uzrakstīts, neskatoties uz to, ka autors nav dzīvojis PSRS un neprot krievu valodu.
Profile Image for Frank Stein.
964 reviews121 followers
November 16, 2010
Another novel, and one of the strangest I've read in a long, long time.

It's a novel based on, of all things, the attempt to transform the Soviet economy using cybernetics and computers in the early 1960s, during Khruschev's cultural "thaw." The author describes the book as a fairy tale, albeit a heavily footnoted fairy tale based on real people, but its really more like a science fiction story, one set in a land not more advanced but still very distinct from any we've known.

The story essentially revolves around Leonid Kantorovich, the real-life economist who was the only Soviet to ever win the Nobel Prize in Economics, granted for his work on linear programming. He and a band of merry followers were transported by Soviet central planners to a gilded cage in the Siberian tundra called Akademgorodok ("Academyville"), where they were allowed a relative amount of freedom to talk, invent, and experiment, all with the hope that they would come up with exciting new ideas to transform the ailing Soviet system. Their hopes were later crushed during the Brezhnev crackdown, and some of these brilliant scientists were jailed or exiled.

The book's got a strange form. Its divided into six parts, each containing a lengthy introduction explaining the historical background to the following chapters. Also, the book ends with 60 pages of weighty notes, tracing many of the lines, even from entirely fictional characters, back to some real Soviet source. So overall its tough to classify this book as a straight novel. Also, its different chapters weave across dozen of characters, some of whom are the star of one part only to disappear completely in others. The characters are mainly used to demonstrate some peculiar idea or aspect of the Soviet system, but they are surprisingly well drawn, especially for bureaucrats and economists, and you're almost loathe to leave them at the end of each chapter.

One typical though fascinating part of the book traces how the lives of half a dozen characters are affected by the simple destruction of a viscose machine in a Soviet factory, and how this leads some managers worried about their standing with the party to seek the help of a "tolkach," a Soviet "fixer," to get a new improved machine, whose price, contra to the hopes of the economic reformers, is set by its weight instead of its value (!). This strange pricing in turn prevents the factory from selling it for fear of losing money, and the weird negative effects of the Soviet pricing system continue to ripple outwards in the following chapters. In one, a change in the price of meat leads to a riot in the small city of Novocherkassk that ended up killing 29 people (really happened). Again and again the book has similar real stories, parables even, that usefully illustrate the problems Kantorovich was trying to solve, and that make the whole economic debate appear lively and interesting.

This is a strange but worthwhile book, one that's able to wrestle with big ideas and to show how they impact real people, all without sacrificing much in the way of story or character. It's also a surprisingly quick read.
Profile Image for Shanthanu.
92 reviews31 followers
April 14, 2015
How can you not like a novel which begins : ``This is not a novel. It has too much to explain, to be one of those. But it is not a history either, for it does its explaining in the form of a story; only the story is the story of an idea, first of all, and only afterwards, glimpsed through the chinks of the idea’s fate, the story of the people involved. The idea is the hero.''

Of course, as some others have pointed out this is hardly reason to not call it a novel, after all, there have always been novels about ideas, but let's not quibble about taxonomy. What this book is, is a well researched, wonderfully footnoted, novel about the period in Soviet history when some scientists earnestly believed that the communist dream of central planning and efficient optimising of the economy by the government could finally be achieved in reality thanks to advances in mathematics, cybernetics and economics. Spufford shows us how the human element enters this optimisation problem, at various levels in the form of the bosses in the Central Committee, striking low-paid workers, small-time factory managers worried about fulfilling quotas, and a whole lot of others. And if all this still doesn't get you interested, there's a chapter about lung cancer written from a molecular biology point of view, with enzymes and free radicals as the principal protagonists.
Profile Image for Katia N.
581 reviews638 followers
October 20, 2012
3.5 stars
It is well researched book with lots of reference materials. Also it is not difficult to read. It would be good for someone who have just developed interest in the Khrushchev period of Soviet history but does not know much. For the Russians (even younger generations) or people with good knowledge of background from other sources and personal experience it is too naive and too wordy.
Profile Image for Elaine.
780 reviews360 followers
May 13, 2017
GR ate my review. A formally innovative and unexpectedly interesting take on a moment in Soviet economic and scientific history. Spufford shows himself a dab hand at both economic exposition and short fiction - the whole is far more interesting than I would have expected a book on pricing theory could ever be!
Profile Image for Iain.
45 reviews8 followers
February 5, 2012
A fictionalized history of Soviet Union economics. Absolutely terrific read, especially in the light of the current financial crisis.

