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Koba The Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million

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Ok, so you have read the reviews ( href="http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/28/books/review/28BERMANT.html?8bu=&pa
gewanted=print&position=top">NYT, href="http://www.nationalreview.com/stuttaford/stuttaford073002.asp">NRO >, href="http://www.salon.com/books/review/2002/07/16/amis/print.html">Salon a>, LA
Weekly
, etc.) and you want to know the bottom line – is this book worth
buying? My answer is: it depends. It depends on what you are looking for
and what interests you. If you are looking for a straightforward scholarly
work on the history of Soviet terror this is not the book for you. If on
the other hand, you enjoy a skilful writer and critic wrestling with the
mind numbing horror and tragedy of communism in the Soviet Union – and its’
historical and intellectual implications in our time – then you might enjoy
this work.

href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0786868767/qid%3D1026137316/sr
%3D2-1/kevinholtsber-20/103-3278746-4221438">Koba the Dread is, as many
reviewers have pointed out, an odd book. The oddness is introduced by the
personal information and perspective that the author – novelists and
literary critic Martin Amis – brings to the book, especially at the end.
Although at first blush Amis’ life long friendship with Soviet scholar
Robert Conquest and his intellectual sparing with his father, and his close
friend Christopher Hitchens on the subject may seem germane, in the end
they are distractions. It seems to me that a great deal of this personal
information could have been edited out. What it really constitutes is the
author’s awkward struggle to come to terms with the issues and events
contained in the rest of the book. The problem is that these passages do
not bring any great insight but rather move the focus away from the books
subject to its author. If I had to guess I would think that the e!
ditors saw these passages as the equivalent of intellectual gossip – high
brow but juicy personal bits to jazz up the subject and make it more
personal. This tactic fails but not in my opinion fatally.

What Amis is struggling with is why communism’s reputation seems so
harmless, especially as compared to fascism. Why is Hitler (the little
moustache as Amis notes) the very symbol of evil but Stalin (the big
moustache) a vague and fuzzy memory – Hitler and the Nazis were evil but
communism simply “failed.” Throughout Amis asks “Why” often using the
Russian word “Zachto.” Early on Amis outlines the problem:

But the fact remains that despite “more and more voluminous and
unignorable evidence” to the contrary . . . the USSR continued to be
regarded as fundamentally progressive and benign; and the misconception
endured until the mid-1970’s. What was it? From our vantage it looks like
a contagion of selective in-curiosity, a mindgame begun in self-hypnosis
and maintained by self-hysteria. And although the aberration was of
serious political utility to Moscow, we still tend to regard it as a
bizarre and embarrassing sideshow to the main events. We must find a
more structural connection.” (Emphasis mine)

This is what drives Amis, the almost complete lack of intellectual honesty
– on the left especially – about Lenin, Stalin, and the Soviet experiment.
What led him to write this book, is the search for an explanation. At this
quest he ultimately fails, in fact he doesn’t really attack the subject
much. Instead what Amis does is provide a angry, indignant, and outraged
tour through the horror, degradation, and terror of Soviet Communism. Amis
apparently didn’t find a suitable explanation but instead he came to the
realization that the victims of this almost unimaginable terror deserve to
be remembered; that if we are to avoid a continuation of this willful
blindness we must remember what really happened. In this more limited goal
Amis succeeds by using his skills as a writer to memorialize the victims
and excoriate Lenin and Stalin – to show them as the monsters they truly
were rather than as the misguided and flawed revolutionaries of leftist
legend.

What emerges from Amis’ wandering but poignant and often sharp pen, is that
Stalin, following in the footsteps of Lenin, waged a gigantic struggle
against truth and reality resulting in the death of at least twenty million
people. Stalin literally squeezed, crushed, starved, tortured, terrified,
and eventually destroyed huge swath’s of his country because he could not
face reality. Stalin and his underlings felt bound by no laws moral,
ethical, legal, scientific or economic. They literally felt they could
remake the world in their own image. Amis notes that communist economist
S. G. Strumilin said exactly that:

“Our task is not to study economics but to change it. We are bound by
no laws.”

