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This is a really interesting book, a light on an important period of history (the Soviet Union from 1959 to 1969) of which I knew much less than I had realised, looked at through the eyes of true believers in the economic system of Communism as it developed under Khrushchev, who were then bitterly disappointed as Brezhnev and Kosygin (and later Brezhnev alone) took over. I grew up at the tail end of the Brezhnev era, when the Soviet system seemed monolithic and permanent; subsequent events proved that in fact it was not nothing of the kind, and Spufford's book reminds us that it was all actually rather recent anyway. It's told as a series of short stories from the point of view of some of the key economic / cybernetic thinkers of the time, including Khrushchev himself, with some perspectives from ordinary middle-class Soviet life thrown in for good measure, all meticulously footnoted; also all very human, and all told with good humour, to the point where one can understand how otherwise intelligent people could have believed in the system and wanted to perpetuate it. Strongly recommended.

Apart, that is, from the front cover which spells the title ЯED PLENTY rather then RED PLENTY, because, y'know, Я makes it look Russian. Look, Faber, this is simply not good enough. Я in Cyrillic is a vowel, not a consonant, and sounds nothing like R. While I am on the subject, И is also a vowel and sounds nothing like N; and Д is a consonant which sounds nothing like A. Putting ЯED PLENTY on your front cover is not cute, it is ignorant, and will certainly deter anyone with any real knowledge about Russia from even picking the book up in the shop, let alone buying it. It's up to you if you want to alienate your potential readership; I would have thought not, myself, but what do I know?


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 16th, 2011 09:30 pm (UTC)
The cover has been changed for the paperback. (This came up elsewhere - but I can't remember where - recently.)
Feb. 17th, 2011 03:49 am (UTC)
http://twitter.com/#!/nwbrux (back on the 13th)?
Feb. 17th, 2011 09:27 am (UTC)
No, but never mind. It was a community none of you are in. :)
Feb. 17th, 2011 10:22 am (UTC)
Over on Crooked Timber I see a 'Francis S' commenting that "The author in fact tried his damnedest to get the ‘Ya’ removed from the cover, but was told that it represents indispensable marketing shorthand for Russian-ness." So I definitely don't blame him.
Feb. 16th, 2011 10:48 pm (UTC)
That goes for faux Chinese characters on books, too. (And clothing.) People like me look them up and are underwhelmed. (I once saw a very tough young man sauntering along in a shirt adorned with Chinese dragons and Chinese characters. The characters did not read 'dragon', however, they read 'pretty little flower'. No, I said nothing.)
Feb. 17th, 2011 08:02 am (UTC)
Also: lambda is not anything like A.
Feb. 17th, 2011 05:47 pm (UTC)
it is ignorant, and will certainly deter anyone with any real knowledge about Russia from even picking the book up in the shop, let alone buying it.

At the risk of sounding philistine, but as someone with a longstanding interest in the history of the Soviet Union, I can honestly say I didn't care. Your review of the book is spot on though!

I'm really enjoying RP, and as you say, it's about a startingly recent period, when you think about it - but one that often knocks about in the subconscious like it was 200 years ago. And like you, I grew up at a time when the Soviet Union was a vast, apparently immovable object - it's fascinating to get a glimpse into what was going on backstage, as it were, at that time.
Feb. 18th, 2011 05:42 am (UTC)
I've heard about this book and would love to get it but AFAIK it isn't available in the US yet. Love the story about Kruschev going "America will triumph because ... someone has worked out how to make a profit selling a burger for 15 cents!"

Until I came across reviews of this book I had never realised exactly how central planning worked. (In the Soviet Union and satellites, anyway, where they at least tried to make it work -- in China under Mao it seems like it was just another name for rule by fiat). In retrospect it seems crazy. I become more and more convinced that the primary motivation for supporting socialism the fact that most bosses suck rather than theoretical dedication to the implementation of socialism itself.
Apr. 26th, 2011 08:41 pm (UTC)
I've just read this (based on your recommendation, among others), and it's great stuff: a clear presentation of how the Soviet planners believed the economic system was supposed to work, and why the system failed, without falling into simplistic anti-communist propaganda or losing sympathy for the people who were caught up in the mess.

I was particularly interested in the section on the Soviet computer industry. Coming from a computer science background, I'm aware that Russian computer scientists were pioneers in several areas. Red Plenty features Leonid Kantorovich's discovery of linear programming and Sergey Lebedev's early electronic computers, but other famous computer scientists include Lev Korolyov, operating system designer, and Leonid Levin who discovered NP-completeness in 1973.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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