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17 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Revolution Was a Lie, 16 Dec 2002
This review is from: Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (Hardcover)
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.
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A. Ross
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Location: Washington, DC

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