Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Koba the Dread: Laughter and the 20 Million

Martin Amis' account of Soviet terror exemplifies the sheer failure of the iron fist.

Posted By on Wed, Sep 11, 2002 at 12:00 AM

Martin Amis' account of the terror imposed on the Soviet Union by Josef Stalin completely recounts the genocidal horrors of 1930s collectivization, paints a morbid picture of the gulag camps and their absurd inhumanity, and clearly lays out the atrocities that exemplified the sheer failure of iron-fisted communism. It serves as a high-minded memorial to the 20 million who were murdered or starved to death because of Stalin's policies and his desire to add the truth to his pile of peacetime casualties. The book does, then, what an extensive history by Robert Conquest and semiautobiographical novels by Alexander Solzhenitsyn did long ago.

What's a writer who's treading the well-beaten path to do? Well, for one with an ego the size of Amis', the answer is to personalize the Stalin experience through memoir--even if the author grew up in upper-middle-class England, with no gulag in sight--and engage an old friend (in this case, noted shit-stirrer and journalist Christopher Hitchens) in moral one-upmanship. Amis' argument goes like this: The fall of the Soviet regime and the Berlin Wall weren't nearly enough to atone for the lives of 20 million people. Something must be done to hold all the Western commies, including Hitchens, accountable for refusing to acknowledge the horrors inflicted by Stalin's soul-crushing Soviet apparatus. "[T]he world," Amis writes of Stalin's era, "accepted indignant Soviet denials of famine, enserfment of the peasantry, and slave labor." "The world," then, is guilty of moral complicity in all those Russian deaths and ruined lives, he contends.

Among the indicted are his late father, Kingsley Amis, the brilliant satirist behind the novel Lucky Jim. As an Oxford University communist, young Kingsley danced with the old Georgian devil--who called himself "Koba," after a comic-book superhero--until he and others of his generation came to their senses just in time to support the United States' anti-communist efforts in Vietnam.

Those who choose to read Koba the Dread will learn all this: about Kingsley Amis' tight friendship with historian Conquest, who fought an uphill battle against the intelligentsia to tell the truth about Stalin's purges, putsches, and moral vacuity. About Martin Amis' relationship with Hitchens, to whom the author writes a meandering, entirely unconvincing letter of opprobrium near the end of the book. About the tragically unfortunate but irrelevant death of Martin Amis' younger sister.

While given a boatload of context about Stalin's distant role in the Amis household, readers will hunger for Soviet history to be placed within a geopolitical setting. Amis doesn't bother looking back to the West for perspective. If he had, he would have noted that during collectivization, much of the West was fighting depressions, famines, and labor battles--so much so, in fact, that a Socialist Party candidate scored nearly 1 million votes in the 1932 presidential race. Or that, given the U.S. government's anti-union stance for much of the 20th century, very few "progressive" thinkers had reason to trust it, its news of communistic evil, or its propaganda machine during World War II. And don't get started on McCarthyism and the distrust it bred among the Left regarding the government's motives in demonizing Stalin and the Russkies. The world was a much larger place then, one where the other side of the world was meant to be feared, not understood and analyzed. Western governments sanctioned this blindered perspective and few came forward to challenge them on it. Hence, Stalin got away with it all.

Amis shakes all this context off as if it were a bad dream. When he awakens, he pulls a few too many muscles striving to make an old topic fresh and relevant.

Michael Anft writes for City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to


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