Martin Amis is one of England’s premier writers. The son of the acclaimed novelist Kingsley Amis, he has received numerous prizes and wide recognition for his novels beginning with The Rachel Papers (1973) and including Money (1984) and Time’s Arrow (1991). Among his nonfiction works is Experience (2000), an autobiography of growing up as the son of the often difficult and curmudgeonly Kingsley Amis. Koba the Dread is also a memoir, but it is something more.
Koba was a nickname applied to Joseph Stalin, ruler of the Soviet Union from Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1923 until Stalin’s own death in 1953. One of the most bloodthirsty tyrants in history, he is responsible for upward of twenty million deaths and ranks with Germany’s Adolf Hitler and China’s Mao Zedong as the twentieth century’s monstrous mass murderers. One of Amis’s aims is to inform the reader of Koba’s crimes, which he does through numerous examples.
However, the magnitude of Stalin’s crimes has been generally known for several decades. Beginning in the 1960’s, Robert Conquest, a close friend of both Amises, wrote a series of works on the inhumanity of the Soviet Union and its leaders, notably Stalin. Admittedly, many persons in the West are more aware of the atrocities of Hitler and Nazi Germany, in part because of the fact that the United States waged a military war against Hitler while Stalin’s Soviet Union was America’s ally in World War II, and in part because of widespread knowledge of the Holocaust against Jews and others in the death camps of the Third Reich. The difference in public awareness of the scale of Stalin’s murders would not be a sufficient reason itself for Amis, known to the public mainly for his novels, to write an objective history of those who died as the result of decisions made by the Soviet dictator. Amis makes no pretense of extensive archival research. Others have done that and will continue to do so. Amis relies upon commonly recognized experts on Communist Russia, such as Conquest, Martin Malia, Richard Pipes, the Nobel Prize-winning Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the Russian historian Dmitri Volkgonov, and the stories he tells and the anecdotes he relates are chilling in the extreme.
For Amis, however, giving information about the Soviet atrocities is connected to a more important question. He also asks why so many Western intellectuals, including his own father, so long closed their eyes and their minds to evidence which well established Stalin’s complicity in those many horrific events, public events from the 1930’s and even before. Thus Koba the Dread is not just dispassionate history but a personal memoir of intellectuals like his father and those from his own generation, and it is written with polemical passion. A parallel could be made with the French writer Émile Zola (1840-1902) who, in his 1898 letter that began “J’accuse,” attacked France’s political and military elite at the time of the Dreyfus affair for their overt anti-Semitism.
Amis notes that while editing Kingsley Amis’s letters for publication, he found a letter, written in 1941 while the elder Amis was a student at Oxford, defending the Soviet Union in spite of public knowledge of Soviet aggression in the late 1930’s and of Stalin’s elimination of old Bolsheviks, the upper ranks of the military, intellectuals, and others in the show trials of that decade. In was only after the death of Stalin that Kingsley Amis quit the Communist Party. In the following years, the senior Amis, reversing his earlier course, became a staunch anticommunist. Martin Amis was and is less conservative and differed with his father over the latter’s support of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In the 1970’s Martin Amis was on the staff of the leftist New Statesman weekly and a committed anticommunist, particularly after the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (begun in 1973). Among his fellow young writers on the magazine was Christopher Hitchens, who was a Trotskyist Communist (Trotsky had been expelled from the Soviet Union in the 1920’s and later was murdered on Stalin’s orders). In writing Koba the Dread, Amis is discussing the same questions which he and Hitchens had debated twenty-five years earlier—whether Stalin was any different from Lenin and whether the Soviet Union under Stalin was any better than Hitler’s Nazi Germany. In a very real...
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