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. This is a two-fold play on words as Stalin fancied himself as a latter day version of Ivan the terrible and wrote a book entitled "Short Course on the Soviet Union." The overview reads well. Amis is, clearly, a good writer. However, it does not contain any new research or original thought. Rather, as Amis acknowledges, it is a summary of many books Amis has read on the subject, specifically Conquest's The Great Terror. Again, anyone coming to this book with even a passing knowledge of Soviet history will find one half the book superfluous.
Part II, a mere 34 pages, addresses the question posed on the book cover as its central theme, "the indulgence of communism by intellectuals of the West." Part III consists of a Letter to a Friend (Christopher Hitchens) and an after word addressed to his late father. Although both are touching and deeply personal in their own way they never really did get to the heart of the question.
The question posed was a decent one. But I left disappointed. I gave the book three stars because, despite my disappointment, it was well-written. I also realize that the book could serve as a valuable introduction to readers new to Russian/Soviet history who might wish to dip their toes into the subject matter. This is not a bad place to start. However, I would not recommend this book to anyone with more than superficial knowledge of the subject matter. At best, this should have been a magazine length article.
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. Realistically, everyone knows that Stalin was a mindless murderer, but from other history books it's easy to get the message that Lenin was an intellectual who would have changed the world for the better had it not been for a few hitches here and there, and that his murderous schemes were begun more out of necessity than any personal belief in their utility or desire to do so. Amis takes this idea and throws it in the gutter, blaming Lenin (and Trotsky) for setting up the police state that allowed Stalin to become the tyrant that he was.
So the book may be biased, but it's brilliantly written, completely engaging, and gives a perspective on Stalin that you're unlikely to find elsewhere (in terms of the level of indignant vituperation, rather than the general anti-Stalin stance). And isn't that part of the point of history - looking at it through different sets of eyes? Anyone interested in Russian, German or 20th century history should read this book.
on 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.
on 8 July 2014
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 that Stalin was every bit as evil and tyrannical as Hitler; and to demonstrate the value of our democracy, for all its faults, and what future generations stand to risk by political ignorance and apathy.)
God knows what it cost Amis in researching for this book. The final product is an immensely painful and difficult read. (in terms of content: the style, the writing, and the message are impeccable.) I cannot imagine how haunted he must be by the mass of material he must have read. The torture, cruelty and inhumanity of the regime almost defy description. In a lesser writers hands it would have become an unreadable litany of unendurable pain. But Martin Amis is a great writer and I would argue this is his magnum opus. It starts with the premise; why is it okay to tell jokes about Communist Russia, but not Nazi Germany? and goes on to explain the reasons why with personal honesty, searing insight and absolute humanity. As well as, of course, rigorous and thorough research. (dear God - the research.) You will not forget this book - and that is the intention.
An absolute must-read - of how theories become tyranny, and 20 million people are murdered as a result.
on 5 December 2012
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. What's more they've happened in every country where Communists seized power. There was something wrong with the system - it was fundamentaly flawed. And the problem, as Amis accurately tells us, started not with Stalin. It began with Lenin. He employed mass terror, clamped down on opposition and introduced ludicrous economic and agricultural policies that failed in every country where they've been tried. As Amis shows Stalin followed in Lenin's footsteps.
Time was when intellectuals and the hard Left could make excuses for Communism. Not any more, though I was appalled to hear Eric Hogsbawn - as late as 2012 - still claiming the experiment was worthwhile. That busted flush E.H. Carr did the same a few years back. Worldwide Communists have slaughtered at least 100 million people and the killing still goes on. In every case they failed to provide a better standard of living, let alone a better society, and the old fools still claimed it was worthwhile! It never was. It was irrelevant.
If you want a civilised welfare state there's no need for Communism. Go and live in Denmark. Apparently the Danish are the happiest people in the world. They pay the highest taxes, but are prepared to do so for the benefits they receive. And the Danes live in a free society. They have never introduced mass terror, torture, death camps, or slaughtered millions to do it. They've never introduced censorship and destroyed all artistic and intellectual freedom. There's plenty to eat and masses of consumer goods - a civilised life.
So a suggestion to those on the hard Left who still advocate Communism. Go and live in North Korea for a time. There you'll find this murderous system in operation. Then go and live in Denmark and ask yourself why the Danes are so much more successful at producing the good society.
