Engineers of the Soul; Red Plenty
In the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill it is very difficult to remember a time when technology and economic growth were seen as uncomplicatedly good things. Such optimism was common in both East and West between the 1920s and the 1960s, but it reached its apogee in the former USSR. Both Frank Westerman and Francis Spufford seek to recover that bygone age, with its utopian dreams of a land of plenty and its arrogant belief in mankind’s right to ‘conquer nature’.
Westerman explores these themes in an extraordinarily compelling, imaginative and subtle mixture of history, literary criticism and travelogue. He tells the story of Stalin’s ‘socialist realist’ writers – hailed as ‘engineers of human souls’ – who glorified the feats of construction during the Soviet Union’s leap to ‘socialism’ in the 1930s. The main protagonist is Konstantin Paustovsky, a successful author who broke into the Stalinist literary establishment in 1932 with his novel Kara Bogaz – a hymn of praise to the development of the salt industry on the eastern shore of the Caspian sea (in present-day Turkmenistan).
Westerman examines Paustovsky’s complex motivations with sensitivity. While ‘cunning’ in both his private and public life, and an expert navigator of the poisonous politics of the Soviet literary world, he also defended out-of-favour writers at some risk to his career. And, like so many intellectuals of the time, he believed it was the writer’s duty to help drag Russia out of its poverty and peasant ‘backwardness’. He knew he was presenting a false, rose-tinted picture of Stalin’s ‘transformation of nature’, but he convinced himself it was for the greater good.
If there is any hero in Westerman’s book it is Andrei Platonov – a hydro-engineer who was to become one of the greatest and most original of all writers of the Soviet era. Originally a true believer in the Bolshevik project, he became increasingly disillusioned as he witnessed the violence of Stalin’s revolution. His novels described a surreal world of dogmatic idealists mouthing half-understood slogans and causing chaos with their half-baked but hugely grandiose projects.
Westerman trained as a hydro-engineer before becoming a journalist for a Dutch newspaper. He, too, once believed in the power of transformative scientific projects to help humanity, before losing faith. Indeed there are echoes of Platonov’s sensibility and style in Westerman’s book. Both describe an absurd and destructive world with cool objectivity, avoiding moralism and treating their subjects with sympathy. Westerman, however, has his own view of what went wrong. He does not blame science for the disasters, but rather the grandiose ambitions of despots – whether Stalin or post-Soviet Turkmenistan’s President Niyazov.
Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty is also a tale of failed utopian dreams, but its heroes are mathematical economists rather than writers. His story starts with the death of Stalin and the widespread conviction that the USSR, now shot of the old tyrant, could fulfil the promise of socialism. In the 1950s and 1960s scientists were convinced that new, powerful computers would help them plan the economy rationally and ultimately win the competition with capitalism. But, as Spufford shows, such ideas came to nothing, killed by a combination of excessive ambition and bureaucratic resistance.
Spufford, like Westerman, eschews a conventional academic approach, but he takes an even more experimental path, mixing the literary with the historical. In some ways Red Plenty is rather like a socialist realist novel in its use of fiction to dramatise economic and scientific themes. So the intricacies of Soviet planning are explored through the character of Maksim Maksimovich Mokhov, a clever apparatchik who is responsible for making sure the extraordinarily complex Plan is internally coherent. This method works rather well as a way of communicating difficult and potentially rebarbative ideas, while the footnotes clearly distinguish the history from the fiction.
Spufford ends with his mathematicians’ dreams in ruins. The USSR has collapsed and the market is triumphant. ‘Can it ever be otherwise?’ Spufford asks and he strongly suggests that the answer is no. The disasters described in both of these books have served as a warning against hubristic, state-led projects to transform the world. Yet that broken pipeline off the coast of Louisiana suggests that market solutions are far from fail-safe. Indeed it may well be that activist states rather than ‘rational’ markets are needed to break our current oil addiction. If so, let us hope that the planners of the future have learned the lessons of the utopias of the past.
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