Koba the Dread

By Martin Amis

Koba the Dread is a strange book. At its core it is an account of the Soviet Union under the dictatorship of Stalin, whose childhood nickname was “Koba” and who thought of himself as a successor to the sixteenth-century Tsar, Ivan the Dread (or Terrible). This historical material is presented in the middle section under the title “Iosif the Terrible: A Short Course” (which is meant to parody Stalin’s “Short Course” on the Russian Revolution).

As a short course or crib of other books on the subject – most notably Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, a source that has personal significance for Martin Amis – it is lively, engaged and opinionated, but also totally derivative, random and superficial. The book was originally planned as a pamphlet, and Amis is at his best as an essayist (his essays are actually better than his fiction). Stretched out over 300 pages, his point form style only reads like a set of undergraduate notes. There is nothing new here, just a kind of literary guide to Stalinism culled from the “several yards of books about the Soviet experiment” Amis has read.

Despite this extensive library, Amis’s stated purpose in writing Koba the Dread was to fill what he considers the “chief lacuna” of twentieth-century history: Why has Soviet totalitarianism failed to receive the kind of critical attention, not to mention moral condemnation, regularly heaped on Nazism? The short answer, that they were on our side in the Second World War and remained a mostly closed society until well after its end, doesn’t satisfy. Even today, why do we laugh at Uncle Joe and his Terrors, but not at Hitler and the Nazis?

Since Amis is a pure intellectual product of the 90s (meaning he was a young man in the 60s and now the reaction is setting in), this question is meant to introduce the currently fashionable debate over the “moral equivalency” of various acts and scales of violence and terror. Was the “big moustache” Stalin worse than the “little moustache” Hitler?

Quantifying political terror in the twentieth century is a mug’s game. Mao was probably responsible for the most deaths. Pol Pot may have killed the highest percentage of his own population. The Rwandan Hutus murdered Tutsis faster with clubs and machetes than the Nazis with their industrial death camps. One of Stalin’s few memorable quotes was that the death of one person was a tragedy, the death of a million a statistic. Comparing the relative morality of such mass inhumanity only helps make his point.

As history and biography Amis’s short course is too sketchy to be very profound. For a novelist, his attempt at understanding Stalin’s personality is very thin and unimaginative. Stalin is simply the man whom absolute power corrupts absolutely, living in a fantasy world of negative perfection that is only threatened briefly by the invasion of the Germans in 1941 (when he totally fell apart). But Stalin is only part of the story Amis wants to tell. He is also writing a memoir. And this is not a good thing.

There are two intellectual heroes in the modern part of the story: Kingsley Amis (Martin’s father), and his best friend, the historian Robert Conquest. They are playfully referred to as fascists, because that was what the Communist stooges considered them to be back in the day. Now it’s payback.

When Conquest’s The Great Terror was set to be re-released the author suggested it be re-titled I Told You So. Koba the Dread is I Told You So with a vengeance. The tone is relentlessly moralistic, but you have to wonder who it is Amis is railing against. He scores points off his former friend, the (before 9/11) left-wing journalist Christopher Hitchens, but who cares? He also continues the dismal process of collapsing literary talent into political categories begun in his essays (which are already some of the most conservative criticism since the latter days of T. S. Eliot). Alexander Solzhenitsyn is a heroic figure and The Gulag Archipelago an important document, but there’s a reason no one reads it. Does Amis want us to swear glorious loyalty oaths to only read what is good for us when we go into the bookstore?

Amis’s project is noble, yet the memoir part of it reveals a preachy, born-again neo-con and self-absorbed snob. His filial piety in attempting to preserve his father’s reputation as a major writer, and his sense of loss at his sister’s early death, are commendable, but these are personal matters, of little interest to the public and not worth dwelling on. Even semi-celebrity memoirists should know where to draw the line. The political has to be made personal, lest we forget the meaning of those millions of statistics. Making the personal political is a less edifying path.

Review first published August 24, 2002.

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