America comes to the USSR

J. Hoberman

  • Red Plenty: Industry! Progress! Abundance! Inside the 1950s’ Soviet Dream by Francis Spufford
    Faber, 434 pp, £16.99, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 571 22523 1

‘The Russians have everything in name, and nothing in reality,’ the Marquis de Custine observed in 1839, comparing the empire to a blank book with a magnificent table of contents. ‘How many distant regiments are there without men, and cities and roads which exist only in idea!’ The entire country was but a façade pasted on Europe – or, as might have been said of the Soviet period, an ideological simulation of reality. Post-Soviet as well as postmodern, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty is about both simulation and reality. There are many ways to characterise Red Plenty and the book’s first sentence provides one: ‘This is not a novel.’

Most simply described, it is a cycle of linked short stories offering a more or less chronological account of the Soviet 1960s – a period sometimes known as the Thaw. Imaginary characters share the stage with world-historical figures and actual luminaries, among them Nikita Khrushchev, the popular songwriter turned dissident ‘guitar poet’ Sasha Galich, and the mathematician, economist, Stalin Prize winner and eventual Nobel laureate Leonid Vitalevich Kantorovich (1912-86). It is also a text drawn from texts. Although Spufford reads no Russian, a 14-page bibliography (itself mixing literature and history) attests to his scholarship. The extensive notes are long enough to be considered one of the book’s numbered sections and, as with Nabokov’s Pale Fire, they can be read as a supplementary narrative. Drawing on elements as disparate as Alexander Afanasev’s Russian Fairy Tales and Stephen Hecht’s scholarly paper ‘Tobacco Carcinogens, Their Biomarkers and Tobacco-Induced Cancer’, Red Plenty is a seamless pastiche. It takes the long view of Soviet history, although Spufford’s view is highly selective. Sputniks and cosmonauts go largely unmentioned. No one ever thinks of what was happening in Berlin, the deteriorating relationship with China or, most conspicuous by its absence, the Cuban missile crisis.

Books are the fossil bones from which Spufford reconstructs his red dinosaur. The narrative is signposted with references to Soviet cultural landmarks, such as Mikhail Romm’s popular movie Nine Days in One Year (1962) and the Strugatsky brothers’ satirical fantasy Monday Begins on Saturday. (A grim and gleaming nocturne set in an unknown realm of secret laboratories and installations, Nine Days in One Year is a romantic triangle involving two nuclear scientists, one doomed by his accidental exposure to atomic radiation. Lighter and more subversive, the Strugatsky novel is set at the Academy of Sciences Research Institute for Witchcraft and Sorcery.) Many of Spufford’s characters are readers. Khrushchev, flying into Washington DC on his maiden trip to the United States, recalls Ilf and Petrov’s 1937 travelogue Little Golden America; later, a precocious ten-year-old shows his mother a passage from the science fiction classic Roadside Picnic (the source for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker) and wonders if this tale, in which a bit of interplanetary debris offers the chimera of ‘happiness for everybody’, might be an allegory of their Soviet life in the Siberian ‘science’ town, Akademgorodok. This reference – as the notes acknowledge – is a bit of poetic licence: the scene takes place in 1968, four years before Roadside Picnic was published. But then, Spufford assures us, Red Plenty ‘is not a history either’.

Could Red Plenty have been written by a Russian? Back in the heroic 1920s, Sergei Tretyakov and his cohorts had demanded a literature of facts, biographies of things, books with titles like Flax or Railway Engine. In one sense, Red Plenty is that. In addition to introducing each of the book’s sections with an elegant table-setting essay (a reception in Akademgorodok’s brand-new eight-storey hotel features ‘sliced beef, pickles, black bread, a hardboiled egg, a pyramidal salad of tinned peas and diced apple held together with mayonnaise’), Spufford waxes scientific. One chapter includes a detailed description of the thermionic valves used in the BESM-2 processor invented by the computer genius Sergei Alexeievich Lebedev; another combines an account of Lebedev – dressed in his medals and chain-smoking as he waits in vain for an audience with the chairman of Gosplan – with a detailed X-ray close-up of Lebedev’s cancerous lungs: ‘A drifting, tumbling molecule of benzopyrene … sails into the cell’s bulging curtain wall of fats and sticks there, like an insect caught in glue; then, worse, is dragged through, because the fat curtain is spiked here and there by receptors, and one of these has the benzopyrene in its grip.’

But Red Plenty is not just what Tretyakov termed ‘factography’; it’s also speculative fantasy. Spufford paraphrases Kingsley Amis’s assertion that what distinguishes science fiction as a genre is that the idea is the hero. The heroic idea in Red Plenty is rational economic planning, or rather the fairytale of rational economic planning: Spufford calls it a skazka, like the stories of the witch Baba Yaga or the Mountain of Glass. ‘In the 20th century,’ he explains, ‘Russians stopped telling skazki. And at the same time, they were told that the skazki were coming true.’ There were dreams of abundance and instances of fantastic success, like the fairytale rise of Alexei Kosygin, who ascended from factory foreman to commissar in four years, or of Khrushchev, who started out as a semi-literate coalminer, or of Leonid Kantorovich.