The difference between Stalin and other utopians is that when faced with
failure he refused to relent. The amazing, if tragic, thing about Stalin
is that he did manage to escape reality or to impose his reality on a vast
country for so long. Amis notes that the forced collectivisation and
famine of the 30’s was the “most precipitous economic decline in recorded
history.” But Stalin refused to acknowledge it. Even Lenin eventually
relented after a famine of similar proportions twenty years earlier. Amis
explains the difference:

In the earlier case, Lenin accepted defeat, withdrawal and compromise.
In other words, he accepted reality. Stalin did not. The peasantry no
longer faced a frigid intellectual. It faced a passionate low-brow whose
personality was warping and crackling in the heat of power. He would not
accept reality. He would break it.

This is what turned Stalin from a petty if brutal dictator to what Amis
calls “negative perfection,” his simply inability to accept reality. Amis
explores this “negative perfection” and all its base, degrading, and
horrifying fullness. He discuss the forced famines, the concentration
camps, Stalin’s seeming attempts to wipe off the face of the earth anyone
and anything that displeased him. Stalin’s obsessions and maniacal actions
literally warped the foundations of civil society in the Soviet Union until
they snapped. Soon truth had no meaning and survival seemed almost random
luck. Amis illustrates this tragic and absurd situation when discussing
the census of 1937. Apparently their was a national census in 1937, the
first one since 1926. Stalin felt that the population should be 170
million. The Census Board reported their findings – 167 million. Stalin’s
policies of forced famine and concentration camps was having too great an
effect on the population. Stalin’s reaction? Have the Census Board arr!
ested and shot! Their crime: “treasonably exerting themselves to diminish
the population of the USSR.”

Amis notes that many of the early revolutionaries were often proud of their
lack of hypocrisy – their ability to get beyond the illusions that others
could not. But this is again a subject in which truth was turned on its
head:

In fact, of course, hypocrisy boomed under the Bolsheviks, like hyper
inflation. I do not intend it as a witticsm when I say that hypocrisy
became the life and soul of the party – indeed this understates the case.
Hypocrisy didn’t know what had hit it in October 1917. Until then,
hypocrisy had had its moments, in politics, in religion, in commerce; it
had played its part in innumerable social interactions; it had starred in
many Victorian novels; and so on; but it had never been asked to saturate
one sixth of the planet. Looking back hypocrisy might have smiled at its
earlier reticence, fo it soon grew accustomed to the commanding
heights.

The above paragraph is also illustrative of Amis’s style. His subject is
hard and somber but Amis brings a literary and sharp tongue to the task.
His descriptions of characters and his unpacking of rhetoric is rich with
barbed jabs and beautifully turned phrases. Some see this tone as
discordant with the subject but for me it gave the writing a kick it might
not otherwise have had.

So, the bottom line for me? I enjoyed the book and found it a powerful
reminder of the horrors of the Soviet experiment. It left me with a
determination to not let the subject fade; to not let the world shrug off
the terrors that occurred with much of the “best and brightest” tacit
agreement. The awkward inclusion of Amis’ personal details, demons, and
tragedies do not add to the work but neither do the fatally detract from
it. The work could have been much more but it is still a powerful reminder
of just how much we have chosen to forget about “socialism in one country.”
This is what Amis ultimately wants, he wants us not to forget but to
remember. In one of those personal stories tacked on the end, Amis
describes a political event in which his friend Christopher Hitchens speaks
of being very familiar with the chosen venue having spent time there with
many “an old comrade.” Amis describes how everyone, including himself and
his friend Robert Conquest, chuckled affectionately at the comment. Amis
noted!
the different reaction Hitchens would have gotten had he mentioned having
spent time with many “an old blackshirt.” And of course most of us are
well aware of the difference between being a former communist and a former
nazi in today’s PC environment. To Amis this is not right:

One elicits spontaneous fury, and the other elicits spontaneous
laughter? And what kind of laughter is it? It is of course the laughter
of universal fondness for that old, old idea about the perfect society. It
is also the laughter of forgetting. It forgets the demonic energy
unconsciously embedded in that hope. It forgets the Twenty Million.
This isn’t right:
Everybody knows of Auschwitz and Belsen. Nobody knows of Vorkuta and
Solovetsky.
Everybody knows of Himmler and Eichmann. Nobody knows of Yezhov and
Dzeerzhinsky.
Everybody knows of the 6 million of the Holocaust. Nobody knows of the 6
million of the Terror-Famine.

