I’m reading Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty (for an eventual review), and I think the second chapter, which gives us Krushchev’s inner monologue, elegantly expresses some of the inner contradictions of the Soviet project. Here’s a quote that puts the whole thing in a more sympathetic light than was probably ontologically possible for a Western writer during the Cold War. The context is Krushchev’s reflection on the plane he is traveling in, which is bigger than current American models:
No one gave us this beautiful plane. We built it ourselves, we pulled it out of nothing by our determination and our strength. They tried to crush us over and over again, but we wouldn’t be crushed. We drove off the Whites. We winkled out the priests, out of the churches and more important out of people’s minds. We got rid of the shopkeeppers, thieving bastards, getting their dirty fingers in every deal, making every straight thing crooked. We dragged the farmers into the twentieth century, and that was hard, that was a cruel business and there were some hungry years there, but it had to be done, we had to get the muck off our boots. We realised there were saboteurs and enemies among us, and we caught them, but it drove us mad for a while, and for a while we were seeing enemies and saboteurs everywhere, and hurting people who were brothers, sisters, good friends, honest comrades. Then the Fascists came, and stamping on them was bloody, nobody could call what we did then sweetness and light, wreckage everywhere, but what are you going to do when a gang of murderers breaks into the house? And the Boss didn’t help much. Wonderful clear mind, but by that time he was frankly screwy, moving whole nations round the map like chess pieces, making us sit up all night with him and drink that filthy vodka till we couldn’t see straight, and always watching us: no, I don’t deny we went wrong, in fact if you recall it was me that said so. But all the while we were building. All the while we were building factories and mines, railroads and roads, towns and cities, and all without any help, all without getting the say-so from any millionaire or bigshot. We did that. We taught people to read, we taught them to love culture. We sent tens of millions of them to school and millions of them to college, so they could have the advantages we never had. We created the boys and girls who’re young now. We did the dirty work so they could inherit a clean world.
At the same time, though, he’s fascinated by America, particularly by American fast food:
Of all the capitalist countries, it was America that was most nearly trying to do the same thing as the Soviet Union. They shared the Soviet insight. They understood that whittling and hand-stitching belonged to the past. They understood that if ordinary people were to live the way kings and merchants of old had lived, what would be required was a new kind of luxury, an ordeinary luxury built up from goods turned out by the million so that everybody could have one. And they were so good at it!
And then, when he meets with some mega-millionaires, he identifies with them due to his experience of building the Moscow metro system:
Knowledge had mounted up in him like floodwater. It must be the same here. These men here, at the very top of American capitalism, must contain whole reservoirs of distilled knowledge. Behind these faces must lie the deft, skilful organization of industry after industry, service after service. Here were the arts, or some of them, of making factories satisfy desire.
I find the first paragraph, with its ideal of self-reliance and “sticking it to the man,” pretty appealing. Yet by the time we get around to my final blockquote, a question arises: aren’t these the people you were so proudly doing without? Can you seriously expect to catch up to that kind of “distilled knowledge” when you have to reinvent the wheel at every step?