Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty Pushes Historical Boundaries

In his compelling new book about the Soviet Union, Francis Spufford blends fiction and history. Max McGuinness questions why historians have overlooked the historical imagination.

Photo by Bart Koetsier

Towards the beginning of Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, we encounter Emil Arslanovich Shaidullin, a young economist bound for the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the early 1950s. Yuri Zhivago he is not but a visit to a rundown collective farm outside Moscow provokes something of an aesthetic epiphany: “He was thinking to himself that an economy told a kind of story, though not the sort you would find in a novel. In this story, many of the major characters would never even meet, yet they would act on each other’s lives just as surely as if they jostled for space inside a single house, through the long chains by which value moved about.”

However, Shaidullin never really thought any such thing, not least because he did not exist. Or rather someone like him may once have thought something a bit like this in a similar sort of place. In this way, Red Plenty freely blends fact with fiction in order to tell the story of the Soviet economy during the “Sputnik moment” when, with Stalin safely dead, a new generation of idealistic technocrats and scientists briefly seemed poised to achieve the dream of limitless material abundance which Karl Marx had first foreseen almost a century beforehand. Needless to say, what Saul Bellow once called the Good Intentions Paving Company turned out to have other ideas.

A straightforward trudge through the Gosplan archives would probably have been about as inspiring as a plate of cabbage from a Leningrad bistro circa-1974. This accounts for Spufford’s novel approach to his subject, which successfully transforms the logistics of the Moscow potato supply and the troubles of a fictive viscose factory in Solovets into an engrossing, and at times deeply moving historical drama. (Of course the joke here is that the one thing Gosplan—the Soviet planning agency—did in fact churn out were reams of entirely fictitious economic data.)

Yet, in the very first sentence of the book, the author states that “this is not a novel,” then insists that “it is not a history either.” The best he can do is describe it as a “fairytale”—“wishful, irresponsible, not to be relied on.” But something about these Magritte-like disclaimers seems a little unconvincing. After all, how many fairytales conclude with over 50 pages of notes, in which Spufford goes to considerable pains to sort the facts from the fiction, to inform the reader, in other words, of what can be relied upon in the book and what cannot?

So effective are Spufford’s imaginative powers that reading these notes can sometimes lead to strange feelings of disappointment once the full extent of his inventions becomes clear. For example, a chapter entitled “Favours, 1964” revolves around Chekuskin, a self-described “servant of the Plan” who negotiates supply bottlenecks and obtains scarce commodities on behalf of beleaguered factory managers in exchange for “a monthly retainer which will make your eyes water.” It would be the supreme historical irony: a chronically dysfunctional socialist system which can be made to work only thanks to the efforts of cocky, entrepreneurial middlemen who manage to fly beneath the radar of the police state whilst making small fortunes for themselves. But Spufford admits in his notes that his depiction of Chekuskin is primarily based on a book which deals with the role of the tolkach or “pusher” during the 1930s. He adds that “the institutions of the Soviet economy that made the tolkach necessary remained essentially unchanged all the way from the Stalinist industrialisation to the fall of the state in 1991.” It is thus clear that the chapter relies on plausible supposition rather than hard empirical evidence of the activities of a tolkach three decades later. But the writing here is so good (“He was not, himself, a great believer in money. You could hardly get anything important with it, by itself.”) that one genuinely wants it to be true rather than merely truthy. All this is as much as Spufford himself readily admits but I did feel at times as if my sense of the past was being ransacked by some particularly unruly stilyagi.

It is thus perhaps unsurprising that Red Plenty, which was originally published in the UK in 2010, has been widely (and often wildly) praised by novelists but seemingly ignored by historians. Nick Hornby compared it to Robert Altman’s Nashville and professed surprise that it had not at least been nominated for the Booker Prize (Britain’s most ballyhooed accolade for literary fiction). By contrast, Red Plenty does not seem to have been reviewed by any major historian and it has received no citations in peer-reviewed historical journals. However, Simon Sebag-Montefiore, author of a two-volume biography of Stalin, was effusive in his praise when contacted for this article, describing Red Plenty as “superb and highly original.” He added: “It is not purely and formally a history book. But it reveals much that is true in another way and as a historian I applaud that.”

Red Plenty is not the first attempt at blending history with fiction. In 1991, Simon Schama published Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) which combined an account of the Battle of Quebec in 1759 (narrated from the perspective of an imaginary soldier) with the story of the murder of George Parkman in Harvard in 1849. Schama was criticised by some historians for his use of fictional material and failure to show clearly, as Spufford has done, what he had and had not embellished. Subsequently, Dead Certainties appears to have inspired few if any imitators among professional historians who generally remain wary of any departures from the tradition of solidly-grounded empirical research. But one could also see Schama’s book along with Red Plenty as extreme applications of what R.G. Collingwood called the “historical imagination”—the need for the historian to re-enact the past in his own mind.

And there is undoubtedly something about the murky corners of Russian history in particular which seems to stir the fictional impulse. Our understanding of the Gulag would be greatly reduced without Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. More recently, Emmanuel Carrère’s Limonov, a fictionalised biography of the anti-Putin writer and “National Bolshevik” politician Eduard Limonov, won last year’s Prix Renaudot, France’s second most prestigious literary prize. So while the dream of red plenty proved to be a mirage, an abundance of novelised history has materialised instead.