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Red Plenty: Industry! Progress! Abundance! Inside the Fifties Soviet Dream

by Francis Spufford

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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7363024,884 (4.12)27
The Soviet Union was built on 20th-century magic called 'the planned economy', which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things that capitalism could never match. And just for a little while, in the late 1950s, the magic seemed to be working. This book is about that moment in history, and how it came, and how it went away.… (more)
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» See also 27 mentions

English (29)  Dutch (1)  All languages (30)
Showing 1-5 of 29 (next | show all)
Fictional account of the Soviet Union's attempt to use "scientific socialism" to outproduce the West in the Khruschev years, and how they eventually squandered the talents of some of the world's smartest people with their centralized, top-down bureaucracy. This was sort of a natural follow-up to many of the themes in Philip Mirowski's superb Machine Dreams and has gotten rave reviews about its innovative blending of well-paced fiction and hard economics. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
I saw this book recommended in a comment on Hacker News, and originally decided to pick it up because I wanted to get a more emotional telling of this era, primarily to give me context to the stories of parents' own experiences with communism in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s-1990s. I was surprised at how much I liked the book.

Primarily, I was surprised that I hadn't seen this format of storytelling before - obviously there are plenty of strict fiction / non-fiction books, and a solid amount of books that fall in the fuzzy middle of 'based on true events.' But I haven't seen any books in that last category that both try to tell an interesting story for the reader and also provide footnotes at the end that explain, in detail, what liberties the author has taken to make the narrative more interesting. This I think is the biggest factor in my enjoyment of the book.

The actual content was also handled in a pleasing way. Spufford creates a few parallel stories that he comes back to during different sections of the book. Some are only one-off. The way that the stories are organized, however, allows the author to leave the narrative of one setting and come back to it much further in the future, transporting the reader to when something interesting is happening. In a normal fiction book you wouldn't need to do this (since you can just arbitrarily have events happen in a way that is fortuitous to storytelling), but in this kind of book it's important for the reader that the dates match the chronology in real-life time. I thought this particular way of handling the necessary time discontinuity / event discontinuity was well done.

Overall, I'd recommend Red Plenty to anyone wanting to get a better feel of the Soviet promise. I came away from it largely succeeding in my goal. ( )
  rsanek | Dec 26, 2020 |
This book was really good.

It meanders through a diverse set of lives across class, era, age, and occupation. The author wrote the book not knowing russian, which is absolutely silly, but whatever. We hear from a woman having a baby, a planner figuring out how to plan the economy, a couple fighting hard to be prototypical soviets, a "reverse salesman" etc.
Some lessons I learned from the book:

I have had a hard time in my life really understanding what it's like to fear being candid with the people around you. In Russia, you could easily be sent to the gulag for a wayward sentence or note. It seems that in such a society, this fear tramples the innocence of innocence, leading to a layer of surliness over top of confidences, ecstasy, and dreams. Of course in many stories the anger and hopelessness shone through, and of course now that I have read it, the absolute complexity and inertia of the soviet machine maps very closely to the complexity I see inside of Amazon. This last bit was very interesting to read and see the parallels. An example of this is that although Kosygin had in his hands a better economic planning protocol, he chose a stable decline over it because he felt that if the algorithms broke the economy, this unknown would be unmanageable compared to top down bureaucratic decisions. This maps very neatly with neural networks inside of large scale machine learning systems. Although they are far more powerful, managers can be loathe to use them, because you can't make them do exactly what you want, or hold a single part accountable for a failure. With FST's and rules, you can easily add or subtract logic, but not so for an end to end system.

Another surprising fact was the underpinnings of hope which drove the early Soviet revolution, say in the 1950's. The people really believed that they could "win" and that the plenty that Stalin and Khrushchev promised would come, the utopia would arrive. This led to, according to the author, much of the pain in the early days which should have existed in people's hearts get punted towards the future, but when this pain landed in Kosygin's declining society, there was some hell to pay for sure.

Another self evident point that nevertheless was important to see in words, was the russian envy toward the West. The governments used the West as a sort of ruler to measure themselves on.

One issue I'm surprised the book didn't deal with was the nuclear terror. I read watchmen during reading this book, and Watchmen was all about the terror felt in America over being bombed, but this subject was just not breached in Red Plenty. I guess this makes sense, the book definitely chose its battles. ( )
  4dahalibut | Dec 13, 2020 |
An interesting piece of historical fiction that looks mostly at the Khrushchev years where the Soviet Union was advancing in science and industry. It was a tipping point of the Soviet Union. Could they plan and grow an economy that could out pace the West?

There are stories of government efforts and ambitious youthful academics all wanting to make the system work. The personal touch makes our once arch-enemies very human and wanting the same same things we did-- peace, prosperity, and an end to dusty rutted roads.

Each section is prefaced with some real history and the fictional sections even contain documentation. Spufford does a nice job of reminding the reader that communism was not what happened in the Soviet Union. Communism necessitates an industrialized society. England and Germany were much better candidates than Russia. The industrialized world caved to the demands of the populations with social democrats and liberal governments to put the reigns on unrestricted capitalism. Communism only seems to take root in agrarian societies. The battle became one of free markets vs planned economies.

Great story telling framed in real history. ( )
  evil_cyclist | Mar 16, 2020 |
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. ( )
  sarcher | May 11, 2019 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Francis Spuffordprimary authorall editionscalculated
Clark, RogerNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Villanueva, AlvaroCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Асланян, АннаTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The Soviet Union was built on 20th-century magic called 'the planned economy', which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things that capitalism could never match. And just for a little while, in the late 1950s, the magic seemed to be working. This book is about that moment in history, and how it came, and how it went away.

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