Red Plenty is a beautiful departure from the standard depictions of the Soviet Union in English-language fiction. Francis Spufford’s novel takes the reader not just to Russia in the years of Khrushchevian optimism, but into the heads of a succession of superbly drawn characters who experience those days from their different perspectives.
Front and centre are bright young believers in the Communist idea that rational scientific planning, deployed with intelligence and determined good will, represented a transformative step forward for humankind. We are not talking dull one-dimensional ideologues loaded down with notions of superpower competition, but bright individuals, excited to be alive at that time in a place where the dream of plenty seemed within reach.
once upon a time the story of red plenty had been serious: an attempt to beat capitalism on its own terms, and to make Soviet citizens the richest people in the world. For a short while it even looked —and not just to Nikita Khrushchev— as if the story might be coming true … This book is about that moment.Red Plenty, p. 5
It is a happy coincidence that the Russia in Fiction blog is being written at a bumper time for Russia-in-fiction trilogies. We are in the middle of those by Sarah Armstrong and Ben Creed. The final one of Henry Porter’s Paul Samson series was published in April of this year, followed the next month by the last in Tom Bradby’s Kate Henderson series (the first is reviewed here, the third is mentioned here). And we are certainly at the end of the Dominika Egorova trilogy by Jason Matthews, as he sadly passed away a few months ago (again, the first is reviewed here).
And now his namesake Owen Matthews brings us the second in his Alexander Vasin series.
Red Traitor differs from the first novel in the series, Black Sun (2019). Black Sun was very much a detective story, and notable for its plot being contained geographically and culturally in the distinctive and little-known world of the Soviet closed city.
Red Traitor ranges more widely. In genre terms Red Traitor moves onto the ground of the international relations thriller, with sonar-pinging echoes of Tom Clancy’s early work.
For the first —and no doubt only— time, Russia in Fiction is reviewing a book that does not mention Russia.
And its set-up cannot fail but bring to mind the 2006 Oscar-winning German movie Das Leben des Anderen (The Lives of Others).
In the basement of a block of flats in the capital of ‘an anonymous Iron Curtain country’ called Commitania, sits a man, headphones on, tape reels whirring, listening in on conversations throughout the apartment block.
And how do we know it is about Moscow in the 1960s? Regular readers of this blog might already have picked up the clues.
(Part one of this review is here)
Black Sun is set in a world on the turn.
It is a thriller bathed throughout in its titular saturnine radiance, emanating from RDS-220, the Tsar Bomba – to this day the most powerful explosion ever created by humankind.
(Part two of this review is here)
As a thriller, excellent. From the Russia-in-fiction perspective, first class.
Black Sun is a superior and original whodunnit set in the closed city of Arzamas-16 in October 1961, the week in which the Soviet Union tested the biggest nuclear weapon ever exploded.