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on 2 September 2010
Spufford has a talent for conveying atmosphere, for recreating an era by means of anecdote, and he uses the technique to good effect here.

The story is of Soviet Russia, and how, through the appliance of science, it will forge ahead of the capitalists. Only it didn't happen like that.

Spufford relates the story by vignettes, first showing how the system might work, and the optimism engendered, then the gradual lapse into economic arthritis that led to the collapse of the system.

Well worth your money and your time.
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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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on 16 September 2014
Surprised by how much I loved this book - emphasis on my use of the word "book" rather than "novel" or "historical fiction". In 'Red Plenty', Spufford creates an eclectic mish mash of literary form which in turn provides the reader with a huge variety of emotional responses and information relating to the Khrushchev Soviet era.

Spanning just over a decade of Soviet life jumping between characters and events, the book is intricately designed drip feeding the reader a wealth of USSR information (all of which is referenced in depth at the end of the book with superb extra reading lists). What I enjoyed the most about Red Plenty however wasn't its masterful use of form, thrilling prose or 'unputdownable nature', it was how effortlessly Spufford makes us experience a feel for the highs and lows of these characters, and for that matter the Soviet dream in general.
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on 30 October 2015
This is an unconventional history book. This is also an unconventional historical novel. Many of the characters are invented. Real and invented words are put into characters mouths according to the logic of the story rather than who said what or even when it was said. You will learn a lot about economics, politics, lung cancer, and many other topics besides. Very strongly recommended.

Gripe with the kindle edition is that the notes don't link to the text.
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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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on 31 May 2013
People need hope and after years and years of suffering it seemed that the communism would became more human and things can get better. So everybody, scientists included, started to dream ways to improve the system and their lives.
I knew it wasn't to be, but the author brought the period to us so vividly I could not put the book down until I finished it.
The author is a great storyteller, the characters are full of life and the stories are moving. I was sorry it ended - I would have liked to follow more about their lives.
The book is very well documented - not only in the economic arguments of the time but in details of the everyday life as well.
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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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on 20 February 2012
It's been noted already, that this is 'a book about the economic system in Stalin's Russia', and that you shouldn't let that put you off at all.
Because it's not about that, really. It's about the hopes and aspirations of many very interesting people in the last century. And it will make the weight of individual histories press on your chest, make you swoon at so many big dreams that have turned to air.
It's utterly wonderful, and pure fiction in perhaps a new way that's being opened up by interenet access to new things - languages for one - and the ability to cross-pollinate what's gone before with new tools. I just realised I used the word 'new' three times in that last sentence, but I'll let them stand here.
Maybe the term 'speculative fiction' should now be applied to the past, rather than the way it was once intended, about the future?
This book provides different perspectives which may change the way you see the world, and it promotes empathy and understanding while being endlessly stimulating and informative. What more can be asked of a novel?
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on 2 January 2017
An interesting original take on historical fiction, and I'd like to see somebody do something similar for the NHS.

My edition on the kindle is missing the in-text note superscripts, so I only realised there were notes having finished the book. It would have been much better to have been aware of them whilst reading, rather than having to digest them all at the end.
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on 12 November 2010
There are plenty of books about the horrors of Stalin's Soviet Union, but it has proved much harder for writers to get excited by the sclerotic last decades (try looking for a decent biography of Brezhnev...).

Red Plenty is a novel, but is better than any non-fiction book I've read at describing the long moment when the Soviet Union ceased to be a viable alternative future for mankind, and became a crippled economy limping towards its end. His first characters are idealistic economists dreaming of the tinkering that needs doing to make the USSR into a beacon for mankind; his last characters are a spiv making money off the system, and an invalid dying of cancer who tries and fails to alert the government to how wrong everything's become.

This is brilliant, and a lesson for historians in how to approach the last decades of the Eastern Bloc.
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