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Red Plenty
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 30 November 2010
I loved this book! It's hard to describe -- not really a novel, not really a history. It is centred on how the Soviet economy of the 50s and 60s was supposed to work (and didn't). Why it didn't work is nothing new to anyone familiar with the theoretical problem of economic calculation as covered by Mises and Hayek -- but 'Red Plenty' gives flesh to the theory. It also shows how the Soviet planners and theorists tried to make it work. The author is able to illustrate the moral and economic problems of the Soviet system whilst remaining sympathetic to the actors and their ideals. Be sure to read the notes -- they tell what is and is not fiction and are full of fascinating details, including some great Soviet jokes!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 9 April 2012
Remarkably well written book about a subject matter that would mainly appear in non-fiction publications. I was extremely impressed by the descriptions of Soviet life. For example the village scene in the chapter "White dust" was exactly like my experience of village life in western Russia in 2003 to 2005 with home made vodka from jars. Then later in "Psychoprophylaxis" where Galina gives birth, it was very similar to my wife's experience when she gave birth in 2005 in a provincial town. The other scenarios were very well put together and subtly conveyed. The historical backgrounds given at the start of each part helped put the chapters into context. While I enjoyed the book rather than coming to a conclusion it seemed to peter out. My impression was that the content was historically accurate but didn't clearly lay out the failings or successes of Soviet socio economics. I found this strange as the earlier sections about ordinary Soviet citizens lives were so well described but later scant mention was made of aspects such as long queues for often sub standard products as factories scrambled to meet monthly targets. The very fact that certain items were not available to ordinary citizens. At the time of Soviet space success razor blades were hard to come by as presumably central planning for these was over-looked or not considered a priority. Soviet success ultimately would be judged by comparing their citizens life styles with those of their western counterparts and in my experience 20 years after the Soviet Union my Russian family are only critical of the Communists for this one aspect of failing to provide the promised improved living standards. Ultimately the book seemed to leave it to the reader to make the conclusion that as the Soviet Union is no longer with us therefore its economic policy must have failed. While no doubt historically true the book doesn't make this clear especially as it was billed as a snapshot of "the USSR on the brink of realising its the Communist Utopia".
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 30 July 2011
A unique and intriguing book that conjures a new perspective on communist Russia from the second world War to the end of the Khrushchev era. It interweaves fictional characters' stories with an interpretation of Russia's history. The characters sometimes represent real people, occupying similar historical positions, playing similar professional roles and sharing life histories. But through their fictional role they express emotions and feelings and relationships which create an atmosphere of the times.

Why Red Plenty? Because it describes an attempt to beat capitalism on its own terms and to make Soviet citizens the richest in the world. And for a time in the 1950's and early 60's it looked as though it was going to succeed. Certainly improvements in housing, nutrition, education and health surpassed any other country in the World at this time. Apparently the rise of Russia at this time was viewed like China's development is viewed today - with awe and trepidation.

An original method of referencing not so much facts but feelings or attitudes or speeches or occasions to published books or periodicals at the end of each chapter underlines the authenticity of the attitudes being expressed. For example one reference was to a description "she had added a green leather belt bought at the flea market". The reference at the end of the chapter goes on to describe in great detail the legal car boot sales allowed so long as you had made the item and were not reselling . It lays out details of Article 154 of the Criminal Code dealing with the intricacies of the Soviet rules governing personal property. And there are copious such references at the end of each chapter which you do not have to read but add authority to the book.

The depth into which a variety of subjects are investigated is impressive. For example how the economy was planned with a sophisticated discussion on linear programming and shadow pricing and the move from production targets to efficiency, or profit targets, in state manufacturing operations. Or how lung cancer develops at the cellular level and how the continuous exposure of the cells to chemicals leads to mutation and eventually the growth of tumours is described in fascinating detail.

Whilst tackling the big issues in Russia at the time with seriousness, the way in which the story is told, and Francis Spufford calls it a fairy story, makes for an immensely readable book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 10 July 2012
Who'd have thought that mathematical Linear Programming (OR) could be turned into an exciting dramatic narrative? Or that now that the dream of 'Blue Plenty' is collapsing under the strain of bank-bailouts, there was (still is?) a real alternative. That the Road to Serfdom turns out not to be the centrally planned economy. No, it's the feudal tribute that we all have to pay to that icon of uber-capitalism, the financial markets that is impoverishing us all (well 99% of us).

And the 'proof' that Red Plenty' could never exist because of the computational dificulties is now so obviously ludicrous -- we all command more computer power than a 1960s Cray.

I'm not saying that this is a totally mind-changing book like say Ivan Illitch 'The right to useful unemployment', but it does pose some pretty big what-might-have-been questions.

POwer to the Workers! (Whatever 'power' and 'workers' means!!)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This is a great book. I visited the old East Berlin for the first time back in the spring and have been pondering the question 'Why did the Soviet Union sincerely believe that it would triumph economically over the West despite visible daily evidence (eg West Berlin TV) to the contrary?'

So this was a very timely purchase for me and went a long way to answering that question.

Others have commented on the novel (in both senses) way of telling the story. I found it very effective. And there are some intriguing insights into the application of IT to economic problems.

