red plenty


This was the Soviet moment. It lasted from the launch of Sputnik in 1957 through Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight in 1961 and dissipated along with the fear in the couple of years following the Cuban missile crisis in 1963. (It was already going, in fact, at the time of the 1964 election; it was a piece of Wilson’s appeal that was premised on a fading public perception and was dropped from Labour rhetoric shortly thereafter, leaving not much behind but a paranoid suspicion of Wilson among egg-stained, old-school-tie spooks.) But while it lasted the USSR had a reputation that is now almost impossible to recapture. It was not the revolutionary country people were thinking of, all red flags and fiery speechmaking, pictured through the iconography of Eisenstein movies; not the Stalinesque Soviet Union of mass mobilisation and mass terror and austere totalitarian fervour. This was, all of a sudden, a frowning but managerial kind of a place, a civil and technological kind of a place, all labs and skyscrapers, which was doing the same kind of things as the west but threatened – while the moment lasted – to be doing them better. American colleges worried that they weren’t turning out engineers in the USSR’s amazing numbers. Bouts of anguished soul-searching filled the op-ed pages of European and American newspapers, as columnists asked how a free society could hope to match the steely strategic determination of the prospering, successful Soviet Union.

more from Francis Spufford at The Guardian here.