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Red Plenty: Inside the Fifties' Soviet Dream

4.08  ·  Rating details ·  2,578 ratings  ·  387 reviews
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
Hardcover, 434 pages
Published August 19th 2010 by Faber and Faber (first published 2007)
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Average rating 4.08  · 
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 ·  2,578 ratings  ·  387 reviews

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Joseph Spuckler
Dec 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
An interesting piece of historical fiction that looks mostly at the Khrushchev years where the Soviet Union was advancing in science and industry. It was a tipping point of the Soviet Union. Could they plan and grow an economy that could out pace the West?

There are stories of government efforts and ambitious youthful academics all wanting to make the system work. The personal touch makes our once arch-enemies very human and wanting the same same things we did-- peace, prosperity, and an end to
Elf M.
Jan 31, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Elf by: Crooked Timber
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
Aug 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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
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
Paul Fulcher
May 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017
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 ...more
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 --
Frank Stein
Nov 15, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
Comparable to Dos Passos's _USA_ or Scholz's _Radiance_, if that helps. Depicts how Russia fell into the middle-income trap and stagnated, and illuminates the early growth of Russia's industrialization and why Khrushchev thought Russia could bury the US (not in dirt, but manufactured goods). Elegiac, enlightening, sympathetic.

Further reading:

- In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You, Cosma Shalizi (discussion)
- "The Myth of Asia's Miracle", Paul Krugman
May 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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,
Jan 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Nicholas Whyte
Mar 19, 2011 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Jun 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 22, 2012 added it
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.
Jul 07, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2013
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!
Jan 18, 2011 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Kseniya Melnik
Aug 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: dying-to-read
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.
May 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
It was honestly so utterly delightful to read a wonderfully written fiction book about economics and planning. The latter are huge interests of mine, and Spufford is a really beautiful writer so it's an easy book to breeze through. Historically, there are some issues — Spufford doesn't read Russian and is therefore reliant on English sources, of which he has some questionable choices at times. Overall, though, his genuinely beautiful writing & overall sympathetic historical vision pulls ...more
Nov 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A truly unique and remarkable book. Red Plenty is a beautifully crafted words of fiction, but a meticulously documented one that tells the story of the quest for economic growth in the mid-twentieth century Soviet Union. As someone with an interest in economics and specifically in the problems of economic calculation in a socialist economy, I enjoyed this book immensely and learned a great deal from it. The footnotes and the non-fiction interludes are fantastic! Highly, highly recommended.
Liam Kofi
May 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Here is the blurb:

"Strange as it may seem, the gray, opppressive USSR was founded on a fairy tale. It was built on the twentieth century magica called "the planned economy", which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things taht the lands of capitalism could never match. And just for a little while, in the heady years of the late 1950s, the magic seemed to be working.

Red plenty is about that moment in hisotry, and how it came, and how it went way; about the brief era when, under the rash
May 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: historical
This wonderfully strange – or strangely wonderful - book is a novel (with 60 some pages of endnotes and a 13 page bibliography) about the rise and fall of the planned economy of the USSR from the 1950s to the 1970s. This is one of the most peculiar books I have ever read. And it’s hard to believe that it’s hard to put down, but it is.

