[This review was published in the Spring 2006 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 123-125.]
Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million
Alfred A. Knopf, 2002
As a boy, Joseph Stalin gave himself the nickname “Koba,” after the hero in a popular novel who, like Robin Hood, took from the rich and gave to the poor. To this was later added “the Dread”—an appellation given in memory of Ivan the Terrible, “a recreational hands-on torturer,” who was also called “Ivan the Dread,” and to whom Amis says Stalin looked for inspiration during Stalin’s Terror in the late 1930s.
This book’s title Koba the Dread is thus unusual and provocative, in itself capturing much about Stalin, the subject of the essay. That is fitting, because the book as a whole—part intellectual memoir, part essay, part historical chronicle—is itself strikingly unusual. Told in the first person almost as though Amis had himself experienced the events he describes, the book manages to present horror on a personal, visceral level. And horror is indeed what it describes as it recounts the years of Lenin and Stalin, and the personalities who inhabited them.
From beginning to end, the essay reflects the highly literate background into which Martin Amis was raised. Even the best-read reader will often be sent scrambling for the dictionary. Combined with this background is his close personal connection both with the Communist Left and with a revulsion against Communism. Martin is the son of Kingsley Amis—a twentieth century literary figure of some prominence, as readers of this Journal will no doubt recall—who was active in the Communist Party from 1941 to 1956 and then, as did so many others, became an ardent anti-Communist. Robert Conquest, who has written the definitive histories of so much of the Soviet era, is Martin’s best friend.
The sub-title about “laughter and the twenty million” refers to the fact that people remain inclined not to take too seriously the atrocities of the Stalin era, which stands in stark contrast to their marrow-deep revulsion toward the crimes of Hitler. “Everybody knows [or thinks he knows] of the 6 million of the Holocaust. Nobody knows of the 6 million of the Terror Famine.” The reference to the Terror Famine is to the deliberately-enforced famine of 1932-3, although this reference to six million is odd because elsewhere Amis says it was eleven million who starved to death. The disparity in perception Amis speaks of is the double standard applied to Nazism and Communism that continues to color the world’s perception of twentieth century history to this day.
It’s a moderately short book, and deserves a reading from cover to cover. Although it doesn’t do it justice to mention just a few points, it will be worthwhile to illustrate how informative and often bizzare the features Amis tells about are:
1. When Stalin spoke at Bolshevik meetings, he was there to signal when the applause should end. But when a tribute to Stalin was made at a meeting at which he was not himself present, no one dared to stop clapping before the others. The result was, of course, ludicrous. Amis cites Solzhenitsyn as the source for a story about one meeting at which a local factory director was the first man to stop applauding. He “was arrested the next day and given ten years on another charge.”
2. We see how timeless the patterns of servility can be. In the fifth century A.D., the members of the Roman Senate chanted to the emperor “Augustuses of Augustuses, the greatest of Augustuses,” repeated eight time; then “God gave you to us! God gave you for us!,” repeated twenty-seven times; all followed by twenty-six repetitions of “Our hope is in You, You are our salvation!” Amis tells how in Soviet Russia, “emblazoned on [a] cliff face” were “the words “Glory to Stalin, the greatest genius of mankind. Glory to Stalin, the greatest military leader. Glory to Stalin, the greatest leader of the international proletariat. Glory to Stalin, the best friend of workers and peasants.”
3. One of the most tragically quizzical aspects of the human story has to do with the macabre servility of Stalin’s inner circle. These men were his intimates, “who worked with him all day and drank with him all night.” They did this even as ones wife was jailed, another’s sent to the gulag, another’s beaten unconscious by an interrogator, another’s two sons shipped off to prison camp, and yet another’s wife first sent to the gulag and later shot. “Stalin,” Amis says, “had inflicted a blood wound on most of the men in his sanctum. This was intimate humiliation; and the collusion in Stalin’s aggrandizement took the humiliation further.”
4. Those of us who are aware of the powerful sway of “deconstructionism” in Western intellectual circles during the past half-century shouldn’t be surprised to learn that “in the early 1930s Stalin championed the teachings of N. Marr, who held… that language was a class phenomenon (a superstructure over the relations of production)….”
5. Similarly, it isn’t surprising that the
Dadaistic streettheater employed so effectively by the New Left in the 1960s with the antics of the likes of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin had its precursors under the Soviets. The Leninist regime undertook in the early 1920s to stamp out the Russian Orthodox Church and even individual worship. Amis tells us that “in one of their eerily postmodernist convulsions, the Bolsheviks deployed the weapon of orchestrated mockery; blasphemous and semi-pornographic street carnivals, with cavorting Komsomols garbed as priests, popes, rabbis.”
, the Germans were charged with killing the Polish officer corps in the Nuremberg . The charge fell into a memory-hole when it turned out that the Soviets had done it and falsely incriminated the Germans. Amis recounts a previous episode of similar duplicity, again involving Polish victims: “During the attempted invasion of Katyn Forest in 1920, Lenin sent the following instruction to a Red Army commissar: ‘Under the guise of “Greens” (and we will pin it on them later) we shall go forward for ten-twenty versts and hang the kulaks, priests and landowners.’” Poland
There is, of course, much more. Readers should be advised, however, that Amis’ essay, based almost entirely on an extensive reading of secondary sources, has philosophical and prose-poetic purposes that necessarily make it something quite different from a scholarly investigation digging through archives and sifting evidence. In this, it is very similar to an emotional literature of atrocities, which tells the story of horrific events and assumes that everyone knows them to be factual, while not itself doing the laborious labor of collecting and evaluating evidence. If someone were to come forward and say “much of what Amis says isn’t true,” it would be necessary to look elsewhere to decide the issue. That being said, Koba the Dread is monumental for the type of writing it is.
Dwight D. Murphey