The Soviet Dream? Thoughts on Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
Probably the best word to describe Red Plenty is ‘brave’. Bravery accurately describes this endeavour by Francis Spufford, with his dilettantish writing background (admittedly, in the heady subjects of science and God), to get to grips with such unappealing topics as economic centralisation and Soviet philosophy. ‘Brave’ also describes the mood of the USSR in the period he describes it – a period of ebullient hope amid the 1950s explosion of technological innovation, a time when Russian ‘skazki’ fairytales of plenty were coming true. The two come together in a startling opening sequence, which sees Nikita Khrushchev flying to New York for his 1959 state visit. Spufford vocalises the Chairman’s thought process as he faces the capitalists his state’s propaganda so eagerly demonised:
‘The force and capacity of the Soviet state had obliged them to let him in...Miners had gouged at the stubborn earth, railroadmen had blown on their hands at dawns colder than rigor mortis, machinists had skinned off bright curls of swarf, soldiers had died in the shit and the mud, so that one of their own could demand to be received in this quiet, rich room as an equal’.
Popular conceptions of the Soviet Union frequently fall into one of two categories. There is the early period – crash industrialisation, atrocity and starvation, Stalinist terror, the cataclysmic struggle against Germany, Doctor Zhivago. Then there is the later period, with Sloth replacing Wrath – the ‘Soviet Wasteland’, as one adventure tourism firm specialising in Eastern Bloc ruins calls it, with such motifs as crumbling infrastructure, a grinding war in Afghanistan, an unwinnable arms race, economic collapse hastened by endemic corruption and alcoholism. Red Plenty, however, fills the gap between the two. Spufford’s essential premise is to tell the story of a few years on either side of the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1961, at which Khrushchev declared, ‘We are guided by strictly scientific calculations. And calculations show that in 20 years we will build mainly a communist society’, at a time when startling growth rates, improving living standards and the ‘Thaw’ of de-Stalinization powered the Soviet Union to apparent socioeconomic parity with the West. Behind it all lay the great cultural opening to science and technology of the Sputnik Age, with which Spufford is so fascinated. Khrushchev cropped up in popular culture recently as a straight-talking political operator in The Death of Stalin (2017), a superb satire in which Armando Iannucci takes his fly-on-the-wall view of modern foul-mouthed spin doctoring to the chaos that broke out in the Kremlin after the dictator’s ignominious demise in 1953. Iannucci accurately portrays Khrushchev’s famously down-to-earth profanity, yet skips his actual term in power entirely, going from his orchestration of Beria’s downfall to a snide reminder that his own lieutenant, Leonid Brezhnev, did the same to him a decade later. Red Plenty fills in that gap, arguing that Khrushchev actually presided over a short but brightly burning explosion of Soviet aspiration, in which the USSR came under the leadership of scientists and academics who believed that with the leaping forward of technology – the splitting of the atom, Sputnik, strides in electronics – a new form of living was impossible.
‘He gazed up the tram…the number 34 rattlebox to Krestovsky Island, becoming a sleek, silent ellipse filled with golden light, the women’s clothes all turning to quilted silk, the military uniforms melting into tailored grey and silver….’
The chance to realise Marx’s fairytale of plenty had finally come, and threatened to rival the American Dream in feeding the masses, and equipping them with washing machines and motorcars. Spufford puts us in the picture with a number of chapter introductions, extremely sharp standalone essays that brilliantly explain how minds newly freed from Stalinist terror began to think in exciting new terms of a planned economy in which technology – the exciting new field of cybernetics – would meet people’s needs by hyper-efficient central planning. It seems that the difference between dream and reality is a common theme in works about Russia. Pushkin’s ‘The Gypsies’ has Aleko discover that ‘dark passions everywhere run deep’ and Tolstoy’s War and Peace chronicles quixotic Pierre’s disillusionment and Prince Andrei’s realisation on the eve of Borodino that ‘I see that I have begun to understand too much’. As Douglas Dunn’s long-suffering naval engineer in The Donkey’s Ears sighs of Tsarist hubris, ‘Ah Russia, you mislead!/Yourself, or else you’re just misled’. Spufford does something similar: he accurately and emotionally portrays the Soviet Dream free of what E. P. Thompson (appropriately, speaking of failed labour movements) famously called ‘the enormous condescension of history’, but simultaneously shows how and why it failed; he calls it, in an impressively humane turn of phrase, ‘a tyranny’s guilty wish for a happy ending’.