Suffice to say that this is a very memorable book. a good read and I can see myself returning to it in future years. A fine addition to my bookshelf
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on 12 July 2013
There seems to be a lot of confusion concerning this book; is 'Red Plenty' fiction or history? Well it's neither and both. Francis Spufford continues to find new ways to tell stories and with 'Red Plenty' he has come up with the ingenious device of projecting the hitherto untold story of 20th Soviet economics through the fabric of traditional Russian Folk tales, a genre that used heightened realism to explore the woes inflicted upon the under classes by the whichever rulers happened to be ravaging the Russian peasantry at that particular moment. Russian folk tales typically lead to an irony-laden moral which exposes the folly of the ruling class and `Red Plenty' brilliantly uses the formula.

In the late 1950s it seemed as if Soviet Communism might just overtake the growth rates of the USA and Europe, thus providing previously undreamt of riches for the people. The key was the country's ability to treat its manufacturing industries and supply lines as a unified whole (something only an autocratic state could manage) and by applying the new science of cybernetics to the process it could begin to drive small but meaningful upward percentage improvements in output.

For a while it looked like it was working and America for one was worried but as the story progresses the human factor creeps in and as the book's panoply of beautifully drawn characters begin to shave off their little piece of the action (corrupt police officers, seedy 'enablers', Champagne-swilling party bigwigs etc.) and competing theorists and scientists begin bickering and discrediting each other's work, it all begins to unravel in spectacular fashion.

So, yes, it is history (and one that is well within living memory) but it's the history of a country that was very good at minding its own business, so the revelations (impeccably researched, notated and acknowledged) are truly startling. Perhaps most of all is the notion that Khrushchev was genuinely working towards making the lives of ordinary people better; something that goes against the propaganda of the time. However, the grand parallel between the Tsarist profligacy and the Politburo's eventual descent into oppression and violence is well made; whatever the leadership, Russia seems doomed to make it's own people suffer for the sake of the unimaginably wealthy few. Plus ça change?

Spufford's writing is sensational throughout. In one heartbreaking chapter he uses the metaphor of cancerous cell change to illustrate how a previously feted scientist made one small error which set off a chain of demotion, humiliation and ultimately callous exile. It is an inspired piece of writing which packs a long lasting punch. His ability to describe the brave new world of cities built for academics with inland seas created for their pleasure or finding ways to depict the appalling Siberian winters without resorting to clichés is to be admired; he creates a real sense of places previously unknown.

Sensational and highly original from start to finish.
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on 10 December 2011
This is a unique and wonderful book. It tells the story of the Soviet Union's dash for growth, after the end of the Second World War. While this might not sound too intoxicating a topic, its treatment is lavish and sucks in a large number of characters and their stories.

The first thing you notice is that this work comes with a substantial bibliography which is very unusual for a novel. Apart from the expected texts on Russian history and economics there are some interesting choices of science fiction novels from Ken Macleod, Liz Williams, Adam Roberts, Kim Stanley Robinson and Jack Womack. The goings on in the novel are referenced back to the sources which they are based on or which inspired them. What this does is establish both an air of authority, as one can see where the author went for inspiration, in terms of plot and realism, and also a whiff of 'anything might happen' from such an eclectic
mix of materials.

And the story is bizarre. The popular baleful image of Communist is a society that has to queue to get necessities. But after the shadow of Stalin had lifted, the idea was for socialism had to prove it was better at providing things than the vagaries of the capitalist market place, as exemplified in the USA. Military competition took a back seat to production for consumers. Since the economy was to be planned, techniques for better planning were required. Economists supplied models, computer scientists provided the tools.

Scenes in the novel flip between a large cast of characters. We see economists getting ideas and getting muddy. There are elements of graft and corruption. And there are moments of poetry as a genetics researcher, given a new flat in a new development in Siberia, goes for a midnight dip in an inland sea, hundreds of miles from the real coast. As well as academics there are stories about real people. A wheeler-dealer connected with the Russian mafia gets involved in supplying a factory equipment so it can make its targets. Yet even he does not know the chicanery involving a staged accident and a simple planning fix at the highest level which flesh out the story. There is a tragedy when a town revolts at local mis-management and a strange (but real) example of an analogue computer being pressed into service as a targeter for an anti-ballistic missile system. And a Komosol youth manages to make a young black American at a trade exhibition admit to racial prejudice in the USA, even when she knows that things equally bad happen in the USSR.

At the end, when Khrushchev has been deposed and planning reverts back to its pre-scientific days, there is a real sense of deflation, as though something miraculous could have happened, but didn't, almost like a Russian fairy tale where the dark wins
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 21 September 2012
For anyone who is fascinated enough by the horrors of the failed communist experiment to have read all the Le Carre thrillers, gulag memoirs and political textbooks, this is the book you have been missing all these years. It makes sense of how so many people could do so many stupid things for so long, and still believe that it would all work out for the best.

Not without its flaws, but some of the prose is riveting, and the ways in which the author brings *systems* to life - from the macro-economic level right down to individual human cells - is just stunning.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 8 April 2013
I have sent copies to a number of like-minded friends and colleagues with an interest in 20C history. The book evokes the spirit and evolution of the Soviet Union beautifully, teaching us historical empathy combined with many deeper truths about the way the USSR, which was from many points of view an abomination, engaged the commitment of its citizens and many others around the world. Its mixture of historical fact and fictional invention reveals more than mere historical record ever can.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 30 December 2011
Absolutely loved this book. For those that lean politically left, or right, there is something here for everybody. Spufford uses his characters to tease out the contradictions (and potential strengths) of communism and provides a brief history lesson to boot. Although at some points the books feels rather pedestrian, it frequently picks up the pace and is very much a page turner. Well worth reading for those with an interest in politics of any kind.
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