If you've ever wondered how the USSR functioned day-to-day, this is the book for you. Spend a few hundred pages in the heads of Spufford's large cast of characters and it will all start to make a certain twisted sense, so much so that you may begin to wonder how Western-style capitalism can possibly function. As one character asks, "but who tells you how much bread you need to make?"

For a brief moment, in fact, the USSR appears to function rather well. The main strand of the story is how the problem of running an efficient command economy was solved, mathematically: linear programming to model the economy as a vast system of variables, computers to optimize it, shadow prices to decentralize decision-making. It would have worked! Or would it? Shadow pricing feels like a sci-fi MacGuffin, akin to "psychohistory" in Asimov's Foundation, or the "gordelpus" weapon in Stapledon's Last and First Men. It comes tantalizingly close, but the system is never fully applied. Applying it partially has disastrous consequences: raising meat and dairy prices leads to a demonstration in Novocherkassk, and the authorities respond by opening fire on the crowd. Towards the end, a Party apparatchik explains (to a scientist, as if to a child) how this magical pricing system could never have worked, as it would always be compromised by corruption all along the supply chain. Or is it simply that the Party was unwilling to relax their rigidly centralized control?

Another reaction I have to this story is that, like it or not, the ends justify the means in public consciousness. We see the Soviet Union as a failure not just because of the grim lives of its inhabitants, but because it failed. If it had been a roaring success, the inhabitants' lives wouldn't have been grim; they wouldn't necessarily be free, but would we care so much about that? Spufford's book paints a vivid picture of the Soviet Union as a promised fairyland built on a nightmarish bloodbath (the Stalinist purges), and various characters wrestle with the existential crisis this creates. If the grand project succeeded, could we possibly accept the bloodbath as justified? We accept the United States as a success, despite its early history of slavery and the ethnic cleansing of native inhabitants (and its current reliance on foreign sweatshop labour). The British Empire is less well-regarded these days; only because it ultimately failed? Uncomfortable questions. We at least have the freedom to criticize our society, unlike the citizens of the USSR.

I've been discussing Red Plenty purely as a history so far. Does it hold up as a novel? Yes, definitely. Spufford's characters (both real and fictional) are vividly drawn and true to life. It's tinged with just enough Russian-ness (for me) to be intriguing and surprising, but not so much as to make the characters' motivations incomprehensible. The overall effect is completely immersive. On top of this—particularly impressive for a non-fiction author edging tentatively into fiction—the writing is beautiful, with some absolutely cracking turns of phrase. Spufford mostly restrains himself from poetic flights of fancy, but the moments where he lets loose are particularly memorable: the life of an electron inside a computer, the life of a cell at risk of cancer.

The book ends with an extensive array of footnotes explaining the historical basis of his story, and picking apart documented events from his fictional interpolations. I'd love to see an annotated Red Plenty with the story and footnotes on alternate pages. I guess it might spoil the flow of the story, but it would let the reader fully appreciate the depth and rigour of research that has gone into this book.
Profile Image for Paige McLoughlin.
231 reviews71 followers
December 10, 2020
I am not cut out for living under Stalinism however I am even less equipped to live under fascism and I am not desirous of Capitalism. People and circumstances make history and I have my own preferences but I am not the dear leader. Anyway, what should I call this imaginative alternate historical fiction? It has a starting point in the moment sometime in the 1950s when it looked bad for the US and Red Plenty seemed like a real prospect in the historical future. This is still the nuclear era and people talked about red and dead. But are their living possibilities from this time that could have had a different trajectory for both countries. I never bought free-market fantasies of libertarians or trusted capitalists to do the right thing but I am a dumb American who actually bought into some kind of allegiance to freedom and equality. Still do. Anyway, I also know more than a little about the cold war having lived through the tail end of it. I am glad not to be dead but I am not thrilled with its outcome. Anyway, this book exercises political and historical imagination to maybe get a crack at a new synthesis.

Profile Image for Karol.
72 reviews
June 8, 2012
I haven't been this impressed with a concept for a long time. It's hard to exactly describe what Red Plenty is like, but a decent starting-off point is the historical fiction trend of the last several years.

The author did an immense amount of research on historical figures (from a scorned biologist in Akademgorodok to Khrushchev himself), through biographies and their personal stories, and constructed small narratives that each provide a facet of a greater one. In effect, Spufford set out to describe, in a sweeping narrative from the 1930s to the end of the 1960s, the Soviet dream, and the feeling of exhilaration at the end of the 50s when, at great cost, incredible economic growth was achieved and a strong infrastructure was built within the Soviet sphere. He captures the idealistic hopes that the Soviets would create a post-scarcity society that would easily compete with, and improve upon, the capitalist system - as well as the fraying of those hopes as the system became more cynical, in turn creating a nation that was far more cynical.

