Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, by Martin Amis. Talk Miramax Books, 2002. 306 pp (small ones). $24.95.
Q: What do twenty million victims of Stalin’s Great Terror and Martin Amis’s sister have in common?
A: They’re dead.
And they both get a lot of ink in Martin Amis’s new book. And that’s about it. Wherein lies the problem. Amis keeps trying to explain the Great Terror, the largest mass slaughter of all time going away, in personal terms, when there’s really nothing personal about it. To begin with the obvious objection: Stalin’s policies were essentially a logical continuation of Lenin’s, yet the revolutionary atheist intellectual and the insecure ex-seminarian bureaucrat were not alike, personally, at all. Lenin veered off the strictly collectivist path with the New Economic Policy, but Stalin had his occasional zigs and zags as well, most notably in 1936-37, with a brief economic liberalization that he actually called “perestroika.” Stalinism is consolidated Leninism. Amis acknowledges this objection, once, in a footnote, without ever really answering it.
[Martin] Malia [author of The Soviet Tragedy]…dissents from [the view that nobody was keen on collectivization of agriculture in the late 1920s, which Amis calls, mistakenly, “the consensus view”]; he sees Collectivization as structural to the Lenin-Stalin continuum, and he is eloquent. “For a Bolshevik party the real choice in 1929 was not between Stalin’s road and Bukharin’s; it was between doing approximately what Stalin did and giving up the whole Leninist enterprise.” The question remains: how approximately do we take the word “approximately”?
He loads the dice, but even here Malia wins on points.
Amis also endlessly worries the question of why Hitler (“the little moustache”) is considered “more” evil, despite Stalin’s (“the big moustache”) more impressive body count; and the related question of why we laugh at Stalin and the Great Terror whereas, even now, laughing at Hitler and the Holocaust is considered to be in extremely poor taste. He never arrives at a conclusion on either of these matters, but he does seize the occasion to tell some pretty good Communist jokes. (What’s the difference between a Communist car and a Communist proselytizer? You can close the door on a Communist prosleytizer.)
The humor question…well, I don’t know either. We’ll have to kick this one upstairs to Ron Rosenbaum. (Explaining Hitler really is a brilliant book, by the way, even if Salon says so.) But in the all-time evil sweepstakes I’m going to have to go with the little moustache. The trouble with the big moustache, as villains go, is that he was dull. Even by Commie villain standards he was dull — duller than Lenin or Trotsky, and not even in the same league, for general interest, with Hitler. Stalin liked to kill people, and he was good at it. Hitler also liked to kill people, but he had other interests. Totalitarian kitsch aesthetic is modeled after the Nazis, not the Communists. Hitler, it is true, had evil geniuses like Leni Riefenstahl and Albert Speer to help him out, but a lot of the impetus here was straight from the top. Mein Kampf and the Table Talk are still fascinating, if grisly, reading; almost nothing Stalin ever wrote or said was of the faintest interest. Hitler’s version of radical nationalism continues to nourish tinput dictators all over the world, while Communism, although it persists in vestigial form as an excuse to maintain sclerotic tyrannies in Cuba and China, has been dead as a motive force, an idea for which people are willing to die, for thirty years. This may also help explain why disaffected teenagers don’t dress up in Red Army greatcoats and 1930s Soviet memorabilia doesn’t fetch premium prices on EBay.
Amis incidentally provides an excellent guide to the gulag literature, having read, as he says, several yards of it, and being a consistently pointed and accurate guide to literary merit. I find it difficult, however, when he insists that the one-volume abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago won’t do, and that one must read all three volumes, to recommend his own book as a crib. So do what he says: read Martin Malia’s The Soviet Tragedy and Conquest’s The Great Terror and Eugenia Ginzburg’s Journey Into the Whirlwind and The Gulag Archipelago, the one-volume version if you must. Skip Koba the Dread.
Martin Amis the novelist is one of my favorite authors; Money is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. But enough of pensive middle-aged mortality-obsessed Martin already. His last book, the family memoir and tribute to his father Experience, has its glorious bits, it is true. But when Kingsley is off stage it’s mostly an out-and-out drag. I want back the nasty little Mart of Money and Success and London Fields, at least for a book or two. I miss him.