Despite not having offered a plausible answer for why this is, Amis has
done his part to try and change it. This book is one small step in the war
to remember.

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  • http://www.io.com/~riddle/ Prentiss Riddle

    Interesting review. Thanks for posting it. It makes the book sound like it’s worth reading as more than a curiosity for Martin Amis fans.

    You say that Amis failed to show why communism evokes nostalgia while nazism evokes horror. Did his raising the topic at least provoke you to do your own thinking about why? I suppose I’ve always thought that the difference had something to do with the motives we project on the two movements: it’s possible to imagine the communist enterprise beginning from a sincere desire to make the world a better place, whereas fascism from the outset declares itself to be based on hatred. That may be simplistic as to the actual history of the movements, but those are two paths which seem to have been recapitulated by many a young person who joined up. Or am I wrong?

    In the US, at least, I also associate a sympathy with communism with a repudiation of the narrow and ignorant ways of its most visible opponents: if the Reagan-Nixon-McCarthy-etc. camp sees communism as pure evil (along with mind-altering substances, music with a beat and making love with the lights on) then there must be something good about it. This belief that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is of course a fallacy which leads to all sorts of tragic mistakes.

  • http://www.nathanlott.blogspot.com Nathan Lott

    Thought you might be interested to know I referenced your review on my own blog. I haven’t read the book and don’t presume to have an opinion on it, but an Amis article in Harper’s caught my attention recently. At any rate, I’m glad to see blogcritics examining serious literature. Thanks.

    Here’s my piece, for anyone interested:

    I’m pleased to report that Slate’s Anne Applebaum has added her articulate voice to the chorus of critics chiding Martin Amis for the shortcomings of his quasi history of Stalinist terror, Koba the Dread… Even this blogcritic acknowledges that Amis’s interweaving of memoir-esque material obfuscates his theme. (Here, parenthetically, I acknowledge the bias clearly revealed in my leade.)

    I’m not an Amis reader (père Kinsely nor fis Martin) but I did read Martin’s unconvincing diatribe on novel writing as an antidote/antithesis to religion in The Guardian, which is now reprinted in the current Harper’s. I’m at a lost to explain why the latter chose to reprint such a disjointed piece, which seems all the less relevant for it’s now-passé references to the aftermath of 11 September. Even The Guardian’s secular audience found reason to slam the piece, twice. The reader who warned against allowing novelists to presume to be social theorists—outside of their artwork—proved prescient. In both the essay and book, Amis attempts to make sense of real life using the model of literary criticism. Rather backwards, I’m afraid. Fiction helps us understand/deal with reality, but crit. is for lit. not life. Of course, if you have no religion (in a broad sense here) you might think a critics lens as good as any.

    But back to Harper’s a moment: Why reprint a bad essay? Either 1) the editors can’t tell bad from good (again, I’m not a regular reader so I can’t say, though I doubt this), 2) the reprint was tangential promotion for their chum’s Koba…, or 3) their blind anti-religion stance (revealed in the headers for this and other recent pieces) made ‘em do it. I suspect a combination of 2 and 3. Which prompts me to say at least Amis has the integrity to acknowledge his opinions as such and, if not explicitly, admit that his life has shaped his perspective. I searched Harper’s website and found no professed editorial stance. The publication is guilty of a typical sin (small s) of the left: failing to acknowledge one’s bias. Generally, conservatives own up to their ideology. Their contemporaries on the left however, like to cloak themselves in robes of academia and pretend their opinions are the logical conclusions of learning. Honest left-leaners will at least label themselves “progressive.” Those who pretend their beliefs are those of all learned men (and women) are delusional and/or self-righteous, which is far worse than idealistic. (Let’s get a few bloggers off the NYT’s back and let them take a look at the magazine rack.)