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Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million [Hardcover]

Martin Amis
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
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Book Description

5 Sep 2002
Koba the Dread is the successor to Martin Amis's celebrated memoir, Experience. It is largely political (while remaining personal). It addresses itself to the central lacuna of twentieth-century thought: the indulgence of communism by intellectuals of the West. In between the personal beginning and the personal ending, Amis gives us perhaps the best one hundred pages ever written about Stalin: Koba the Dread, Iosif the Terrible. The author's father, Kingsley Amis, though later reactionary in tendency, was 'a Comintern dogsbody' (as he would come to put it) from 1941 to 1956. His second-closest, and then his closest friend (after the death of the poet Philip Larkin), was Robert Conquest, a leading Sovietologist, whose book of 1968, The Great Terror, was second only to Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago in undermining the USSR. Amis's remarkable memoir explores these connections. Stalin said that the death of one person was tragic, the death of a million a mere 'statistic'. Koba the Dread, during whose course the author absorbs a particular, a familial death, is a rebuttal of Stalin's aphorism.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd; 1st edition (5 Sep 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0224063030
  • ISBN-13: 978-0224063036
  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 14 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 543,469 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Martin Amis is the author of ten novels, the memoir Experience, two collections of stories and six collections of non-fiction. He lives in London.

Product Description

Amazon Review

Koba the Dread is a book about Stalin and the past and present culpability of intellectuals rather than a personal memoir. It's personal to Amis because his father Kingsley became a card-carrying Communist in 1941 and remained so for 15 years: along with the majority of intellectuals everywhere he chose the big Stalinist lie over the truth. The only reasonable excuse for believing the Stalinist story, Amis suggests, is perhaps that "the real story-–the truth—-was entirely unbelievable". The bulk of the book is taken up with the real story of Stalinism and--given the powerful subject matter and Amis's literary skill--one shouldn't be surprised to hear that it makes for a riveting read. Even if you are already familiar with the story the facts still stagger the imagination.

As well as being an indictment of the woolly-minded utopianism of his father's generation, the book is a direct challenge to the lingering romanticism that, even today, attaches itself to Bolshevism, to Lenin, and in particular to Trotsky. That challenge comes in the form of a splendid letter--in the final, personal section of the book--to his long-time friend Christopher Hitchens. In it, he reminds his friend "Comrade Hitchens" that "Bolshevism presents a record of baseness and inanity that exhausts all dictionaries" before confessing his confusion as to "why you wouldn't want to put more distance between yourself and these events than you do, with your reverence for Lenin and your unregretted discipleship of Trotsky".

The myth Amis wants to quash is the idea that the "real" revolution was lost with the death of Lenin, the murder of Trotsky and the liquidation of the Bolshevik old guard. Any "differences between the regimes of Lenin and Stalin were quantitative, not qualitative" and, as individuals, Lenin was a "congenital moral imbecile" while Trotsky's smattering of literary talent concealed "a murdering bastard and a fucking liar" who got what he deserved. They were nun-killers all and they did it with gusto. The final verdict, the final indictment, is that under Bolshevik rule--under Lenin as well as Stalin--"the value of human life collapsed".

It's a curious fact that Robert Conquest--the man who wrote the definitive account of the Stalinist purges while many intellectuals were still in denial--was a personal friend of the Amis family. Conquest's The Great Terror is still the source to visit if want the full story whereas Koba the Great is a short book packed with the most interesting and shocking facts about the Stalin era, with a thoughtful and often persuasive personal commentary from Amis. --Larry Brown


With a new Martin Amis what you get is controversy, reviews, profiles and interviews, and somewhere amongst all that the book itself, which inevitably turns out to be well worth reading despite all the noise going on around it. This one was already attracting negative comments in book pages on the strength of the blurb alone. Koba the Dread is another memoir in the style of Experience, this time examining the fascination of communism for intellectuals in the West. Koba is Stalin, who described the death of a million people as a mere statistic. You wouldn't think so to read his reviews, but Amis is a great moralist, which is why his Nazi doctor novel Time's Arrow is still his masterpiece. In Stalin, Amis has discovered another subject worthy of his moral fervour.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
By Leonard Fleisig TOP 1000 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
The concept behind Martin Amis' Koba The Dread had promise. Its stated goal was to examine the apparent willingness of many left-leaning 20th century intellectuals to overlook the worst excesses of the Soviet regime. The book was designed to explore why those same intellectuals who would be the first to man the barricades in opposition to Franco's Spain, Pinochet's Chile, or the Colonels in Greece could, at the same time find reasons not to condemn or even to excuse the great purges and the labor camps of the Gulag, the Hitler-Stalin pact, and the Soviet suppression of liberal movements in Hungary, Poland, and, finally, Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Sad to say, Amis was not up to the task he set. Although well-written, the book is overly self-indulgent and superficial.
The book is divided, into three parts. Part I, approximately one third of the book contains general background information on Amis and his `credentials' for writing the book. Those credentials include his reading of the historian Robert Conquest's Reflections on a Ravaged Century and his presence at a celebration of the end of the millennium along with Tony Blair and the Queen. The remainder of Part I explores Amis' coming of age in a family in which political discourse formed the focus of dinner table and other conversations. It also contained more than a bit of information about Amis' education and early work experience. Last, he touches on some of the political developments in post-revolutionary Russia including an overview of Lenin and the formation of the earliest labor camps. Although interesting, it provides nothing more than a cursory overview of the issues allegedly at the core of the book.
Part II, which constitutes more than a half of the book, is entitled Iosif the Terrible: Short Course.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars No laughing matter 30 Jan 2008
Just as the prequel to this book, 'Experience', directed a lot of its attention towards death, particulalry that of the author's father in the final 80 pages or so, this book does the same, which is no surprise considering it is about Stalin. The deaths of Amis' father and sister are also mentioned at the beginning and end, as Amis sets out to debunk Stalin's maxim that 'The death of one person is tragic, the death of a million a mere statistic'.

