Comrades, let’s optimise!

Cover of US edition of Red PlentyOne thing has occupied my free time more than anything else these last few days – Francis Spufford‘s marvellous work of history and imagination, Red Plenty.

The book is a marvel in joining linear programming, economics, mathematics, cybernetics, computing, chemistry, textiles, politics, sociology, popular music, genetics and history all in one long fabric. The book is not quite a novel but nor is it history, the author himself calls it a “fairy tale”.

The ground on which it works is the Soviet Union between Stalin’s death in 1953 and what might be considered as the cementing in of what was later called the “era of stagnation” in 1970. The main characters are the scientists and engineers who saw, in that time, a new hope for the USSR in Khrushchev‘s claims that “this generation will know communism” – with a 1980 deadline – and who was willing to indulge their hopes of a rational, mathematical reshaping of the Soviet system.

Novelisations of actual events and the actions of real and fictional people are interwoven with passages of historical and scientific commentary and the effect is that we can sympathise with the hopes and dreams of the scientists but also know that they are destined for heart-breaking (for many at least) failure as the essential gangsterised and cynical nature of the state created by Stalin crushes their hopes which, in any case, were always naive at best.

But along the way we get to understand why the Soviet Union excelled at maths (and to a lesser extent computing science) – as it was both free of the pollutant of Marxism-Leninism but also valued by the Marxist-Leninists – scared the west with epic economic growth in the 1950s and so failed its citizens economically – nobody lost their job or reputation by failing the consumer, but if you failed to deliver a capital good you risked both.

We also get a portrait of a society that is much more granulated than the simple riffs of anti-communism would let us believe.

At the top we see Khrushchev was a fool who had done many evil things but he also hoped to make amends, Brezhnev and Kosygin the champions of a new wave of repression and stultification but also men frightened by how earlier reforms led to massacres and desperate not to see that return.

But most of all we see the scientists and their hopes get ground down. They all begin as believers and have only three choices in the end: to rebel and lose every physical thing, to compromise and lose hope or to opt out of the real world and chose only science.

The bitterness of their defeat, and that of all those who hoped for a better world after Stalin, is summed up in the words of a (real) song, sung in the book by Alexander Galich, a writer of popular songs turned underground critic and, after the shock of the public performance, recounted here, of his satirical works, exile.

We’ve called ourselves adults for ages

We don’t try to pretend we’re still young

We’ve given up digging for treasure

Far away in the storybook sun.

(As a companion work I’d also recommend Khrushchev: The Man and His Era)

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