It was...a symmetrical convenience – for Stalin – that a true description of the Soviet Union exactly resembled a demented slander of the Soviet Union.
Martin Amis opens his very personal history of Joseph Stalin, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million with a quote from Robert Conquest's book on the the Terror-Famine.
We may perhaps put this in perspective in the present case by saying that in the actions here recorded about twenty human lives were lost for, not every word, but every letter, in this book.
That sentence represented 3,040 lives. The book is 411 pages long.
I waited a long time before I could work up the courage to approach Koba the Dread. Not just because of the weighty and, let it be said, depressing subject matter, but because Amis belongs to a particular literary circle that is more inbred than the most backward hillbilly clans in Appalachia. They self-congratulate, they self-promote, they review each others' books, and they never seem to tire of writing about the 1980s in London. One must always approach anything by this clique with caution, as if engaging a drunk at a party, because you never know when they will ambush you with tiresome insider rubbish. One moment you'll be engaged in sparkling repartee about Sir Richard Burton's Arabian Nights, and then suddenly you're listening to a pointless ramble about the time James Fenton got really drunk and threw up on the doorstep of The New Statesman, and you have to start looking for excuses to leave the party. I completely fabricated this example — but if you've read any of their works you know that it might have been true.
I am willing to forgive Amis his lapses into inside baseball. Why? Because his sentences are beautiful. Because he is a compelling prose stylist. And because you can recognize his writing from just a few sentences.
But that is want they want, the believers, the steely ones, that is what they live for: the politicization of sleep. They want politics to be going on everywhere all the time, politics permanent and circumambient. They want the ubiquitization of politics; they want the politicization of sleep."
I approached Koba the Dread with some trepidation also because the reviews of it in the mainstream British literary press were so universally tepid, and surprisingly negative. Now, with the benefit of having read the book, one can see the level to which the criticisms are not political, or even literary, but personal. Certainly one might forgive this of the late Christopher Hitchens, since after all Amis includes a chapter written to him in the book, and — gently but directly — indicts him. When punched, it's fair game to punch back. But this excuse doesn't extend to those such as Johann Hari (am I allowed to be publicly amused at his fall from grace?) who mix valid criticism of the work (Amis interpreting Stalin's crimes from a personal perspective come off as somewhat lightweight) with purely personal ad hominem (of course Amis' book isn't any good, because Hari didn't like his father.)
I was in my late twenties when I first realized–the moment came as I read a piece about Islam in the TLS– that theocracies are meant to work. Until then I thought that repression, censorship, terror and destitution were the price you had to pay for living by the Book. But no, that wasn't the idea at all: Koranic rule was meant to bring you swimming pools and hydrogen bombs. Collectivization, similarly, was meant to work. Stalin had earlier expressed doubts about the "Left-deviation" (i.e., extremely doctrinaire) attitude to the peasantry: its policies, he said, would "inevitably lead to ... a great increase in the price of agricultural produce, a fall in real salaries and an artificially produced famine." And his preparations for Collectivization, in the initial burst, were frivolously lax. Yet Stalin believed that Collectivization would work Collectivization would astonish the world. This was a Stalinist rush of blood. And that is how Stalinism is perhaps best represented: as a series of rushes of blood.
Other criticisms of the work center around the choice of topic ("Who, today, are the Stalinists who must be denounced?") and the appropriateness of Amis as the writer. Amis relies heavily on the works of Robert Conquest, whose book The Great Terror remains the most encyclopedic treatise on the topic. Why not just read Conquest?
Amis himself is not coy about his credentials: he presents himself as a novelist who has read "several yards of books about the Soviet experiment." He does not pretend to be Robert Conquest, but rather someone writing a book that summarizes and distills the horrors that he's read about and tries to grapple with certain questions. Among them, why were so many seemingly otherwise intelligent Westerners seduced into sympathizing with the Soviet experiment in the face of the pile of corpses it produced? Why can people so easily joke about Communism, when it is so much more difficult, comparatively speaking, to joke about Nazism? And why, in a world where the name Stalin is only somewhat less reviled than the name Hitler, do people still speak admiringly of Lenin and Trotsky ("a nun-killer", opines Amis), who were no less brutal in their aims, albeit more limited in their capabilities?
Some prominent comrade further remarked that only then, when Communism ruled the earth, would the really warm work of class struggle be ready to begin....And I instantly pictured a scorpion stinging itself to death. Scorpions have of course been known to do this–when surrounded by fire, for example. But where is the fire, on a Communist planet? It is a fire in the self. It is self-hatred and life-hatred. After all, the scorpion has an excellent "objective" reason for killing the scorpion: it's alive, isn't it?
The central part of Koba the Dread is concerned with the events leading up to the Great Terror, including the numerous famines and the Party machinations that resulted in Stalin taking power. Amis makes the argument that this became inevitable years before, around the time of the Kronstadt rebellion when the Bolsheviks realized that they did not, in fact, have any meaningful support among the workers they claimed to represent. Kronstadt made it clear, even to Lenin, that World Revolution was not about to happen. And so the Bolsheviks decided that if the People weren't going to support the revolution, than the Party itself would have to safeguard it. By murdering the People the revolution was on behalf of, if necessary. The Party, in other words, became its own raison d'être, and from this point some result similar to the Terror became inevitable. Although Stalin did manage to be truly impressive in his brutality. To quote Amis, "when Stalin wished for a death, then that wish came true."
This core of the book is shocking to anyone whom, like me, was not acquainted with the breadth and depth of human misery the Great Terror encompassed. As Amis observes, all of us would say we feel that the Holocaust was "worse" than the Terror. But if called to account for this based strictly on numbers and the horror of personal stories, I think any of us would be hard-pressed to reduce that feeling to a cogent and consistent explanation. From that perspective, I think that Koba the Dread is an important book. It takes a topic that I would be willing to wager most Westerners simply don't know much about and distills it into an emotional blow that can be absorbed, and that will leave the reader thinking for days.
Wrapped around this core are some of Amis' personal recollections - the death of his sister Sally, some struggle understanding his father's move from a dedicated Communist to that of a dedicated right-winger, and all of this wrapped up with not a little guilt about his many happy years running in a social circle that was (and, honestly, still is) all too happy to make excuse after excuse for the Soviet experiment, despite the piles of corpses. While I understand Amis' need to provide a framework to hang the core upon, it does, in my opinion, weaken the work somewhat. It may have been cathartic for him to create that frame, but next to the edifice of Soviet dead, any such frame will appear trivial at best, and petty at worst.
Despite my reservations about the framing, I think that Koba the Dread is still an important work, and one whose importance will only become apparent some years from now - after the cocktail party clique grows old and is forgotten, and what remains is an exploration into the depths of pain and degradation into which ideology can drag us.