As the subtitle to the book suggests - 'Laughter and the Twenty Million' - the book is also interested in laughter. Amis asks us why we feel it is ok to make jokes about Communist times in Russia; the Gulag; the activities of Lenin and Stalin, whereas to make a joke about Hitler or the holocaust would be seen as distasteful and disrespectful. I won't go into his ideas on the matter here in case people reading this review have not read the book, but will say that he sets out on an investigation of the similarities and differences between Hitler and Stalin - 'the little moustache and the big moustache' - that is in many ways enlightening and does make one feel shame that you could have ever made facetious remarks about the Gulag.

The book, as others have commented, is absolutely one-sided (but then Amis would argue that a book on Stalin could, and should morally, be no other way). Within its pages he looks at why intellectuals chose to follow Trotsky and Lenin; how they turned a blind eye to their murderous sides. In fact, I would say that if this book changed my opinion on anything, it changed my opinion on Lenin.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Martin and his Dad again - oh, and Stalin too... 17 May 2010
When Martin Amis can be induced to stop talking about himself, he can produce decent books and this one has an important theme: the Western Left's failure to acknowledge the scale of Stalin's crimes and their hideous death-toll. Alas 'Koba the Dread' isn't up to its subject. Early on, Amis quotes Robert Conquest's 'The Great Terror', to the effect that Stalin's purges took twenty lives for every typographical character in Conquest's book. Nothing Amis says can add to that stark image.
Amis repeatedly protests he isn't a historian and fair enough, he isn't, but his perspective on Stalin seems no more illuminating than that of anyone else who grew up in postwar Britain. (For heartbreaking eye-witness accounts of the purges, see Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoirs 'Hope against Hope' and 'Hope Abandoned'.)
'Koba the Dread' also suffers from Martin's trademark self-absorption. He makes some unconvincing attempts at tying his own life-story up with the Great Terror and I couldn't stick these attempts at making 'Koba the Dread' another Martin autobiography. Bizarre as it now sounds, Kingsley Amis was briefly a card-carrying Party member but this fact just lets Martin reminiscence some more about having a famous Dad. (Compare those bits of 'Experience' where Amis tries building up his story by dragging in Fred West.) Maybe Martin finds Martin overwhelmingly interesting but the fascination is lost on me.
On the positive side, Amis makes good points about the British Left's lack of realism about what Stalin actually did. Still, this book is not a patch on Conquest's 'The Great Terror'. While subsequent research has qualified some of Conquest's claims, all his main points stand - more facts than 'Koba the Dread' but without the posturing.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Everyone should read this book
This book should be on the National Curriculum.
(For several reasons: to expose the intellectual bankruptcy of the Left in its apologetics (and worse) for Russia; to highlight... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Dymphna
1.0 out of 5 stars anti-communist rubbish
The book is just anticommunist propaganda, written by a pillar of the bourgeois establishment, Stalin crushed those who opposed socialism and turned a backward country into a... Read more
Published 6 months ago by alan cotton
4.0 out of 5 stars A useful introduction to the horrors of Communism
This book has its faults, but Amis has done a good job. It's a short introduction to the horrors of Communism. And those horrors were real. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Roger Clark
4.0 out of 5 stars A step beyond non-fiction
This is a thoughtful, emotional and stimulating read. For those who are Russian or have spent time in Russia it is particularly engaging. Read more
Published on 3 Jan 2008 by Mr. Ad Meredith
5.0 out of 5 stars wake up call
Everyone knows about the evils of Hitler and National Socialism (Nazism). Stalin was far worse than Hitler and some of his policies are still supported around the world today. Read more
Published on 3 Jan 2008 by Vic Falls
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and Informative
The above criticisms of the book above make the fair point that this is an example of a novelist playing at historian. Read more
Published on 31 Dec 2003
4.0 out of 5 stars scales falling away
This isn't like a typical Amis novel but it's well worth reading all the same. It's a great short introduction to the nightmarish Horror that was Stalinism; and an accusatory salvo... Read more
Published on 22 Dec 2003
3.0 out of 5 stars Just an average history-book
This is a book about Stalins reign in the Sovietunion. It gives a fair and balanced view of Stalins career, the Great Terror etc. Read more
Published on 4 Dec 2003 by "williamjansen"
4.0 out of 5 stars An excorcism for Amis
This is a very, very readable book. Students of Russian history will find nothing factually new here but other readers will gain a terrifying insight into the mind of Josef Stalin,... Read more
Published on 17 Sep 2003 by MRA Haupt
4.0 out of 5 stars The Revolution Was a Lie
The construction of Amis's book on Stalin is extremely unconventional, which, unfortunately seems to be all the grounds some critics need to trash it. Read more
Published on 16 Dec 2002 by A. Ross
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