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Red Plenty

Red Plenty

Written by Francis Spufford

Narrated by Roger Clark


Red Plenty

Written by Francis Spufford

Narrated by Roger Clark

ratings:
4.5/5 (10 ratings)
Length:
13 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Oct 10, 2017
ISBN:
9781541485006
Format:
Audiobook

Description

Strange as it may seem, the gray, oppressive USSR was founded on a fairy tale. It was built on the twentieth-century magic called "the planned economy," which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things that 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 history, and how it came, and how it went away; about the brief era when, under the rash leadership of 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, to give the tyranny its happy ending.

Red Plenty is history, it's fiction, it's 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.

Publisher:
Released:
Oct 10, 2017
ISBN:
9781541485006
Format:
Audiobook


About the author

Francis Spufford is the author of five highly praised books of nonfiction. His first book, I May Be Some Time, won the Writers’ Guild Award for Best Nonfiction Book of 1996, the Banff Mountain Book Prize, and a Somerset Maugham Award. It was followed by The Child That Books Built, Backroom Boys, Red Plenty (which was translated into nine languages), and most recently, Unapologetic. His first novel, Golden Hill, won the Costa First Novel Award. In 2007 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He teaches writing at Goldsmiths College and lives near Cambridge. His most recent novel is Light Perpetual.


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What people think about Red Plenty

4.3
10 ratings / 15 Reviews
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Reader reviews

  • (4/5)

    A very fine book straddling the divide between historical fiction and straight-out history, covering (mainly) the end of the Soviet dream of a working managed economy (through the hoped-for magic of linear analysis). The dream founders not on the technical barriers involved - which it might well have done given that the whole enterprise was based on an attempt to get around an NP-complete problem - but through the failures of local politics, humans acting as grit in the machine. Spufford is an accomplished author and this book is both readable and interesting. I am not in a good position to evaluate it - modern Russian history is not my field - but the narrative components are convincing and the historical argument is plausible.

