A quick
glance at this book led me to think, quite mistakenly, that it was yet another
study of the failure of Communism, a variation on a theme already
comprehensively described by Victor Sebestyen, Orlando Figes, Czeslaw Milosz
and many others. But although Francis Spufford shows how living under the
hammer and sickle did not – and could not – result in a more abundant life for
the Russian people, he has done that rare thing: to discover a truly original
way of looking at his subject that is at once funny, satiric, sad and
illuminating, all at the same time. When I had finished it I felt that I had
finally learnt from the inside what it meant to be a senior member of the
Politburo, a member of the security forces, an economist, a scientist, a
student, a single mother and the many other personages that the author inhabits.
And this has been achieved without, as Spufford admits, being familiar with the
Russian language, so that he has had to rely on secondary sources for the world
he so authentically creates.

He situates
his story largely in the Khrushchev years of the 1950s and 1960s, when Russia was
struggling to emerge from the long shadow of Stalin’s reign of terror, the war
was over and the populace had begun to entertain a timid hope for better
things. It is cast, loosely, in a fairy-tale mode, a form that has permeated
Russian literature and folklore and also the way that Spufford interprets
recent Russian history: thus it has its share of (human) witches, demons,
goblins and magicians although these are portrayed with great imaginative flair
and subtlety. Neither wholly fiction nor wholly history, he has invented a
hybrid form that moves between both, using real historical personalities and
invented characters as he chooses, letting seemingly random events and people
connect at later stages in his story and providing his own voice and analysis
in italicised sections between the different parts of the book.

Among a
large cast of characters to populate this malign fairytale, there is a Jewish
economist, Leonid Vitalevich Kantorovich, who, in his brilliant youth, believed
“he was lucky enough to live in the only country on the planet where human
beings had seized to shape events according to reason instead of letting things
happen as they happened.” Sasha Galich, a song-writer and entertainer, has
reaped the reward of a privileged existence, as a member of the new elite; amid
the applause he is sometimes painfully aware that “A drip of knowledge for here
and a drip from there, till he saw his lucky world was founded on horror… and
you were not supposed to mind too much.”

who works full time for the Party, is forced to witness a casual massacre of
people protesting against rising prices in Novocherkassk; although 28 people
died in the square “not a word about the massacre appeared in the newspapers.”
Maksim Maksimovich Mokhov is a manager at Gosplan, the ministry responsible for
the annual rise in industrial output; sorting out a shortfall in the figures he
reminds himself that “you could inconvenience the consumer with impunity… there
must be a budget of pain.”

There is also
humour, as when the Chairman of the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev, visits Eisenhower’s
US in 1959, telling himself that “We drove off the Whites… we got rid of the
shopkeepers… we dragged the farmers into the twentieth century… and the
Boss [Stalin] didn’t help much”, even as he is worried that “America was a
torrent of clever anticipations. Soviet industries would have to learn to
anticipate as cleverly, more cleverly, if they were to overtake America.” He
then has to descend from his aeroplane by ladder as the Americans do not have
steps sufficiently high to reach its doors.

The reader
is helped to see the wider picture behind the episodes concerned with the lives
of the characters through the author’s very readable and lucid commentary, as
when he explains that “Suddenly, a small collection of fanatics and
opportunists found themselves running the country that least resembled Marx’s
description of a place ready of the socialist revolution”, or when we learn
that “White bread was a distant memory, milk was dispensed only at the head of
enormous queues… pea soup and porridge powered the place, usually served on
half-washed plates…”

Not least
of the pleasures of this book is the author’s fluency of style, its changes of pace
and the vividness of his thumbnail sketches that immediately situate the reader
in a room, an atmosphere or a group. The notes at the end also repay reading.
Much learning is lightly displayed over a whole range of disciplines and
provides a further lamination to the narrative, such as this comment about life
at the science city built at Novosibirsk: “Imagine a degree of ordinary
constraint that corresponds to nothing in your (our) experience, and then
imagine that constraint loosened into a state that we would still find stiff
and cautious and calculating, but which struck those experiencing it as
(relatively speaking) a jubilant holiday from caution.” Highly unusual in its
approach and fascinating in its insights, I hope this book will not end up
gathering dust on a high shelf; it deserves to be read slowly and savoured.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire,
in the UK.

Below: the author, Francis Spufford, talks about his book