In the capitalist west, one is taught to regard the Soviet project as doomed from the start, an experiment founded on elementary misunderstandings of human nature. But what if it had come close to succeeding? Francis Spufford's new book, a marvellously effective piece of what one might call factual fiction, details several gathering currents in Soviet thought of the 1950s and 1960s. Mathematical innovations and miraculous computers promised to arrange distribution better than any free market. De-Stalinisation led to a new spirit of intellectual possibility, most especially in the field of economics, which had achieved record depths of dismalness in the post-war years.
In zippy, character-led chapters (his blundering Krushchev is a particular highlight), Spufford transmits a huge volume of technical and sociological material as he speeds towards that utopia which never came. Indeed, the pace slows only to reflect on the poetic sweep of the story, its evocation of the Russian fairytales known as skazki, "full of promises good enough to last for one evening of firelight." Oddly, the promises end looking rather better than that, and their failure more unjust.