Koba the Dread by Martin Amis
Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million
by Martin Amis
Talk Miramax Books. 306 pp. $24.95
The abasement of so many Western intellectuals before Communism is one of the mysteries of the 20th century. To apologists of the kind, Communism was heir to the Enlightenment, and Lenin and Stalin were philosopher-kings. In the end, at least, many came to understand that they had deceived themselves with a form of superstition, and some even turned anti-Communist.
In England, one such was Kingsley Amis (1922-1995), the author of Lucky Jim and other novels defining the discontents of modern Britain. A powerful personality, Amis had an emotional compass that veered easily. In 1941, at the age of eighteen, he joined the Communist party at a time when many others had just left it on account of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact. Apparently, he stayed in the party until the USSR crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956, but then he became one of the most passionate of anti-Communists. Someone who influenced him was Tibor Szamuely, a Hungarian-born exile who had been brought up in Moscow and was a survivor of the Gulag. But his closest friend and companion-in-arms was the poet Robert Conquest, also an ex-Communist and the author of The Great Terror, a scholarly study that helped to shift public opinion against Stalinism.
“Koba” was the name a few familiars used, at their peril, to address Stalin. In the opening section of Koba the Dread, Martin Amis, Kingsley’s son and himself a novelist of note, describes how he grew up under the shadow of a man who could also be something of a Koba. By the time he was old enough to take stock of things, his father was one of Britain’s most vociferous conservatives. Kingsley Amis and Conquest were proud to be Red-baiters, and Martin Amis jokes that he lived in a fascist house. By his own account, he paid little attention to the political argument going on over his head. He read Conquest’s poems rather than his books about Communism.
In the mid-1970’s, the younger Amis tells us, he joined the New Statesman, the established mouthpiece of the Left and a magazine with its own long history of abasement to Communism. On the staff there, among others of the breed, he found and befriended Christopher Hitchens, a Trotskyist who on weekends sold copies of the Socialist Worker on street corners. Something was wrong with Hitchens’s prose, Amis thought: it was “the sense that the truth could be postponed.” In a conversation about Stalin’s enforced famine in the Ukraine during the 1930’s, a policy that cost the lives of millions, Hitchens would accept only that there had been “shortages.”
Slowly, in his own work, Amis came around to the politics he had earlier shunned. In one novel, he tackled Nazism and the Holocaust; in another, the fear of nuclear war. Now he has arrived at Stalin and Stalinism.
Stalin himself put his name to a history of the Soviet Communist party. Its title is usually abbreviated Short Course, and in the Soviet Union it was obligatory reading. “Iosif the Terrible: A Short Course” is the mimetic title of the central section of Amis’s book—a primer of Stalin’s inhuman career as a man, a husband and father, and a mass murderer. Rather disarmingly, Amis confides that in working up this material he read several yards of books about the Soviet experiment, and he falls back for evidence and support on quotations from the great authorities, including Solzhenitsyn, Evgenia Ginzburg, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Varlam Shalamov, Vasily Grossman, Dmitri Volkogonov, and, among Western scholars, Martin Malia and Robert Conquest (to the latter of whom the book is dedicated).
Anthology often takes the place of argument in this section of Koba the Dread, and the horrors recounted are by now too well known to be the novelties—the illuminations—that Amis seems to take them for. Who knows how many deaths Stalin was responsible for? Amis settles for twenty million, but it might well have been many more. Four million children died through Hitchens’s agricultural “shortages.” At the critical moment in June 1941 when Hitler broke his pact and invaded, Stalin ordered the shooting of 300 badly needed Soviet officers who were already in a concentration camp, adding their number to the more than 43,000 military men of all ranks previously executed in the Great Terror.
From such statistics and others like them, and as though hitting upon a revelation, Amis considers that Communism from Lenin to Stalin was altogether a war against human nature. Through terror, famine, slavery, and “monotonous and incorrigible failure,” it achieved what he calls, with a typical flourish, “negative perfection.”
Of course it is welcome that Amis gives his imprimatur even at this late stage to the accepted view that Stalin was a monster. A few people said so as long ago as the 1920’s, and they and others continued to say so, monotonously and incorrigibly, when for decades they were unable to get a hearing. But Amis does not bring us much further than this. At some points he seems to suppose that Stalin was so out of touch with reality as to be more or less insane, while at other points he seems to suppose that, in the murderous logic of tyranny, Stalin was only doing what tyrants have to do in order to stay in power. Which was it, or was it something else again?