It's done well. Really well. If you ever wanted to learn more about something that's always been described as little more than an "Evil Empire" in Western culture, it's an incredible read.
Profile Image for Leyland.
90 reviews1 follower
February 18, 2021
very few books are able to capture the amazing feeling of reading the first chapter of babbitt, which is just perfect paragraph after paragraph whizzing by, perfectly pitched and paced. this one captures the magic

now that’s not to say that every single story collected within here is good, or compelling—the genetics and science section is so fucking boring i considered stopping reading. but some of these stories (the mathematician at the beginning, emil the economist, the chapters about the viscose factory) are all so brilliant it’a baffling to me that you could put together such amazing prose with such a dull subject.

this is a wonderful book, informative, entertaining, well structured. a banger
Profile Image for Andy.
959 reviews36 followers
June 18, 2012
extraordinary blend of historical fact and fiction, real life people (including presidents, scientists and economists in USSR) and fictional characters.
details the idealistic socialist goal of building an economic system to allow USSR to overtake USA standard of living without recourse to capatilism and market forces and the potential to achieve this through early applications of computing technology and linear dynamics.
fascinating chapter on cancer in a character presented as a tense, probabilistic molecular drama

Profile Image for Robert Maisey.
140 reviews50 followers
March 22, 2023
Red Plenty is an innovative, exciting, and emotive book that combines genuine historical research with literary aplomb. The book intersperses fictionalised vignettes interspersed with short informational essays. Each chapter is a sketch in the life of the protagonist which communicates something different about life in the period. Red Plenty asks the reader to feel their way towards the motivations, hopes, dreams, frustrations, and disappointments of the Soviet leaders and intellectuals who emerged during the post-Stalin era of the Khrushchev thaw. This is an unusual way of writing economic history, but it works magnificently.

The author's technique is to turn real protagonists of the Soviet mid-century into fictionalised versions of themselves and to place them into situations illustrate the various conundrums they faced, both as individuals and as architects of a system.

One of the core metanarratives is the contrast between human will and limiting circumstances (men make history but not... etc), with roughly the first half setting an optimistic tone of the victory of the former over the latter, and the second half reversing the dynamic.

Like all decent works of literature, the book deals in contradiction and ambiguity. Is this a love letter to Soviet idealism, or a warning against Soviet failure? Is the author trying to say that, just because the last great attempt to apply the most advanced principles of the Enlightment on a civilizational basis ended in failure, it doesn't mean the attempt wasn't valid and shouldn't be repeated? Or is the message that the road to hell is always paved with good intentions, and that the human condition means utopia is an inherently doomed project from the outset? Either way, Red Plenty asks us to consider how the first and only attempt (so far) to reconstruct global civilisation on a non-capitalist basis was organised on its own terms. This is a worthy question which yields up more insight than the standard analysis which demands nothing but condemnation, condemnation, condemnation.

The book's chosen time period also recommends it. Most histories of the Soviet Union centre on the revolutionary era, the period of High Stalinism, or the Great Patriotic War. The period between the war and the collapse is less well served in the literature. This innovative account therefore adds something worthwhile to the literature.

I would recommend this to a broad range of readers. It will be a good entry level text for those interested in the history of the Soviet Union but unable or unwilling to tackle some the weightier textbooks. It will also be an enjoyable alternative perspective for those already familiar with the standard scholarship.

Profile Image for Nicholas Whyte.
4,601 reviews176 followers
March 19, 2011
This is a really interesting book, a light on an important period of history (the Soviet Union from 1959 to 1969) of which I knew much less than I had realised, looked at through the eyes of true believers in the economic system of Communism as it developed under Khrushchev, who were then bitterly disappointed as Brezhnev and Kosygin (and later Brezhnev alone) took over. I grew up at the tail end of the Brezhnev era, when the Soviet system seemed monolithic and permanent; subsequent events proved that in fact it was not nothing of the kind, and Spufford's book reminds us that it was all actually rather recent anyway. It's told as a series of short stories from the point of view of some of the key economic / cybernetic thinkers of the time, including Khrushchev himself, with some perspectives from ordinary middle-class Soviet life thrown in for good measure, all meticulously footnoted; also all very human, and all told with good humour, to the point where one can understand how otherwise intelligent people could have believed in the system and wanted to perpetuate it. Strongly recommended.