  • (3/5)
    There aren't many novels that center their action around the nature of the command economy. The long list of characters at the beginning is deceiving - once you start reading it becomes clear that characters rarely repeat across vignettes. The intermission-like essays are important for context, but are weakened by the looming reality of this book as a work of fiction.When you pull out just the stories and the expansive afterward (confession - didn't read the afterward) there just isn't much left. And it's the fiction between the research that I find the most compelling. Was there more left on the editing floor? Ok, and the author doesn't read/speak russian? Guy took a real shot with this one.
  • (5/5)
    Amazing book telling the story of the late 50s optimism in the Soviet Union on how it could become economically greater than the USA and how it fails. Told through a series of small scenes over a 10 year period intertwining the lives of mainly real people, it really is a compelling read on subject matter which could be incredibly dry. The list of characters at the front is great reference and I recommend you read the notes on each section after reading the section as they give more historical context and background.
  • (4/5)
    Brilliant, ingenious and informative - and surprisingly entertaining. An innovative piece of imaginative fiction which centres on concepts rather than people, and in the process sheds light not only on some of the economic history of Russia, but also, indirectly, on economic thinking in Europe (Cambridge in the 1970s was still banking on building mathematical models of the economy) . You will need the cast list at the front.
  • (5/5)
    This book will undoubtedly join Jane Smiley's "Greenlanders" on the very exclusive list of books I think are masterpieces but can never get anyone else to read. (Q: What's it about? A: Life in medieval Greenland. OR A: The history of centralized economic planning in the USSR. You can guess how it goes from there.)Yes, "Red Plenty" is "about" the history of centralized planning in the USSR, or rather it is about the romance of the idea of centralized economic planning, which for a time held apparatchiks and citizens alike in its thrall. Reviewers have struggled to find an apt genre description for Spufford's work (fact? fiction? "faction?"), but the reader may do best to take the author at his word when he claims to have written a fairy tale. Whatever label you ultimately decide to put on it, Red Plenty is a well-written and engrossing read. Despite its subject matter and the cover art, the book has nothing in common with the leaden style of Soviet Socialist Realism. I should know -- I've had to read "Cement" (Gladkov) in my time.Indeed, Spufford's writing is so intelligent and his achievement so remarkable that we will even forgive him the tired cliche of the backwards "R" in the spelling of the first word of the title. (It's not an "R," people. It's an entirely different letter with an entirely different sound. Sigh.)
  • (4/5)
    An interesting book, straddling the divide between fiction and non-fiction. Its premise is the vision of the future that existed in Soviet Russia, which painted a picture where communism would have won and ordinary Soviet citizens would enjoy lives of ease and comfort in the perfect workers' state. The reality was different, where the internal pressures and problems of running a centrally-managed economy caused the system to fail. Meanwhile, economists battled with ideology, politics and reality - all of which pulled in different directions - to try to make sufficient changes to bring about the perfect society by 1980.Meanwhile, a selection of Soviet citizens, real and fictional, try to get on with their lives as best they can, navigating their way through the complexities of the system. But there is no perfect society, either capitalist or socialist; and this book is an important object lesson in this. Spufford came to Soviet Russia with hindsight and with no previous knowledge of his subject. Starting without preconceptions, he brings the clarity of new discovery to his work; so he shows us that the Soviet economy was growing faster than the USA's in the 1950s, even when all the propaganda and double accounting are stripped out; or he explains some of the basics of Marxism that suggest that capitalism has not, as some commentators put it, "won" and socialism "lost", but rather that capitalism just hasn't reached the end of its useful life just yet and socialism's time may still be to come.
  • (5/5)
    Fun to read.
  • (5/5)
    brilliant book, probably the my favorite from the books that i have read this year (ahead of Turing's Cathedral). In fact this book belongs more or less together with Turings Cathedral, as it beautifully illustrates how the invention of computers and the resulting advances in applied mathematics took a completely different turn in the former Soviet Union.
  • (5/5)
    This is a great story, well told...but - formally speaking - it has to be counted as a failure as a book. Fictional vignettes to tell the story of Soviet central planning? It's what an author resorts to when the story won't carry itself.Still and all, a fascinating book.
  • (4/5)
    Engaging, interesting, educational. Really liked this a lot. I enjoyed the semi-historical, semi-novelistic way of putting across the overall narrative, especially the fact that Spufford was quite clear in the end-matter about what was real and what was fictionalised, without cluttering up the main body of the book itself.
  • (3/5)
    An ambitious novel of the USSR's central planning efforts, told from the points of view of many disparate citizens and players in the economic system. The novel falls fairly flat, but despite its failures it's an interesting read.
  • (4/5)
    This book is a fantastic blend of history and fiction - I wish more authors would write books like this. It follows several people in Cold-War Era USSR, focusing on an interesting blend of their daily lives and the economic policies of the Soviet Union. The characters are interesting and their stories are compelling, even if they are disjointed. It is particularly fascinating reading about how the characters solved the economic problems of creating a communist economy and making it work in a capitalist world. The problems of supply and demand are very complex when economists have to avoid the concept of "value," and the book makes these economic problems very interesting and very real. It also makes it clear how hard the Soviets had to work to maintain their own fiction about the success of Communism.The bibliography at the end of the book is also very useful - I want to read all the books in the bibliography now.Unfortunately, I read this book when I was very busy, and I read in small snippets over several weeks. Because of that, I got confused about who some of the characters were, and probably missed a lot of nuance.
  • (4/5)
    A look back at that dream time of tjhe 50s, when for one bright and transitory moment, it seemenmd like the 'planned economy' could actually bring home the socialist dream.
