I once tried to buy a four-wheel-drive car in Sarajevo. I thought about buying a Serbian-made Lada Riva, a no-frills tractor-like workhorse that could make light work of a ploughed field in a monsoon. “Don’t,” said a wheeler-dealer Bosnian Serb contact of mine, who owned an unlikely restaurant complex on an industrial estate and wore cheap leather jackets. “I thought about it once, but I am married and have enough troubles in my life without a Riva.” He was right.* The Riva was the epitome of Soviet engineering – rugged (because it had to be with Russian roads that turned to quicksand twice a year in the rasputitsa season), fixable with a hammer and a bit of banging, and otherwise actually rather badly built. I was told the petrol gauge was especially faulty, and owners had to get used to estimating how many miles they’d covered on each tank to avoid spluttering to a halt in the middle of a dark forest in the Urals. They built their planes the same: able to land in unlikely places and not crash too often. Their washing machines were less successful.
I mention this because I’ve just finished a most unusual book, “Red plenty: inside the fifties’ Soviet dream”, by Francis Spufford. It wasn’t quite a novel and wasn’t quite a history book. It was a series of vignettes, knitting together the various aspects of the great 1950s and 60s Soviet economic leap forward with a cast of characters that went from the real (Nikita Kruschev and computer programmers like Andrei Ershov) to the fictional (idealistic young economists and managers of troubled viscose factories in the Russian hinterland).
The book was a neat and dramatic dissection of why the great economic leap forward, the harnessing of science and socialism, mathematics and central planning, failed. The ambitions were grand – Kruschev wants the USSR’s economy to overtake that of the USA by 1980 (and fervently believes that it can). Instead of a nuclear standoff, the two superpowers would compete in consumer durables. As owners of Lada Rivas (I doubt there are too many Soviet-era washing machines still knocking about) know, this is a war that the Soviets lost. Decisively.
This is a book about utopian economic visions that can all be worked out neatly on a piece of paper, and how they unravel. This is therefore not just a book about the failures of a scientifically planned economy, but about the folly of designing a theoretical system that then struggles when subjected to the real world. I can imagine a similar book being written about the attempted reforms of the Gorbachev era, about sub-prime mortgages and over-complex derivatives, and maybe about the euro itself.
‘Red plenty’ certainly gives food for thought during this current European economic predicament. The euro is of course not the Soviet planned economy, although a cynic might argue that the gleam of ideology pushed its way into the project more than it should have done. In ‘Red plenty’ reality and politics intrude and a different, pragmatic and slightly shabby course is set under Brezhnev. With the travails of the euro, pragmatism and politics have an obvious role to play as this immediate crisis is dealt with and a more viable course is plotted for the future. Will this just be a shabby compromise or will a future ‘Red plenty’, written about these dark days for the EMU, show how Europe’s politicians were able to realise that initial vision in a way that works not just on paper, but in the messy reality of the world we live in as well. It’ll be a fascinating book once it’s written.
Finally, here are two useful podcasts on the New Books Network. First, an interview with Daniel Treisman, the author of ‘The return: Russia’s journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev’ – click here to go to the webpage. Russia-watchers won’t find an enormous amount of new insight in the interview, but it’s a good listen for more general listeners who want to grasp the wider narrative of recent Russian political history as we approach the 2012 elections.
Secondly, here is an interview that I did with Richard Hall, author of ‘The modern Balkans: a history’. Again, expert watchers won’t find much new, as the book itself is intended as a good historical primer for those interested in getting their heads around the Balkans. The book itself manages to squeeze a couple of thousand years of Balkan history into a pretty slim volume.
* In the end this contact managed to sell me an ex-OSCE Mitsubishi Pajero that sounded like a T34 tank warming up and was the project of a slightly more viable economic miracle - the Japanese one. It provided many happy miles of rugged motoring, from Ukraine to Albania, Macedonia to Hungary. I dread to think what would have happened if I'd invested in a Riva.
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