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Interesting Idea: Flawed, Self-Indulgent Execution
on 8 December 2004
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.