Two men meet on a Moscow street corner in 1951. Ivan asks, "Comrade, how are you?" Igor answers, "Better than tomorrow."
If you don't get the joke, you have good reason to read Martin Amis's Koba the Dread. If you have no idea that telling such a joke killed (literally¨the secret police were bleakly humourless) in Russia in 1951, you have even better reasons for reading this book. And if you don't know the famous anecdote about Boris Pasternak meeting Ilya Ehrenburg in a Moscow street during the height of the Terror and one saying to the other "If only someone would tell Stalin!" and this not being a joke, this book is absolutely necessary reading.
Martin Amis's book length essay on Stalin and Stalinism is not the first nor best nor most accurate investigation of the crimes of the monstrous man of steel, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvilis, "Koba" (the nickname was taken from Russia's folkloric Robin Hood). But that's not the claim it makes: Koba the Dread is a meditation by "a fifty-two-year-old novelist and critic who has recently read several yards of books about the Soviet experiment" at the end of the period "unanimously considered to be our worst century yet (an impression confirmed by the new book I was reading: Reflections on a Ravaged Century, by Robert Conquest)." Martin Amis is, of course, not just any novelist and critic: he is (and this is the lesser of his claims to our attention) the son of Kingsley Amis. Amis senior was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party during the final dozen Stalinist years before turning further and further to the right, until at the end of his life, he had "declined into a sort of choleric, empurpled Blimpishness, culminating in his denunciation of Nelson Mandela as a practitioner of Red Terror"¨to quote Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis's longtime friend whose review "Lightness at Noon" of Koba the Dread occupies several pages in the September 2002 Atlantic Monthly and very likely kills their friendship with sundry well-delivered hatchet blows.
In his meditation (the term is worth repeating because Marcus Aurelius's ancient genre and its more modern counterparts are unrecognized by Hitchens and at least a dozen other extremely hostile reviewers), Martin Amis begins with three memories of the 1960s¨in 1967, when he was eighteen, his father published an article "Why Lucky Kim Turned Right" about becoming an Oxford Communist when he was nineteen; in 1968, in the summer before his own departure for Oxford, he helped "to rewire a high-bourgeois mansion in a northern suburb of London" (his "only taste of proletarian life") before moving into it with his father and step-mother and a stream of visitors from Czechoslovakia (including Josef Skvorecky); again, in 1968, he spent an hour with the recently published The Great Terror by his father's "fascist" luncheon companion, Robert Conquest (When asked to provide a new title for a revised edition , Conquest said to his publisher, "How about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools"). Amis levels his powers of recollection and reading at the moral smugness and mental blindness that has allowed such effing foolish ignorance of the Gulag's camps and corpses to persist as late as what Vladimir Putin (who "praises Stalin, echoes Stalin, and proposes to mint coins bearing Stalin's profile") has described as "the 2000th anniversary of Christianity."
How incisive is Amis as he zeros in on the vestigial utopianism and dunderheaded romanticism that persists in casually coupling itself to Bolshevism, Leninism, Trotskyism and Stalinism? Indulgent tender-heartedness towards the Soviet experiment should have ended once and for all thirty years ago with the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. But much of what Solzhenitsyn uncovered has been ignored ("Edward E. Ericson gives the following American sales figures; 2,244,000 for Volume One, 500,000 for Volume Two, and 100,000 for Volume Three. These figures are representative worldwide, and point to the limits of our stamina and appetite. In fact, [it] simply goes on getting better, and, of course, achieves an impregnable unity"). Solzhenitsyn's valour and truthfulness as a resister and a historian is frequently demeaned by drawing attention to the personal demons that have led him into what Hitchens characterizes as "a sort of 'Great Russian' spiritual and political quackery, replete with nostrums about the national 'soul' and euphemisms about pogroms and anti-Semitism." The Terror did not end when Stalin died¨its aftershocks live on its victims, Solzhenitsyn included.
Koba the Dread is a book of broad themes and this is its broadest: Stalinism is unimaginable by any sane person and to look at it squarely, even at a distance, first appals (Stalin's engineering of famine caused mounds of corpses to pollute the drinking water and led some parents to eat their children ), then debilitates. Amis writes, "Nazism did not destroy civil society. Bolshevism did destroy civil society." The philosopher Charles Taylor's comment on this strophe in his review for Salon.com is
"[W]hen you read I Will Bear Witness, Victor Klemperer's diary of being a Jew in Nazi Germany, you're struck by the bit-by-bit degradation of everyday life, but there is still some vestigial sense of normal life. The accounts of Stalinist Russsia are best summed up by the slogans of [George Orwell's] Nineteen Eighty-Four¨'WAR IS PEACE', 'FREEDOM IS SLAVERY', 'IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH'¨representing as they do the complete eradication of meaning."
