Set between 1938 and 1970, "Red Plenty" is a collection of stories about the moment in Soviet history when it looked as though the fairytale-like promise of future plenty might actually be within reach. It's about the period when Russians still held on to hope and determination about their country's "attempt to beat capitalism on its own terms, and to make Soviet citizens the richest people in the world," the period before everything went definitively sour. Doubt increasingly creeps in, but it is largely a baffled sort of doubt -- a doubt that still wants to believe.
In 18 stories divided into five sections, author Francis Spufford depicts a range of different Russians' personal experiences during this period, with many stories having an emphasis on the new economic system. The stories are neither entirely fiction nor entirely nonfiction; they are loosely based on history. As he explains in the endnotes, Spufford makes some minor chronological tweaks for the purpose of "dramatic foreshortening." Some characters are real historic figures and go by their real names; others are fashioned after -- but are not completely identical to -- real people; and still others are simply representative of certain types of people of the time.
Each section is prefaced by several helpful pages of commentary that give some background on the progression of the government and economy. After these come the stories themselves, which reveal the effects of the new economic system on a more personal level -- for example, the almost perversely humorous logistic and paper-trail nightmares generated by central planning, or what it meant to be an academic in the maths or sciences in the Khrushchev era.
Some of the subject matter may be a bit of a slog for the less economically minded. One story includes detailed descriptions of the processes of a Russian computer of the 1960s as related to its potential for economic planning, while in a few others people wax passionate or poetic (sometimes at length) about their visions for the planned economy.
Fortunately, other stories help balance this out: "Favours" is about the long, crazy day of a hustler named Chekuskin, a tolkach or "pusher" (who, as Chekuskin says, doesn't "give bribes or take bribes. I persuade the wheels to go round"), while "Stormy Applause" is Spufford's portrayal of real-life songwriter/screenwriter/playwright/poet Sasha Galich and his reactions to the changing limits of artistic freedom.
Between the fact, fiction, sizable explanatory notes and bibliography (Spufford is a manifest bibliophile), "Red Plenty" is an expansive reading experience with a creative approach to Russian history. Spufford refreshes your memory as to the actual absurdity of the times, then illustrates it through imaginative, detail-rich stories, putting human faces to a legendary political experiment.
Kim Hedges is an editor and book reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area.