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'Koba the Dread' by Martin Amis

Re-examination of Stalin serves as a cautionary tale

Sunday, July 28, 2002

By Len Barcousky, Post-Gazette Staff Writer


Koba the Dread

By Martin Amis

Talk Miramax Books

While Martin Amis may be best known as a novelist, he also has written essays, criticism and autobiography. In his new book, he has produced a quirky but very readable book in which he combines genres.

At its center is an examination of the life and bloody times of Joseph Stalin. Nicknamed “Koba” when he was a boy in the Caucasus, Stalin runs neck-and-neck with Mao and Hitler in the race for monster of the 20th century. His story is a cautionary tale of how paranoia and near-absolute power can deform countries and culture.

Amis opens with a meditation on why a book such as his is needed and why he is the man to write it. It closes with letters to one of his best friends, journalist Christopher Hitchens, and to his late father, the novelist Kingsley Amis.

The largest part of his slim book is the impressionistic biography of Stalin, born Iosif Dzhugashvili. He draws heavily on the work of historians such as Robert Conquest, Dmitri Volkonogov and Alan Bullock to describe what happened during the famines, purges and wars that convulsed Russia.

He uses writings by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nadezhda Mandelstam and Vsevolod Meyerhold to demonstrate what it felt like to endure such upheavals; he relies on his literary skills to explain what it all means.

The phrase “selecting downward” helps Amis understand what happened in Russia and the nations it occupied during most of the past century. Taking his cue from Lenin, Stalin killed, exiled or terrified into silence many of the country’s best and brightest.

Writing in the 1930s, William Butler Yeats described the consequences in his poem “The Second Coming.” “The best lack all conviction,” he wrote, “while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Amis highlights some critical moments. It has been reported before that Stalin had a nervous breakdown after the Nazi invasion of June 1941 -- an attack that was apparently a surprise only to him. As the magnitude of the disaster became clear, Stalin expected to be arrested by his colleagues and shot. And many believe he should have been.

The Soviet Union was hammered by the Germans in large part because Stalin had spent the previous decade destroying people in the military, the government, the universities, the media and the church who would have been best suited to battle the Nazis.

And therein lies the bitter irony: Because he had “selected downward” so ruthlessly, Stalin was able to hold onto power even in the face of overwhelming and humiliating disaster. No one was left to oppose him.

Stalin’s example provides an explanation of why men like Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-Il, the dictator of North Korea, have been able to hold on after spectacular military or economic collapse.

While many of the stories Amis tells are familiar, they still can provoke a chuckle followed by a gasp. Here’s just one example: The 1937 census showed a population of 163 million in the U.S.S.R. Stalin had expected 170 million. He ordered the Census Board shot. The 1939 census takers did not make the same demographic error.

The subtitle of the book is “Laughter and the Twenty Million,” and one of the issues Amis wrestles with is how and why people react differently to communism and Nazism.

He notes that his friend from the “Trotskyist left,” Christopher Hitchens, can refer to evenings spent with “an old comrade” and draw indulgent smiles. But were Hitchens to recall time spent in the company of “an old [SS] blackshirt,” his journalism career would be over.

Part of the explanation, he writes, is that communism, with its links to the Enlightenment, was, in theory anyway, striving toward a common good.

The genocidal racial theories and “innovatory barbarism” of Nazism, on the other hand, he links directly to a “reptile brain.”

While recognizing barbarous behavior on both sides of the Eastern Front -- at Stalingrad, for example Stalin ordered “blocking units” to shoot any Soviet soldiers trying to retreat -- Amis writes that most people will finally “feel” that, on balance, the marginally better side won.

Amis has taken heat from critics who complain he is retelling snippets of a story that has already been told -- and in much greater detail -- by others. He apparently anticipated such criticism, and his answers seem sound.

First, he attributes and credits all his borrowings. Second, while most educated Americans and Europeans know of the Nazi death camps, few know of the Stalinist horrors. “Everybody knows of Auschwitz and Belsen,” he writes. “Nobody knows of [Soviet camps] Vorkuta and Solovetsky.”

In their ruthless pursuit to created a new Soviet man, Stalin and his accomplices had hoped to hijack history and erase memory. This book is part of a worthwhile effort to make sure they do not succeed.

“We badly need to know the numbers of the dead,” Amis argues. “More than this, we need to know their names. And the dead, too, need us to know their names.”

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