by Francis Spufford
How do you make a book about central economic planning in the Soviet Union into an entertaining page-turner? You do what Francis Spufford did with Red Plenty, a book that is almost impossible to classify, a mix of fact and fiction and dramatised might-have-beens, plausible if not quite verisimilitudinous1 narratives populated by a melange of real historical personages and imagined characters.
It’s not quite fiction, not quite history. Some reviews that I’ve read weren’t comfortable with the changeling mood of the book, but I thought it was great. It’s hard to bring to life the enormity of the project, and subsequent events and the all too real lies and corruption that surrounded much of what went on in the Soviet era have obscured the visionary nature of the enterprise, but Spufford gets it across through uncovering the motivations of some of the main actors. Kantorovich and his colleagues really did want to make the world a better place, to alleviate the suffering that they saw as arising from the unequal distribution of wealth in market economies, and to use science and mathematics to make the lives of ordinary working people more pleasant.
Eventually, the project failed, for many reasons, but there was a period in the 1950s where the expansion of the Soviet planned economy genuinely had western economists and politicians worried. The stagnation of the Brezhnev era that followed had many causes, some related to the failure to diversify the economy of the USSR beyond heavy industry and basic agriculture, but the very real achievements of the Soviet planners shouldn’t be understated. Red Plenty gives a realistic and sometimes cynical portrayal of life in a system supposedly based on equality and scientific planning where a word from Khruschev over the telephone condemned a whole village of striking workers to death.
Yuri Gagarin’s daughter answers the phone. “No, mummy and daddy are out,” she says. “Daddy’s orbiting the earth, and he’ll be back tonight at 7 o’clock. But mummy’s gone shopping for groceries, so who knows when she’ll be home.”
A lot of research went into the book: the representations of daily Soviet life feel very authentic, and the characters of some of the historical personalities who appear are finely detailed. Highly recommended.