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.
The former Soviet Union. It’s a short phrase that became commonplace after 1991. The phrase —and its abbreviation, FSU— cropped up in policy papers and elsewhere from that date on, and still does.
Did its first use appear in Donald James’s The Fall of the Russian Empire in 1982, almost a decade before the Soviet Union was former?
The plot of The Fall of the Russian Empire builds a scenario of workers’ unrest in the self-proclaimed workers’ state. The dissatisfaction of the workers swiftly turns into physical resistance to the Soviet regime and allies itself with nationalist sentiments amongst the republics that make up the Soviet Union.
Russia in Fiction has developed a bit of a fascination for books published in the Chernenko era. We did not intend this. After all, Chernenko did not really have an era.
Konstantin Chernenko was in office as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for less than a year from April 1984. He followed on from Yurii Andropov’s comparatively lengthy 15 months in that role. And both came at the end of nearly a decade in which the Soviet superpower had been ruled by a gerontocracy —between the time that Leonid Brezhnev died for the first time in 1976* and a sprightly Mikhail Gorbachev came to power at a mere 54 years of age in March 1985.
Before our next review goes somewhere slightly different (the town of Azov, to be precise), Russia in Fiction fancies bringing together a few themes from our first year of blogging. Charles McCarry’s Old Boys is a fine book for doing that.
As its name denotes, in its reviews the Russia in Fiction blog probes the fiction written and the Russia portrayed. Old Boys came from the pen of one the classiest of literary espionage writers of the Cold War years, Charles McCarry (1930-2019). And its decades-spanning take on Russia serves as a summation of Russo-specific themes often to the fore in fictional renderings.
What is more, the edition of Old Boys that Russia in Fiction read has enough on its cover to keep us going for a paragraph or two before we even get to the novel itself. Specifically, Silhouette, Red Square; and a degree of pre-approval —from almost two decades before we devised it— of our ranking of great Cold War spy novelists.
Canadian writer Anthony Hyde’s first novel, The Red Fox was published in 1985; the year that Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union.
The Red Fox stands then as one of the last thrillers of the pre-reform Cold War era. It provides an example of that fascinating phenomenon where fiction proves more accurate in terms of forecasting than do the efforts of experts paid to analyse.
Intuition, applied in the service of entertainment but in the light of intelligent observation, can trump data-driven models bound by assumptions of continuity.
The first great post-Cold War thriller. So proclaims the front-cover strap line on this early paperback edition of Joseph Finder’s The Moscow Club. For once, the blurb has substance.
The Moscow Club is a great thriller. And it is post-Cold War. Though handily in terms of giving an undeserved sense of planning to the Russian in Fiction blog, its plot reaches back into the Soviet past, providing a neat link from our preceding mini-splurge reviewing novels on the death of Stalin.
According to the publicity blurb, The Moscow Club was named by Publishers Weekly as one of the ten best spy thrillers of all time. That might be pushing it. But Finder’s first novel might well nudge the top ten of the 100 books this blog will review, providing as it does almost 600 pages worth of densely plotted, action-filled, twist-on-twist thriller.
Hey, this is the Russia in Fiction blog — what’s with The Starlings of Bucharest? Have we gone all Romania in Fiction? Now that would be a struggle to get to our 100 reviews …
Well, rest easy. The Starlings of Bucharest is book two in the Moscow Wolves trilogy; at least, we assume it is going to be a trilogy. As regular readers of this blog know, pre-announced Russia-in-fiction trilogies are very much in vogue these days. See reviews of novels by Tom Bradby, Owen Matthews, and Ben Creed for further evidence.
Its title not-withstanding, The Starlings of Bucharest has many chapters set in Moscow. It is a terrific semi-sequel to the enjoyable The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt.
The Russia in Fiction blog likes a good sub-genre. So how about, ‘books set in the Chernenko years’?
Except of course, Konstantin Chernenko was leader of the Soviet Union for so short a time that we can’t even talk about years. It would have to be ‘books set in the Chernenko year and 25 days’. He became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1984 and died in March 1985.
Après Chernenko, Gorbatchev et le déluge.
Paul Vidich’s The Mercenary, subtitled A Spy’s Escape from Moscow, is a terrific espionage thriller, that is not only set in early 1985 but is written in a style reminiscent of Cold War era spy novelists.
Published in 1988, The Cardinal of the Kremlin portrays a mid-Gorbachev era Soviet Union. At the time that the book was being written, Western analysts and politicians could not quite get their heads around what Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was doing.
Gorbachev had come to power in 1985, the fourth General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in less than two and half years. In a world with two superpowers, you could say that the General Secretary was one of the two most powerful men in the world. Gorbachev followed on from three sick old men, who had died in rapid succession.
In The Cardinal of the Kremlin the Soviet leader is clearly a Gorbachev figure. Clancy’s portrayal of him, and of the Soviet Union over which he presided, reflects that mixture of optimism and caution with which the West met this young reformer. Was he the real thing? Or was all subtle pretence?
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.