In the meantime, I suggest Amis's book gives a good introduction to the subject.
on 3 January 2008
This is a thoughtful, emotional and stimulating read. For those who are Russian or have spent time in Russia it is particularly engaging. As a part-time historian Amis is never going to answer the big questions that are posed by the tragedy of Stalinism. However he uses his remarkable upbringing and literary talent to discuss the issues with an intriguing mix of insight, lucidity and zeal. As someone who spends a good deal of time reading non-fiction on Russia I throughly enjoyed this change of tone.
on 17 September 2003
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, or 'Koba'. My only gripe was that it seemed at times a personal excorcism of Amis's own youthful socialist leanings. The author works hard to link Soviet communist brutality with 'indulgent' western socialist apathy during the life-span of the USSR. This is not necessarily a wasted expedition in itself but seems out of place in a book that aims to help us 'know' the real Stalin and the impact his clearly sociopathic personality had on millions of lives. All in all though a book certainly worth owning.
on 7 October 2002
This is a puzzling book. As always with Amis it is well written and I was pleased to see him rightfully (and courageously) excoriate the fashionable left's indulgence of the Soviet Union. The details of Stalin's 'negative perfection' (including the torture and oppression of so many) made this reader shudder. However, a modern Amis offering is not complete without us having to come to terms with his own family's sufferings and unhappiness. Juxtaposed with the scale and ferocity of Stalin's terror this comes across as navel gazing from a prosperous, privileged Westerner. In my view it denies the book it's polemical power.
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. His exploration of why its considered acceptable in many circles (particularly the intellectual left) to joke about Stalin, the USSR, and communism (as opposed to Hitler, Nazi Germany, and National Socialism), begins and ends with very personal sections which bookend an overview of Stalin's rule and his use of the police state bequeathed to him by Lenin to cause the death of some 20 million of his subjects. Amis comes at this in reflection of his recently deceased father, who was himself a communist for some 15 years. The first part of the book is a sort of dialogue with not only his father as he was, but also his good friend Christopher Hitchens, who in Amis's view, is a the embodiment of the problem—a smart public intellectual who refuses to totally denounce the former USSR.
Next, the heart of the book provides a primer on Stalinist terror, cribbed from a number of sources. Here, the critics once again open up, curiously accosting Amis on roughly three points (A) Amis isn't telling us anything we didn't already know, (B) Amis is simply cribbing from other books, (C) Amis's sources are weak. The response to A is that Amis never claims that he's providing new information, quite the contrary. His point is that how could we (Western lefties) know all this and not totally distance themselves from it? Furthermore, I suggest that the argument that people already know is only valid up to a certain age. As a thirty-year-old with an honors degree in international relations, I knew the gist of Stalinist times, but certainly not the level of detail Amis provides. And if you took a survey of people on my phone list, almost all of whom have some kind of Master's degree and are engaged in the world at large, I would bet good money that 90% could tell you who Eichmann was and that maybe 5% could tell you who Dzerhinsky was. As to B, Amis tells you all the way through where his citations are from and never pretends otherwise. C is the sort of specialist sniping that's hard to dispute but seems kind of pointless when you consider that much of Amis's quoting is from first-person accounts.
Finally, the book ends with a rather strange letter to his dead father in which Amis digresses into family talk, including the death of his sister. It's not history and politics, and thus is appears to upset those for whom these topics dare not be contaminated with anything personal. That, in way seems to be the subtext of some of criticism of the book, why is it so personal, and why does Amis write about it all with such a naive wonder and anger. Of course, to criticize it thusly is to utterly miss the book's point.
In any event, the book is filled with keen insight and deadly venom, especially when it comes to the posthumous lionization of Trotsky and Lenin (p 250, "An admiration for Lenin or Trotsky is meaningless without an admiration for terror."). It's the rare piece of writing from the left that refuses to separate the ideological ideal of communism with it's real world totalitarian application and utter dehumanization of those under its rule. Amis's conclusions, such as they are, can best be summarized by the following passage from page 258, "The enemy of the people was the regime. The dictatorship of the proletariat was a lie; Union was a lie, and Soviet was a lit, and Republics was a lie. Comrade was a lie. The Revolution was a lie." This is an important work—not without its flaws and rough edges—that does the valuable service of reacquainting us with the horror of Stalinist rule.
on 31 December 2003
The above criticisms of the book above make the fair point that this is an example of a novelist playing at historian. But it's still immensely readable and engrossing, and manages to be a concentrated form of lots of other writer's thoughts on the 'russian holocaust'. Amis is best, I think, when exmining the 'laughter' part of the subtitle of the book - ie, how communism is often thought of as being in some way more 'benign' than Nazism, despite the evidence against this view. If someone says Trotsky and Lenin are heroes they are laughed at for being 'lefties'; if someone says that about Hitler or Mussolini they are (quite rightly), thought of as desperately sick and in some way inhuman.
I read this book in a day. Apart from the slightly irrelevant and unconvincing bits towards the end where Amis tries to connect it all to his baby crying and his sister dying, it is a thought provoking read.