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’.

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