First seen as a 26-year-old prodigy wedged into a Leningrad tram and lost in thought, Kantorovich pays no more heed to the political terror of 1938 than to the crowd pressing against him, although the Stalinist slogan ‘Life has become better, more cheerful!’ does impinge on his consciousness. As a mathematician and a Jew, he considers himself lucky to live in ‘the only country on the planet where human beings had seized the power to shape events according to reason’. After all, he tells himself, he could have been born in Nazi Germany or capitalist America, where the thoughts in his head would be ‘of no concern to anyone because nobody could make money out of them’. Yet Kantorovich is mulling over the idea of making his ideas profitable – for everyone. The Plywood Trust of Leningrad has solicited his advice. They want to improve efficiency: is there an equation that could direct which raw materials to what machines? This request for the mathematical equivalent of a flying carpet has started Kantorovich thinking. Surely, there must be a formula for quantifying actual output in terms of potential output. Unhindered by the greed and competition of the capitalist system, this formula might be applied to the entire economy. And if the economy could be made to grow by even an additional 3 per cent per year, the country would be half as rich again within two five-year plans!

Kantorovich’s vision of rational economic planning is the idea that sets the narrative in motion. Red Plenty jumps ahead 21 years to settle in Khrushchev’s airborne consciousness, happily confident as he ponders his past and present achievements, not least in the economic field. Thanks to the greater efficiency of central planning, prosperity has spread even more rapidly than Kantorovich expected. Soviet growth in the 1950s, Khrushchev reflects on the basis of official Soviet figures, exceeds that of West Germany, a rate equalled only by Japan: 6 per cent, 7 per cent, even 8 per cent per year, while America’s is 3 per cent at best. The imperialists are anxious. (They were: disquiet with the Soviet surge was comparable to the anxiety about Japan in the early 1980s or China today.) Khrushchev barely mentions his 1959 American visit in his memoirs, but the event remains vivid for a then schoolboy like myself because the mercurial Soviet leader threw a tantrum when he was forbidden entry to the American fairytale kingdom, Disneyland. (Were there missiles there? he wondered.) Spufford passes over this anecdote but, as a writer, he is no less taken with Khrushchev’s ebullient truculence and Disney’s America. At one point, Khrushchev addresses American businessmen in what he imagines to be their own language. Dining at the White House, at a long banquet table ‘covered in more kinds of spoon than you’d see in a spoon museum’, Khrushchev speaks his mind:

‘For the time being you are richer than us,’ he said. ‘But tomorrow we will be as rich as you. The day after? Even richer! But what’s wrong with that?’ The listeners did not seem as charmed as he had expected by this frank, capitalist-style sentiment. Some musicians in the corner played a song named ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’. No one could explain the words.

The Khrushchev of Red Plenty is interested in the similarities between the US and the USSR. Both, to his mind, have addressed the problem of ‘ordinary luxury’ – or consumer democracy. Khrushchev admires the American ‘genius for lining up the fruitfulness of mass production with people’s desires’. In addition to Coca-Cola and Band-Aids, he is impressed with the pavement kiosks that sell the hemburger; the production line is right on the street, ‘an efficient, modern, healthy way of feeding people … created by someone who had made it their serious mission in life to imagine a food you could hold in your fist while you rushed through the busy city’. Thus the Soviet leader imagines and admires the triumph of American capitalism. But is it possible to have McDonald’s without a marketplace?

More tender than ironic, Red Plenty toys with this dialectic. As the Soviets visit America, America comes to them. Khrushchev’s chapter is followed by one set during the 1959 American exhibition in Sokolniki Park (site of the celebrated ‘kitchen debate’ between Khrushchev and Nixon). Galina, the dutiful and earnest daughter of a small-town deputy Party secretary, is part of a Komsomol brigade dispatched to Sokolniki Park as a heckler: she has been instructed to issue a loud, indignant question about unemployment in America. When she gets there she is confounded by the ‘untiring, universal brightness’ of the seven-screen presentation on the ‘American day’, but what really throws her for a loop is that the American guide who greets them turns out to be black.

This contradiction can’t be resolved. Galina’s attempt to rattle the guide by stridently drawing attention to American racial segregation and ultimately accusing him of betraying his people not only alienates her comrades but goads the guide into asking her an unanswerable question about her own accommodation to an imperfect system. The confrontation, it turns out, compromises her reliability and even precipitates the end of her relationship with her Komsomol fiancé, Volodya. In any case, she has lost sight of the big picture. Who cares what window-dressing the Americans use? A bald man with spectacles poses the real question: how are prices decided in the American economy? Why, for example, is a pack of cigarettes 24 cents and not 23 or 25?