A study of this little-understood moment of explosive hope would be sufficient to make Red Plenty unusual enough to merit attention. Yet the really unique dimension is how it portrays this exciting period. Spufford takes a diverse cast of characters, hovering between fact and fiction – a computer scientist, young hopefuls on the Party ladder, up-and-coming academics – and follows them, their relationships, and their thoughts, as snapshots of the era. He begins by stating that ‘this is not a novel’ and, like Tolstoy (who says the same about War and Peace) he is showing how grand historical forces affected the lives of a dramatis personae of Russians. The youth, the hope felt by most of these characters is brilliantly matched by the breakneck, crackling pace of Spufford’s prose – the literary merits of Red Plenty should be taken as seriously as its historical ones. Atmospheric moments are conjured with real skill, as the era of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot presidency and Harold Wilson’s ‘White Heat’ speech is uniquely applied to youthful students on the other side of the Iron Curtain, with their hopes and dreams matching those of an increasingly self-confident nation. In one scene, a young postgraduate takes up tenure at Akademgorodok (literally ‘Academicville’), a bizarre experiment in central planning that created a community of university intellectuals in the middle of Russian Asia. We can feel the same youthful, postwar, hopeful energy that we might associate with people of the same age in American suburbia at the time. Yet the next chapter, pointedly titled ‘The Price of Meat’, tells of a young apparatchik, Volodya, caught up in the sick finger-pointing and buck-passing in Novocherkassk in 1962, when troops fired on protests against the price increases brought about by Khrushchev’s economic experimentation. Dream and Reality. This is particularly well illustrated with a narrative in which the gaps in the factory system are made up for by Cheskuskin- black marketeer, a charming spiv who can get anything for anyone, at the right price. He wheedles a naive Party deputy:
‘…when you’re with me...you’re friends with everyone I’m friends with. And that’s enough people, I promise you, to solve virtually any problem you may have. So tell me, while we get another bottle of this good sweet wine here – what are you worrying about, just now?’
Unlike the promises made by the university economists or Khruschchev’s plans, we believe Chekuskin. Spufford hits on the irony that what actually characterised Homo Sovieticus, in a system defined by an endless Party hierarchy and limitless opportunities for black marketeering and political scheming, was endless reserves of selfishness. In one scene, almost as difficult to read as the Novocherkassk massacre, a woman in childbirth is forced to threaten the midwife with her husband’s Party connections to get painkillers. Dream and reality.
As the book goes on, we begin to understand how Spufford’s deceptively ebullient period fits into the familiar chronology of Soviet decline. Inverting what we typically assume – Khrushchev resigning after the humiliation of the Missile Crisis – Spufford argues that he gambled on Cuba out of sheer desperation borne out of the knowledge that his grand plan of building Communism by 1980 was on foundations of sand, his economic reforms proving counterproductive and his goals unattainable. When the opportunity to place missiles in Cuba came up ‘he had tried to stick his thumb in the scales of the strategic balance...and the world had nearly burned’. It's tempting to believe that Brezhnev poured so much precious oil money into the trappings of a military superpower because he knew that things were going deeply, deeply wrong in the economic systems. The dream that had flourished in the Thaw was collapsing, the Union straying further each day from 1917’s philosophical ideas and promise of ‘bread’ alike, and the road to the ‘Soviet Wasteland’ is well on its way.
‘Stalin had been a gangster who really believed he was a social scientist. Khrushchev was a gangster who hoped he was a social scientist. But the moment was drawing irresistibly closer when the idealism would rot away by one more degree, and the Soviet Union would be governed by gangsters who were only pretending to be social scientists.’