Taylor sees what Amis is really up to in Koba the Dread in ways that other critics have missed. He understands that Amis is not just asking how anyone can still regard Marxism as a means to a more just world but that he is also attempting to uncover the source of its allure and reveal its moral toxicity. In the customary personal ending to a philosophical meditation , Martin Amis challenges his father's assertion in "Why Lucky Jim Turned Right" that "The ideal of the brotherhood of man, the building of the Just City, is one that cannot be discarded without lifelong feelings of disappointment and loss." "Just what is this Just City?" Martin Amis asks both his dead father and Hitchens. "What would it look like? What would its citizens be saying to each other and doing all day? What would laughter be like, in the Just City? (And what would you find to write about in it?)" The questions are posed because Martin Amis wants to say and does say casually, brilliantly, in an unaffected, affectionate human way that the desire for an ideal society is inevitably a desire for a totalitarian state because the desire cannot be formulated without expressing willingness to put ends before means.
Although Amis fumbles and stumbles over the same issues Conquest and others have in placing Hitler and Stalin as a double portrait within the same frame, he sees the differences and captures the particularities of the two intertwined but not twinned terrors. To quote Charles Taylor again:
Much simplified, his answer is that Stalin's ends¨collectivization, industrialization, even the attainment of absolute power¨were at least comprehensible (which is not to say right, desirable or even thought-out) although the means he used to achieve them were barbaric. Hitler employed rational, industrialized means (one could even call them 'neat' and therein lies part of the offense) toward an irrational end; the physical elimination of every Jew.
Amis is less successful in answering the question raised by his subtitle "Laughter and the Twenty Million"¨why is it that we can laugh at Stalinism but not at Nazism? Christopher Hitchens knows why his old friend's book falls down at this point. Of course, he does. Hitchens has an inerrant near-Papal sense of all of Martin Amis's inadequacies¨his insufficient grasp of historical detail, critical theory, the horrors of organized religion, the demands of friendship in saecula saeculorum. In "Lightness at Noon" in the September 2002 Atlantic Monthly, Hitchens is very sly. Near the end of his book, Amis asks "Comrade Hitchens" directly, "So it is still obscure to me why you wouldn't want to put more distance between yourself and these events than you do, with your reverence for Lenin and your unregretted discipleship of Trotsky.... Why? An admiration for Lenin and Trotsky is meaningless without an admiration for terror. They would not want your admiration if it failed to include an admiration for terror. Do you admire terror? I know you admire freedom." This is the heart of Hitchens's reply: "His is a short work, and one cannot ask for a complete theory of modern ideology and the various deathtraps it sets for the body and the mind. However, much of the space that could have been devoted to a little enquiry is instead given over to some rather odd reflections on Amis's family life, featuring some vignettes about his offspring . . . I find it inexplicable, partly because I can easily imagine the scorn with which Amis would write about anyone else who employed the Terror for purposes of relativism. His own purpose, presumably, is to refute Stalin's foul humanity by showing that an individual, too, can be a considerable 'statistic.' But the transition from macro- to micro-humanity is uneasy at best." Oh, don't you just love the falseness in the force of that "presumably" and the pairings of words¨"short" versus "complete", "much" and "little"¨Hitchens employs in weaseling his way through Amis's "odd reflections" and "vignettes" and "relativism" past that biting "presumably" to "macro" versus "micro" humanity. (If you require more assistance in seeing through Hitchens's rhetoric, Orwell's essay on politics and the English language remains more than merely useful.)
Does Hitchens still admire terror? The question is ducked, isn't it? Is more evidence required? Hitchens notes, "In the best sections of this book Amis makes the extraordinary demand that, in effect, the human species should give up on teleology and on all forms of 'experiment' on fellow creatures. He is being much more revolutionary here than perhaps he appreciates. Had he allowed himself to ponder the implications, he might have engaged fruitfully with some of his own earlier work on fascism and thermonuclear gamesmanship." Hitchens is quite right to say that these are the best sections of Koba the Dread but very wrong to presume that Amis does not comprehend the implications of what he says here in terms of his earlier works. Amis knows what he is doing and does not do it oddly or uneasily in the deeply affecting book that I've read, the one Amis has actually written, the one that asks all who admire freedom not to duck the question, "Do you admire terror?" ˛