Podcasts: New Books in History
Brow: Any book with the fictional inner voice of Nikita Khrushchev automatically rates as upper-middle brow.
Summary: Vignettes of everyday life in the Soviet Union from the 1950s to the 1970s, when it looked like the communist economy might actually overtake the capitalist west in terms of productivity and human development. Some of the characters are fictional, others are real.
What I liked about it: Everything. This is the first time in living memory that I read the footnotes at the end of every chapter in a book.
There is no linear narrative in this book. Each chapter is a portrait of some aspect of Soviet life in the 1950s through the 1970s, a time of optimism and social mobility for the young and educated, thanks to advances in science and technology, which were at least in part real. Some of the characters and incidents are real, some are lightly fictionalised versions of real events. All are great. To give one example, we'll take the case of Marina, who is given two chapters, the first when she's an ambitious student, and the second when she's a somewhat disillusioned married woman expecting her first child. When she goes into labour, she's taken to Moscow's best maternity hospital, where she's given an enema and forced to walk up the stairs to a ward with 7 other women struggling to deliver their babies, all without anaesthetic, because the Soviets told women that labour pains were a capitalist plot and that the secret to overcoming them was to not think about them. This happens as her contractions are 2 minutes apart. Every chapter is as filled with fun facts about everyday life in the time of Red Plenty as this one, even down to the excellent footnotes.
What I didn't like about it: There are some times when the chapter puts us inside the head of an obscure (to westerners, at least) Soviet official or scientist and you have to go back to the extensive list of characters at the beginning of the book to look that person up, which was not easy to do considering I read the digital edition on my phone, which is not the smartest of smartphones.