Amis' 'Koba the Dread': history's consummate barbarity

On Books

July 14, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

I grew up among Red-diaper babies. The Depression dominated our parents' lives in the 1930s. City financiers had beggared everybody's neighbor's Aunt Nellie. Country bankers had taken away decent families' farms. The World War II alliance with the Soviet Union lionized "Uncle Joe." Stalin's face appeared with FDR's and Churchill's in heroic public displays. To call oneself a socialist was far from disreputable. During the war, lots of people, especially intellectuals and artists, proudly declared themselves communists.

Later, when I was in college at Columbia in the late 1950s, many of my classmates were convinced that a world Soviet state was the ultimate inevitability. Some were enthusiastic, as had been many of their parents. Others were simply resigned, sure that the noncommunist world was too soft, too irresolute, too lacking in senses of destiny and history to stand up against the Revolution.

Now comes a book that explores and elaborates that intricate, freighted political phenomenon more effectively, more movingly than anything else I have ever read on the subject. It is Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, by Martin Amis (Talk Miramax, 306 pages, $24.95).

Amis, best known as a novelist, here interlaces personal memoir with scholarly historical research. The book begins as an exploration of British and American Marxist intellectuals who uncritically accepted the barbarities of the expansive socialist movement.

Martin is the son of Kingsley Amis, the novelist, critic and poet, who died in 1995. Martin was deeply fond of him. Nonetheless, he declares that "My father was a card-carrying member of the CP [Communist Party], taking his orders, such as they were, from Stalin's Moscow." That began in 1941, when Kingsley was a 19-year-old student at Oxford. He remained active in the party until 1956, lost his enthusiasm and then gradually became a staunch anti-Communist.

Martin, born in 1948, grew up listening to his father's conversations with many other intellectuals, including Robert Conquest, one of his closest friends and later translator of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's works. Martin too developed into a major writer, author of celebrated books including an earlier memoir, Experience.

Koba was the nickname Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvilis chose for himself when he was he was a child -- the name of a sort of Robin Hood hero of a popular novel. When he began to achieve political power, he gave himself a new one, Stalin -- "man of steel." The "Dread" of the book's title is appropriated by Amis from the familiar historic designation of Czar Ivan IV.

The book is broken into three parts, and within those there are episodic bits, some of them no more than a single paragraph. The whole thing is very crisp, fast moving, well focused. It begins as the story of the emergence of Amis' political awareness. The second section of the book, the bulk of it, is a biography of monstrosity -- of Stalin's depravity, hypocrisy and viciousness, and that of the government that he ruled with a murderous iron hand until his death in 1953.

Amis does not belabor the parallel between the Holocaust and the horrors of Lenin and Stalin. But the point is there: "About 1 million children died in the Holocaust. About 3 million children died in the Terror-Famine of 1933."

And he writes, with characteristic eloquence: "There are several names for what happened in Germany and Poland in the early 1940s. The Holocaust, the Shoah, the Wind of Death. In Romani [the language of gypsies] it is called the Porreimos -- the Devouring. There are no names for what happened in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1953 (although Russians refer, totemically, to 'the twenty million,' and to the Stalinshchina -- the time of Stalin's rule). What should we call it? The Decimation, the Fratricide, the Mindslaughter? No. Call it the Zachto? Call it the What For?"

And Zachto -- What For? -- is what Amis calls it, fairly consistently, throughout the book.

What for, indeed?

By almost any method of estimating the number of men, women and children slaughtered or purposely starved to death by the Soviet Communists, the figure of 20 million seems far too low. Amis broadly calculates that 40 million were killed, and gives credit to Solzhenitsyn's "modest estimate" that an additional 40 to 50 million served long sentences in the gulag.

The purpose, Amis convincingly relates, was seldom an effort to obtain information -- there was little the military police did not know. Though often highly publicized confessions were signed by broken men and women, they did not reduce the pain or the near-inevitability of summary death. The purpose, rather, was to break the will of an entire society, to purge the human capacity for dissent, to obliterate hope, to eradicate independent thought. Authorities methodically turned children against parents, parents against their own children, mate against mate, intentionally crushing loyalty, love itself.

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