Red Plenty by Francis Spufford - review by Lesley Chamberlain

Lesley Chamberlain

Orbita or Dzhinsy?

Red Plenty


Faber & Faber 448pp £16.99

A 1950 poster put out by the Soviet Ministry of Food – food, I ask you! – encouraged people to smoke more as the latest five-year plan had set a goal of increased cigarette production. The handsome young smoker pictured in a suit was an educated Russian version of Marlboro Man and a model for how the country, which in 1917 set out on an alternative path to consumerist modernity, might achieve its great technological, industrial and social goal. Comrades, give up your aggressively aromatic cardboard-tube papyrosy and adopt a little Western sophistication, was the message here. View that poster at and you can begin to imagine a history written from the bottom up of how the Soviets constantly competed with the United States to fix the nature of twentieth-century Western society. A foreigner would have to write it. Russians don’t see their past in the same way.

One of the mirror-image products by which Soviet consumerism hoped to succeed was orbita, a dark, stiff, heavy-grade denim that only losers wore. Real dzhinsy occasionally turned up on the black market. When the change came in 1991 the first thing any self-respecting ex-Soviet citizen under fifty did

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