The difference between utopia and dystopia is awfully—some might say, fatally—thin. Often the difference is only a matter of perspective. Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty contains many instances of double vision that capture both the aspirations and horrors of the Soviet Union. Take for example this memorable moment when one of the characters, a singer named Sasha Galich, gazes upon a piece of propaganda: “At the next corner, a giant banner rippled and flapped against the end wall of a block, with the honest face of Yuri Gagarin on it, six storeys high, and underneath the words he was supposed to have said, back in April, when they lit the rocket beneath him: LET’S GO. Upward with Yuri! Up to the stars; up Mr K.’s ladder to the heavens, whose foot stood in a mulch of blood and bone.”
“Mr K.” is Nikita Khrushchev, and Spufford’s book depicts that time in the ’50s and ’60s when the Soviet premier hoped to launch the USSR out of Stalin’s mulch of blood and bone and into an era of unprecedented prosperity. Red Plenty conjures the idea at the heart of this fever dream: the planned economy, which through the application of reason and technology would usher in the Communist version of the Big Rock Candy Mountain. “Because the whole system of production and distribution in the USSR was owned by the state, because all Russia was (in Lenin’s words) ‘one office, one factory,’ it could be directed, as capitalism could not, to the fastest, most lavish fulfillment of human needs. Therefore it would easily out-produce the wasteful chaos of the marketplace. Planning would be the USSR’s own self-turning millstone, its own self-victualling tablecloth.” This idea runs like a skewer through the episodic vignettes that follow, piercing and flavoring scenes culled from the ordinary lives of Soviet leaders, economists, mathematicians, computer scientists, young Komsomol members, black market fixers, and other folk in various strata of Soviet society who lived through period.
Between these meaty sections are generous helpings of commentary that introduce each of the six parts. In these, Spufford explains historical context and borrows the tone of a snarky scholar: “Whisper it quietly, but the capital productivity of the USSR was a disgrace. The Soviet Union already got less return for its investments, in terms of extra output, than its capitalist rivals . . . In effect, they were spraying the Soviet industry with the money that they had so painfully extracted from the populace, and wasting more than a third of it in the process.” One of these sections provides the very first sentences of Red Plenty and carves out the strange literary space it operates in: “This is not a novel. It has too much to explain, to be one of those. But it not history either, for it does its explaining in the form of a story.” Surely it will end up shelved with fiction, but what kind of historical novel has over fifty pages of endnotes? These notes are not ironic, tongue-in-cheek mimicry of scholarly documentation, but genuine references to a welter of source material. In them, Spufford cops to invention and confabulation. “So once again here, I have cheated for the sake of heightened drama,” Spufford admits in a typical note. Residing in a liminal zone between fiction and nonfiction, Red Plenty resembles the kind of book David Shields admires in Reality Hunger: “All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.”
Perhaps it’s best to stick to what Spufford himself calls this story: a fairy tale. And this fairy tale has hidden morals. Chief among them is that Soviet abundance was doomed from the start, weakened by a failure to acknowledge the limitations of human reason but ultimately poisoned by its reliance on tyranny. American fears of Communist domination appear outsized, outlandish even, in light such fatal flaws. From this view, capitalism didn’t so much win the Cold War as much as the Soviet system failed to meet the basic needs of its citizens. Lest we in America feel smug, we should remember that the United States was founded upon utopian ideals that frequently get translated into visions of free market plenty unhindered by any social, environmental, or fiscal limits. The fundamental problem of a tragic figure is that he cannot see his own fatal flaw, and Red Plenty demonstrates how such a condition can threaten an entire society, from its best minds on down.