Spufford’s book goes some way towards explaining when the downhill slide began, doing so not in the familiar political way (Hungary, Prague, Afghanistan, Chernobyl, 1989…) but with a solid base on the economics themselves, and the CPSU’s quiet abandonment of building full Communism. He picks up on a darkly amusing anecdote that when the 1961 Party Programme was dug up in a time capsule in real-life 1980 and its promises of overflowing plenty read out, the hapless excavators were arrested for ‘spreading fabrications and defaming the Soviet social and state order’. Though he points out that this is ‘suspiciously neat’, he realises that this being one of the legendarily potent Soviet jokes does nothing to dismiss its resonance. Like the fairytales Spufford compares it to, the dream of Red Plenty had vanished as soon as it appeared.
Spufford wisely avoids dwelling on Soviet atrocities – he trusts the reader to do that for themselves, and more importantly recognises that for many in 1959, the horrors of Stalinism were more a dark, suppressed nightmare than a daily occurrence. Yet the memories lurk behind the subconscious of the Soviet citizens that inhabit his pages. One of his characters, a propaganda writer, remembers:
‘Confidences from an uncle’s friend, a secret policeman blurred by the bottle, who knew that young Sasha was svoi, one of us, and could be trusted: so talked, in a kind of laughing shame, a nightmare fit of giggles, about the famous year of 1937, when the vanloads came in so fast for the bullet that the drain in the floor of the basement corridor sometimes blocked, and some poor sod had to fish in it….’
When the writer sees a poster of Yuri Gagarin, he returns to this: ‘Up to the stars; up Mr K’s ladder to the heavens, whose foot stood in a mulch of blood and bone’, giving the title of Red Plenty a sinister resonance. Simply brilliant writing, by any standards. We are reminded of this as a more imminent reality with his harrowing description of the massacre at Novocherkassk, during which a hysterical Volodya is told by a Party veteran to ‘sit down, son, and shut up. Be grateful you’re up here, and not down there’, as his men fire from the building’s roof into the crowd. The irony is not lost on the reader of Soviet troops gunning down factory workers striking for bread, complete with red flags and pictures of Lenin, but Spufford goes further than that. He again demonstrates the supreme irony that what the Soviet system really bred was pathological selfishness – and it reminds us that when the intellectuals at Akademgorodok failed to put meat on the table for millions of Soviet citizens, it all came back to the same old routines of brutal subjection to keep the system going, under Khrushchev as under ‘the Boss’ he replaced. The propaganda writer, reflecting on whispered atrocities, realises that ‘like Peter the Great’s city beside the Neva, his city was built upon a layer of crushed human beings’. It's a mark of Spufford’s sheer audacity in writing the book that in the end, he has Khrushchev himself, alone in internal exile in 1968, realise the same thing, in a striking reversal of his triumphal thoughts at the beginning. The significance of the year, when Soviet tanks rolled into the city of Jan Hus, is hard to miss:
‘He fumbled with the tape machine, and found the RECORD key his son had shown him.
“Paradise”, he told the wheatfield in baffled fury, “is a place where people want to end up, not a place they run from. What kind of socialism is that? What kind of shit is that, when you have to keep people in chains? What kind of social order? What kind of paradise?”
He pressed STOP. Covered his mouth with his hand. And then, since he was tired of fear, of feeling it and causing it, the retired monster sat very still on the bench by the field, and waited until Kava the rook hopped up onto his knee’.
It’s an incredibly gutsy thing for Spufford, with no formal training in history, no understanding of Russian, and no background in the subject, to carry off. But carry it off he does, and many historians of far better credentials, of any subject, should be looking in envy at a work which portrays a very specific moment in time with stunning aplomb. Ranging from the mind of a dictator to cigarette-wreathed university debates to the back alleys of the Urals, with a groundbreaking structure, a ready grasp of grand concepts and a wit that combines the voice of an intellectual historian with that of a dinner party raconteur, Red Plenty may, aside from anything else, be the coolest historical monograph of the 2010s. ▲
Elliot Jordan is finishing an undergraduate degree in History at the University of St Andrews. He studies English Literature as a hobby, especially poetry, and is a member of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.