Amis also has his own way of postponing the truth, in his case by means of overblown language. To speak, for example, of the “glandular sensuality” of Stalin’s malevolence, or to describe Stalin as a “bellowed rebuttal” of some Marxist thesis, is to blur meaning. “Stalin’s superbity was omnivorous. His intention, or need, was to inundate an entire society with his own quiddity.” Sentences like this appear to have been written solely for lexicographical impact.
Since Amis’s language is not one into which moral judgments settle easily, he has conspicuous trouble pulling off a major theme that runs through this book—namely, the likeness between Stalin and Hitler (or, in another counterproductive flourish, between the Big Moustache and the Little Moustache). The two mass murderers did indeed have much in common. Gruesomely, at the time of his death Stalin was planning a persecution of the Jews to rival or complete Hitler’s. But Amis also finds contrasts.
Hitler, he instructs us, meant what he said, and put it into practice. In Amis’s judgment, nobody could ever joke about Nazi Germany, because what the Holocaust demands of us is nothing less than “species shame.” Stalin, on the other hand, although he also meant what he said, could not conceivably put it into practice, and in this gap between word and deed Amis finds humor. “Immersion in Communism,” he asserts, “will never cleanse that catastrophe of laughter.” Or, in a similar obiter dictum: “We will all go on joking about it because there’s something in Bolshevism that is painfully, unshirkably comic.”
How is the humor that is inherent in Communism to be substantiated? Amis offers examples. Visitors to the Soviet Union used to be shown Potemkin villages rigged up especially for them. This “appearance of plenitude,” as Amis calls it, was a setting appropriate for Utopia “because it [was] farce,” although the joke was on the dumb fellow-traveling visitors who fell for it rather than on the secret police who set it up. He also tells the story of one Lyubov Vasilievna Shaporina, who in 1937 went to cast her vote in elections. A single name was on the ballot, and at the sight of it she burst out laughing, only to find that others were doing the same. She commented in her diary: “Shame on them for putting grown people in such a ridiculous, stupid position.”
Another example, taken from the writings of Solzhenitsyn: a certain Tanya Stankovskaya was on a train taking women to the Gulag. All of them had had their hair shorn. A Communist among them remarked that, in Czarist prisons, only half the head used to be shaved. At which Tanya exclaimed: “That’s the spirit, girls! A vote of thanks to Comrade Stalin. . . . One’s no longer shaved on only one side but on both. Thanks, father, leader, creator of our happiness!”
Still another example is a story Amis heard from his father. Just at the time when Tibor Szamuely was being arrested and imprisoned in a cell along with several dozen others, Stalin was protesting to the United Nations about the wretched conditions in which Communist prisoners were held in Greece. Hearing about this, Szamuely and his fellow inmates began to guffaw. “Now, now, comrade! Remember the sufferings of our Greek fellow-fighters for peace against the Western oppressor!”
What is one to say about all these anecdotes, from which Amis draws the conclusion that Russia throughout its history has been one continuous black farce, with Communism merely a late and particularly striking episode? For one thing, there is nothing peculiarly Russian about them. The macabre gap between words and deeds was every bit as wide in Hitler’s Germany, where SS thugs swore oaths upon their honor, the entrance gate at Auschwitz bore the slogan, “Work Makes You Free,” and lebensraum involved the collapse and eventual partition of Germany itself. For another thing, Hitler’s death camps yielded their own harvest of black humor, laughter being a universal mechanism of defiance and helpless anger. As for whether anybody ever dared joke about Nazism, has Amis never heard of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator—or, for that matter, The Producers?
But the most damning aspect of Amis’s rendering is that in it, Stalin dwindles into just one more comic Russian turn among others, and whether he was mad or complying with the logic of tyranny ceases to be of real significance. The awful, unutterable reality of what happened under Stalin—and under Hitler—is strangled in a childish conceit.
The third and closing section of this book is like a diary, the random notes of a self-indulgent author. It begins with an extremely mannered letter addressed to Christopher Hitchens, inviting him at last to recognize the error of his Trotskyist beliefs while also buttering him up and sending fraternal love. Then comes a passage in which Amis reveals that the crying of his small daughter one night brought to mind the screams from the dungeons of Moscow’s notorious Butyrki prison, and so he nicknames her Butyrki or some diminutive of it. He pays a final tribute to Solzhenitsyn; describes the death and funeral of his sister; and composes a mannered, not to say mawkish, letter to the ghost of his father, exculpating him and bringing him up to date on family news, including how one granddaughter was stung by a bee on a beach in Uruguay.
The intention of all this decoration is obscure. The effect, while not painfully so, is nevertheless unshirkably comic.