It was an incredibly ambitious utopian undertaking – to turn the country into a military superpower, an industrial giant and a thriving consumer society, all at
Ian Smith
Nov 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Simply phenomenal. History told through fiction is always entertainingly instructive, but Red Plenty is light years away from the classic historical novel. This is the Soviet Union in the 1960s; while the West wrestles with pop culture and the Cold War, the USSR grapples with maintaining an immense centrally planned economy. The gradual and inevitable slide into irrelevance and inefficiency is documented with riveting detail. Perhaps what makes this so compelling is that author didn't start out ...more
Kane Faucher
Jan 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing
These semi-connected vignettes are tied together by the occasionally well-meaning, but sometimes cruelly applied, ideals of planning the way to an abundant future where there are no more wants that cannot be satisfied. As cyberneticists scheme to introduce vaguely Western concepts of price-value into an automated and computerized economy free of human committee errors, all against a backdrop of the Khruschev "thaw," we also are privy to the everyday managers and intermediaries and apparatchiks ...more
Alex Sarll
It's a commonplace that the fifties and early sixties was the high water mark of the American Dream - but what about the Soviet Dream? For a minute, with Sputnik and Gagarin, they were in the lead. Under Khrushchev, there was a sense that after the price of war and Stalinism had been paid, maybe this was where the revolution finally started making good on its promises. After all, they were meant to be materialists, weren't they? Shouldn't that mean they ended up with more and better stuff than ...more
Jun 02, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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 marvellous 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 ...more
Noah Goats
Mar 27, 2018 rated it did not like it
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.
Best novel ever written about linear programming. That's a real compliment. Then there's the Russian angle, which is like catnip for me. Very clever and smart. A lot of fun. A little too fussy style-wise for my taste, but I think that's a British thing and that's not a deal breaker for me.
Tudor Ciocarlie
Jul 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant book about the scientists of Soviet Russia that tried to make the "planned economy" work. You know that you are in the presence of something special when you read non-fiction, science-(non)fiction, historical-(non)fiction, realistic-fiction and biography all at the same time.
William Wallgren
Apr 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Today it is hard for most people to imagine our economy being organized according to anything else but a capitalist system. We take the miracle of the marketplace for granted, and millennials like myself don’t remember a time when America and the West competed against the Soviet Union to see who could produce the most prosperous society. During the famous “kitchen debate” in 1959, when the economies of both the United States and the USSR were growing at a rapid pace, Nikita Khrushchev debated ...more
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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 ...more
“Seen from that future time, when every commodity the human mind could imagine would flow from the industrial horn of plenty in dizzy abundance, this would seem a scanty, shoddy, cramped moment indeed, choked with shadows, redeemed only by what it caused to be created.

Seen from plenty, now would be hard to imagine. It would seem not quite real, an absurd time when, for no apparent reason, human beings went without things easily within the power of humanity to supply and lives did not flower as it was obvious they could.”
“Where Western tales begin by shifting us to another time – ‘Once upon a time’ they say, meaning elsewhen, meaning then rather than now – Russian skazki make an adjustment of place. ‘In a certain land’, they start; or, ‘In the three-times-ninth kingdom …’ Meaning elsewhere, meaning there rather than here. Yet these elsewheres are always recognisable as home. In the distance will always be a woodwalled town where the churches have onion domes. The ruler will always be a Tsar, Ivan or Vladimir. The earth is always black. The sky is always wide. It’s Russia, always Russia, the dear dreadful enormous territory at the edge of Europe which is as large as all Europe put together. And, also, it isn’t. It is story Russia, not real Russia; a place never quite in perfect overlap with the daylight country of the same name. It is as near to it as a wish is to reality, and as far away too. For the tales supplied what the real country lacked, when villagers were telling them, and Afanaseyev was writing them down. Real Russia’s fields grew scraggy crops of buckwheat and rye. Story Russia had magic tablecloths serving feasts without end. Real Russia’s roads were mud and ruts. Story Russia abounded in tools of joyful velocity: flying carpets, genies of the rushing air, horses that scarcely bent the grass they galloped on. Real Russia fixed its people in sluggish social immobility. Story Russia sent its lively boys to seek the Firebird or to woo the Swan Maiden. The stories dreamed away reality’s defects. They made promises good enough to last for one evening of firelight; promises which the teller and the hearers knew could only be delivered in some Russian otherwhere. They could come true only in the version of home where the broke-backed trestle over the stream at the village’s end became ‘a bridge of white hazelwood with oaken planks, spread with purple cloths and nailed with copper nails’. Only in the wish country, the dream country. Only in the twenty-seventh kingdom.” 2 likes
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