The prehistory of perestroika

In one of the many footnotes in Red Plenty, Francis Spufford's marvelous roman economique, he says, a propos of the observation that during the Brezhnev years, most Soviet citizens were, in general, satisfied with their lot:

On the face of it, one of the great historical mysteries of the twentieth century should be the question of why the Soviet reformers of the 1980s didn't even consider following the pragmatic Chinese path, and dismantling the economic structure of state socialism while keeping its political framework intact. Instead, the Soviet government dismantled the Leninist political structure while trying with increasing desperation to make the planned economy work. But the mystery resolves rather easily if it is posited that Gorbachev and the intellectuals around him, all children of the 1930s and young adults under Khrushchev, might strange to say have been really and truly socialists....

The results, as Spufford points out, were disastrous. The book, a fictionally structured history of the attempt to rationalize and automate the Soviet economy to mimic the information transfer of markets without their appalling lack of centralization, is, he concludes, "a prehistory of perestroika".

In the first massive installment of his biography of Stalin and his role in the twentieth century, Stephen Kotkin emphasises that it is impossible to understand Stalin's actions without recognizing his ideological commitment. For those of us who don't share a devotion to ideology, it is useful to have articulate reminders that we might need to pay more attention to those around us who do.

Spufford has written a novel, but one with a purpose. Novels enable us to vicariously inhabit the emotions and experiences of human beings other than ourselves, the reason fiction readers can live multiple lives. Red Plenty enables us to inhabit the mindset of a certain group of highly intelligent and skilled Soviet citizens in the middle of the last century, and appreciate why they thought and felt as they did. Highly recommended.