Academic journal article Policy Review

Shabby Soviet Reality

Academic journal article Policy Review

Shabby Soviet Reality

Article excerpt


FRANCIS SPUFFORD'S Red Plenty is a strange and wondrous thing. It's a novel, but it's also a history. It tells a made-up story, but it has many nonfiction passages. Its characters are invented, but they are based on real people. It's about the USSR, but its author is not a Soviet expert, nor does he know Russian. Most remarkably, it focuses on one minor episode in Soviet history, but it explains the nature and demise of the USSR better than any book--fiction or nonfiction--I have ever read.

Whether you are interested in the history of the Soviet Union or not, I am certain you will enjoy this marvelous book. It reminded me of Orwell at his best. But if you are interested in Soviet history, as I am, the book will have special significance. For many decades now, professors, pundits, and politicians have debated a single important question about the USSR: Could the Soviet project to build communism have succeeded, or was it doomed to failure from the start? In Red Plenty, Spufford offers a brilliant answer. In order to understand that answer, however, you must also understand the long and often heated intellectual struggle in which it is situated. Red Plenty has a backstory and, since I was there to witness it, allow me to tell you about it.

I first went to the Soviet Union, ironically enough, in 1984. I had studied Russian, and I had taken a few classes and read a few books about the USSR. Being a disaffected youth, I was intrigued by the idea of socialism. It seemed to have great promise, and it gave me something to say about my surroundings other than, "Man, this sucks." I paid especially close attention to what those in the New Left said about the USSR, about the way the American and Soviet systems were "converging." Thus I flew to Moscow believing that the USSR, though regrettably not politically free, was culturally sophisticated, economically prosperous, and thoroughly progressive. I half expected to find a country a bit like the United States, though without Republicans.

I found no such place. Housing in the USSR was a problem. We lived three to a room in a dilapidated, cockroach-infested "panel" building. Though it had a large custodial staff, it was always filthy. We had water, but most of it was cold. We had heat, but the only way to regulate it was by opening and closing the window. We had light, but if a bulb went out it was not likely to be replaced anytime soon. Food in the USSR was a problem. There were no grocery stores as such, but rather dirty, poorly stocked, and unimaginatively named shops--"Bread," "Meat," "Produce." There were almost no restaurants, and fast-food joints were nothing at all like McDonalds. There were what we would call farmer's markets. They had a lot of food, but almost no one in Moscow could afford it. Finished goods in the USSR were a problem. There were, as far as I knew, only two department stores in Moscow. Neither even remotely approached J.C. Penney in quality or quantity of items on sale. There were sundry stores, but they seemed to sell nothing but pencils, pens, and paper, all of an inferior grade. Transportation in the USSR was a problem. The Moscow Metro was wonderful, but if it didn't go where you wanted you faced a series of bad options: Slog through the icky mud (sidewalks were rare), take a smelly bus (often late and uncomfortably packed), or hire a junky cab (Soviet cars have a well-deserved reputation). Believe it or not, I had an excellent time during my stay, largely thanks to my many warm Russian friends.

That's the general picture I recall. But what I remember even more vividly are anecdotes, telling episodes in which the true nature of Soviet life revealed itself. The time I asked for a menu at a famous Georgian restaurant and was told there was no point. The time I witnessed a grown man cry because his Soviet jeans had fallen apart. The time I went to a state motor pool to illicitly buy gas. …

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