  • (4/5)
    We all plan, right? We plan our work, our meals, our travel - our lives, so far as we can. Our parents taught us to do that, and we know it’s best to plan. Wouldn’t our entire society - our economy, especially - work better if it were planned, optimized?Much of the twentieth century was shaped, at least nominally, by an ideological disagreement about this ultimate level of planning. The West, especially the US, stood for free enterprise, while the East, especially the Soviet Union, stood for a planned economy. Red Plenty is the story of what the Soviets thought they were doing with planning in the 1950s and 1960s, and how they hoped to improved their methods, finally to overtake the West in civilian material development, thus fulfilling the promise of the Russian Revolution.During the 1950s, the USSR grew economically faster than any nation except Japan. The world just commemorated the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight, one of a number of events which seemed to presage the hoped-for surpassing of the West. But growth slowed with the years. The Soviet planners hoped to do much better using modern mathematical techniques, but those hopes foundered on the constraints of the existing system.Francis Spufford’s book is a nonfiction novel, a hybrid of the two forms. It has the endnotes and extensive bibliography of a well-written nonfiction summary in the secondary literature, and the major sections are introduced with nonfiction discussions of about ten pages each. But the bulk of the book consists of fictional vignettes, with characters both historical and invented, showing how the policy moves played out in the lives of the Russian people.These vignettes illustrate the great scope of an economy and the complex interactions of the people in it. Spufford is excellent at showing us the variety of the world and peoples’ motivations. In the introduction to part 4, and its first fictional subsection, “The Method of Balances,” we see an important bureaucrat carrying out part of the “balancing” that was needed to ensure that factories produced enough of the right materials to supply industrial and consumer needs. The central quest in the book is the search for ways to use the science of linear programming, implemented on computers, to replace the price signals that a free market economy uses to the same end.There’s not actually a lot of economics in this book. See Spufford’s bibliography if you want pointers to thorough analyses. The vignettes show us scientists hoping to perfect planning methods, politicians facing success and failure, and everyday people, coping with a Soviet system where money was nearly useless next to connections as a means of getting what one wanted - where a factory manager might reasonably conclude that sabotaging a machine central to his factory might be the only way to save his career.Spufford is good at imagining the mindset of people who must always choose their words carefully, and who know just what can and cannot be said - a limit which changed over time, and was fairly permissive during the early 1960s, tightening after Krushchev was deposed. These are people whose environment may not be materially comfortable, but who at least can finally do some real biology, say, which was next to impossible under Stalin. Yet still they believe in communism. Spufford illuminates some aspects of the utopian nature of Soviet thought by referencing science fiction writers - books by Jack Womack, H. G. Wells, Ken Macleod, and Boris and Arkady Strugatsky all come up in the endnotes.Despite its many excellences, I like this book less well than commentary around the web led me to expect. Spufford has not managed the novelist’s feat of creating believable, sympathetic characters, nor the short story writer’s trick of capturing some particularity. If anything, he has taken the science-fiction writer’s approach: acting out the interplay of ideas through somewhat generic, everyperson viewpoints. The book might have been better at greater length, letting us have more than a few pages to get to know the single-mother scientist moving to Academgorodok, or the clever, rising manager, or the young woman whose plans for future success are derailed at an exhibition of US consumer goods. The major exception is the longer chapter, “Favours,” about the bad day of an entrepreneurial dealmaker, or “fixer”, both needed and despised by a system in which his work was illegal. I would like to hear more about Comrade Chekuskin, whose story could probably expand to a novel’s length.Spufford’s book shows us how smart, basically well-meaning people will behave in essentially insane ways when so constrained by their social system. I live in a country on the winning side of the last century’s competition, but our economic and political trends of recent decades suggest that we are not immune from this sort of insanity. That alone might be reason enough to read the book.
  • (4/5)
    Francis Spufford deserves lots of credit for both the effort and the imagination that went into this, well what do you call it, novel? The imagination first of all to think of creating a piece of fiction based on the working of the Soviet economic planning system of the middle twentieth century. Then the effort of a non-Russian speaking, non-economist to do the work and research to come up with a credible piece of work.The book comes with lots of notes at the end explaining some of the references and situations he uses. It also comes with an extensive bibliography of Russian and western sources both on Russia but also on the Russian economic system. Mr Spufford mixes real life people such as well known prominent politicians Kruschev, Kosygin and Brezhnev and, to the general public at least, lesser known specialists like Leonid Kanotorvich the Soviet economist, with fictional characters who have key roles in the working of the system at crucial points and crucial times. There is no plot except the progress of the Soviet system from the 50s through to the 80s. Chapters and characters are illustrative of key elements of the Soviet economy. Mr Spufford, amazingly, brings it all to life. He adds just enough to the players and their settings to let you know that he has been to Russia and, to the small extent that outsiders always can, has some understanding of it.It’s an enjoyable book and for someone my age, a visitor to the USSR in 1968, full of nostalgia. But it has its limits. Mr Spufford has done well to ferret out the drama of the times but he is a child of his own western background. There is an ever present hint of cynicism and the thought that the author is sharing a joke with his readers that the Soviets thought that they could make their system work. That isn’t how it was. The system did work. It had no more absurdities than any other economic system. It produced many good results some of which, notably stability, fairness and a social safety net set at a high level, that Russians miss now they have gone. It’s a book by a westerner for westerners. Its good but I’d love to read a critique by an ex-Gosplan economist.