Relations between the West and Russia has always been on the cold side. This is despite the fall of the Soviet Empire over 20 years ago. Because of this we in the West (and I’m sure those in Russia as well) have a very stereotypical view of our former opponents. This is due to propaganda released by both sides as well as the indoctrination schools used to convince their students that the opposite side was the personification of physical evil in this world. Because of this it was and continues to be very hard for us in the West to understand what life was like in the Soviet Union and what life is like in Russia today. Red Plenty by Francis Spufford gives a brilliant view of what life was like in the Soviet Union during the Khrushchev Era. He does this through a series short stories that show views of life from the point of views of various Soviet citizens, from upper politicians to regular factory workers. The stories range from funny to downright depressing. All the stories attempt to explain what exactly led to the Soviet System to collapse a few decades later in the late 80’s. The reasons presented not only include the oppression that the Soviets were never able to completely rid their system of, but also due to the lack of imagination of the Soviet Leadership. One story tells how Soviet Leader Alexei Kosygin makes a crucial decision that leads to the collapse of the Soviet Computer industry. This is due to the fact that he opts to buy Western computers rather than allow the Soviet industry to develop. This allows their own industry to fall behind.
A common theme in the book is disillusioned optimism. The Soviet Experiment was meant to be the final step towards a perfect utopia. This optimism is similar to the post-war optimism that the US experienced. The US optimism, however was tempered by the numerous problems that occurred during the 60’s and 70’s such as the counter culture and the Civil Rights Movement. These problems never occurred in the Soviet Union and optimism was propagated by the state. Reasons for the disillusionment are demonstrated as to be the lack of social mobility, the lack of consumer goods, as well as the harsh oppression committed by the government. One point in the story that is particularly harsh is the dramatization of the Novocherkassk Massacre of 1962, in which government and KGB forces massacred protesters asking for better working and living conditions.
This book is a must for anyone trying to better understand the Soviet State and the culture it propagated. It is also a good read for those who are trying to understand the Post-Soviet Russia. It is written clearly and is well researched. I also found it a highly entertaining read.