Thursday, August 18, 2011

book review: Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

"Were they ready to measure up the Soviet way against the American way? Were they ready to let the people see a little bit of the scale of the task that still lay ahead? In his opinion, if you believed that the good times were coming, if you trusted that graph, it was necessary to behave like it."

How do you give an idea of what it was like living and working in one of the largest nations on earth in a critical period of its history? Concentrating on the leaders might be an option or going to the other end of the spectrum and trying to get the voice of the common man.

This book treads a different path, although the leadership thing is there with a view of the world through the eyes of Khrushchev, by concentrating on those that have the ability to really change the future. The scientists, the economists and the biologists who find themselves in the Russia of the 1960s with a real feeling that the system is there to be changed. Not torn down and replaced by improved. The goal is to beat the US to show that socialism can beat capitalism. This is the belief held by Khrushchev and he pushes very hard to inspire the next generation of thinkers to make it happen.

As the years go by different chapters introduce you to characters that believe they can really make a difference with new ideas and exploiting new technology. But they are all trying to do so against the backdrop of a state that is simply not able to introduce some of the economic devices, like free movement of prices, to real deliver the goods. This is an economy and society that has been ruled by fear and so introducing free thinking is not something that comes naturally.

The scenes set in the scientific community in Siberia describes brilliantly the moment when people discover they are among friends and able to speak the unspeakable. But it also goes back later to demonstrate the fickle nature of the regime which liked to follow a thaw with a heavy crackdown.

The best way to think of this book is to read it in its entirety and then let it soak in completely because this is like looking at a number of photographs that are being carefully selected to sum up a generation. Occasionally when reading it you wonder where it is going but by the end you not only get it but wonder why this period of Russian history has not been given greater exposure. It is clearly an interesting time and the country is opening up post Stalin.

Although you feel that the brief was for Spufford to deliver a straight forward history this manages to engage the reader much more effectively than some dry academic study. He makes the economic and scientific arguments come alive because he tells it through people, through stories and emotions we all feel so his decision was the right one.


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