The strategically self-deprecating guide has no answer but the idea churns through Spufford’s chronicle. Six chapters and three years later, Galina’s ex, now a minor member of the regional Party apparatus in the southern city of Novocherkassk, has his own rude awakening. Workers and students have taken to the streets, demonstrating against the sudden rise in food prices. ‘They were waving homemade placards of their own, as indecorous as farts in church, which said meat, butter & a pay rise or, worst of all, cut khrushchev up for sausages.’ A horrified witness, Volodya finds himself on a rooftop as Soviet troops or internal security operatives open fire on the crowd. At least 24 demonstrators were killed in an incident that remained classified as long as the Soviet Union stayed in existence – though a bewildered Khrushchev alluded to it that very afternoon in a speech given to a group of Soviet and Cuban teenagers. The government, he told them, had tried to make the strikers understand that more expensive meat and butter have a beneficial effect on agricultural productivity. Why couldn’t they listen to reason?

Why can’t anyone? Khrushchev and Kantorovich aside, Red Plenty’s most frequently recurring figure is Kantorovich’s young acolyte Emil Shaidullin (inspired by the Armenian economist Abel Aganbegyan), who comes of age during the Thaw, embraces economic reform – in part as a career move – and is cruelly disillusioned. Sitting pretty in the apparat, Emil is introduced to Kantorovich at a conference where the new mathematically determined, computerised planned economy is being debated. Amazed by Kantorovich’s frank and touching faith in the power of reason, Emil is enlisted to join the mathematician in the academy’s new science city in the east: ‘“We might get somewhere at last,” said Leonid Vitalevich. “Without all the nonsense.”’ When next seen, Emil is a suave administrator in Akademgorodok and then, a few years later, after Khrushchev’s fall, he must explain the problems of a planned economy to one of the Soviet Union’s rising stars. It is not a pleasant interaction: ‘“You were just telling us, Professor,” said Kosygin, “how we had got everything wrong” … “I’m sorry,” said Emil with a flustered tenacity, “but I have to insist on this point. Irrational pricing is not a transitional difficulty.”’ A friendly Gosplan official tries to cheer Emil up, pointing out that it might have been Brezhnev whom he was obliged to brief. ‘He’s a man who can get out of his depth in a puddle,’ Comrade Mokhov explains, underlining his point by adopting an ‘expression of amiable cretinism’.

Emil is last seen in Red Plenty’s penultimate chapter, back in Akademgorodok, where, now a director, he is passively complicit in the expulsion of Spufford’s most sympathetic character, the genetic biologist Zoya Vaynshteyn, who has signed a letter of protest regarding ‘the conduct of a certain court case in Moscow’, a crime amplified by her Jewish surname. It was through Zoya’s eyes that we were originally introduced to Akademgorodok, in a chapter recounting the first evening that the 31-year-old single mother spends there, picked up by a pair of graduate students and escorted to a university reception. They are disciples of Kantorovich and, for all their gauche attempts to flirt with her, are sincerely intoxicated with their mission to develop the most complex cybernetic system ever created. ‘We really do work on saving the world,’ Zoya is assured. Equations were being developed and fed into computers that would rationalise prices and regulate supply and demand – and on paper, or in Gosplan’s fairytale world, the system appeared to work. Zoya too almost allows herself to be seduced by this passion for an idea. She gets a bit tipsy and dances with the great Kantorovich himself. (‘Oh, he had mastered the algorithm for this,’ she thinks, gazing over his bald head, as ‘he put her through the turns with precise glee.’)

The Soviet experiment in rational planning inspired irrational devotion throughout the world; its failure was a crushing blow for faith in reason. Zoya’s exile from the scientific city of hope may be Red Plenty’s saddest chapter. (As she is en route to her departmental show trial, the great Kantorovich absentmindedly waves to her and, in a parody of her own precarious situation – or his – slips on the ice. ‘Just another fat little zhid falling on his arse,’ a passerby remarks.) But all has been foretold. Once upon a time, long before he had the power to purge politically suspect colleagues, Emil, as a new-minted graduate of Moscow University, went ‘off the road’ to visit his fiancée in her family’s village: ‘Stalin was dead and the birds were singing’ as he trekked ten kilometres from the rural bus stop through a stinking marsh. Marx’s nightmare view of capitalism playing out in his brain, he slogged on to arrive – covered in shit – in the Russian heart of darkness. ‘The lines of these houses sagged heavily, as if they left the earth with reluctance. Traces of ancient colour clung to the shutters, like the last streaks of dried skin and gristle stuck in the creases of old bones … He didn’t quite believe the place was real.’

Hammered on a jar of his prospective in-laws’ homemade alcoholic brew, Emil has a vision of the economic order that’s not unlike Spufford’s not-a-novel, not-a-history:

He was thinking to himself that an economy told a kind of story … In this story, many of the major characters would never even meet, yet they would act on each other’s lives just as surely as if they jostled for space inside a single house, through the long chains by which value moved about. Tiny decisions in one place could have cascading, giant effects elsewhere.

And just as in Spufford’s account,

what most absorbed the conscious attention of the characters – what broke their hearts, what they thought ordered or justified their lives – might have no effect whatsoever, dying away as if it had never happened at all.