Koba the Dread by Martin Amis

Ok, so you have read the reviews (NYT, NRO, Salon, 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.

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 editors 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 arrested 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.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).