Apart, that is, from the front cover which spells the title ЯED PLENTY rather then RED PLENTY, because, y'know, Я makes it look Russian. Look, Faber, this is simply not good enough. Я in Cyrillic is a vowel, not a consonant, and sounds nothing like R. While I am on the subject, И is also a vowel and sounds nothing like N; and Д is a consonant which sounds nothing like A. Putting ЯED PLENTY on your front cover is not cute, it is ignorant, and will certainly deter anyone with any real knowledge about Russia from even picking the book up in the shop, let alone buying it. It's up to you if you want to alienate your potential readership; I would have thought not, myself, but what do I know?
Profile Image for Carlos Martinez.
329 reviews193 followers
February 18, 2022
An interesting book, with plenty of useful insight into life in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s, and some indication as to the economic difficulties of creating a 'Red Plenty' - a socialism of abundance.

Overall the portrayal seems excessively miserable and negative, betraying an anti-communist bias and an over-reliance on Cold War anti-Soviet sources. Meanwhile the economic opinions err on the side of neoclassicism and the cult of a fully liberalised pricing system. Ultimately I don't feel the book has much to offer by way of solutions, other than to describe the problem as being too intractable to even try solving. The book briefly hints at an alternative: the adoption of Western capitalism - which of course has its own problems of poverty, inequality and alienation, and which has always been reliant on systems of oppression and exploitation, domestic and international. In reality this wasn't a path open to the Soviets.

Building what the Chinese call a "moderately prosperous socialist society" remains a genuinely difficult problem. Unlike the author, I'm certain it's a goal worth pursuing.
Profile Image for Kseniya Melnik.
Author 3 books77 followers
April 22, 2015
Brilliant book, a collection of vignettes about life in the USSR in the 60s, which deliberately wears its research on its sleeve (or rather, in the Notes section.) Spufford has both historical and novelistic muscle, a lots of sense of humor. This book is a must for anyone who's curious about how research can be incorporated into historical novels.
Profile Image for Noah Goats.
Author 8 books20 followers
March 28, 2018
I read the first 210 pages of this before realizing that I didn’t like it and likely wouldn’t start liking it in the next 250 pages, so I abandoned it. Red Plenty is too bloated and meandering to work as history, but also too lacking in narrative and interesting characters to work as fiction. A boring experimental misfire.
Profile Image for Lindsey.
316 reviews36 followers
July 27, 2020
An insanely good novel about the failure of the planned economy in 1960s Russia. It's composed of interconnecting short stories featuring artists, idealogues, bureaucrats and mathematicians. I will have to reread it sometime in the future.
10 reviews
January 18, 2011
Red Plenty is a work of historical fiction that thoroughly blurs the line between "history" and "fiction" in a fascinating way. It recounts the attempts by the Soviet Union in the 1960s to engineer their economy into prosperity and dominance over the West (hence "red plenty"). Spufford follows several characters -- as varied as an academic economist and Nikita Kruschev himself -- through various disjointed episodes in which they plan, implement, and ultimately recognize the failure of their economic strategy. Even though Red Plenty is a work of fiction and reads like a novel, it is impeccably footnoted and the author generously peppers his interpretation of historical figures with real quotes and, failing that, with real motivations. Spufford is thorough in documenting what part of each chapter is real, and what part is fiction, though even the fiction is often firmly rooted in actual events.

Spufford has a gift for taking larger-than-life historical figures and naturally weaving them into the mundane situations of everyday Soviet life. He also writes a convincing narrative, but this is a double-edged sword. Extensive notes at the end of every chapter make clear that none of Spufford's depictions come from first-hand experience. In fact, there's a sort of "Usual Suspects" effect as each chapter ends, where you aren't sure how much of the preceding narrative you really ought to trust as "genuine." Spufford's motivations seem pure, and his research is rigorous especially for a work of historical fiction, but Red Plenty should not be your first choice if you're looking for a reflection on the subtleties of Soviet life. Pardon my use of economics analogies, but this is a novel about macroeconomics written at the micro level.

This is a novel for those fascinated by the other side of the iron curtain and who have more than a passing interest in economics (the economics in the novel is not difficult to understand. In fact, the most technically-challenging passage in the whole book is about lung cancer). General fans of historical fiction will also be struck by Spufford's uniquely rigorous approach to his craft.
Profile Image for Horza.
115 reviews
April 16, 2020
Wasn't planning on re-reading this even though it had recently returned to my possession after a long stay on another's shelf, but a couple of days ago I popped it open and there it all was: Kantorovich's tram ride, poor old Emil, Nikita Sergeyevich, the monkish man. All are enfolded into interlocking tales of linear programming, vacuum tubes and human frailty in a strange faraway land, narrated with warmth and invention.
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