Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1828
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 sense, Koba the Dread is written to Hitchens.
One question which Amis asks in Koba the Dread is what were the motives which led to the murder of millions in the Soviet Union during the Stalin era. The stated ideology of Marxism, at least as implemented in the Soviet Union, envisioned violent class conflict with the class enemies (the bourgeoisie, the wealthier peasants or kulaks, or however “enemies” were defined) being eliminated and destroyed, and Amis traces the murderous violence of the Soviet regime back past Stalin to Lenin himself and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. On the other hand, Amis also suggests that Stalin killed and murdered simply for its own sake, noting Stalin’s claim that “Death solves all problems. No man, no problem.” When arrested, many victims asked “Zachto?” or “What for?” Guilty of nothing, there could be no answer and no answer was needed. As the nineteenth century British historian Lord Acton noted, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Another issue Amis confronts are the differences, if any, between Soviet communism and German fascism or Nazism, or between what Amis calls the Little Mustache (Hitler) and the Big Mustache (Stalin). Many intellectuals, historians, and pundits, while noting that both regimes killed millions of human beings, claim that the Bolshevik ideology of Marx and Lenin descended directly from the eighteenth century Enlightenment in its attempt to establish a society based on social justice. Nazism was its antithesis, with its commitment to the pseudoscience of racial purity and the resulting genocide of the Jews. Thus, the atrocious crimes of the Soviet Union can be characterized as less heinous because their stated goals were enlightened and egalitarian. Amis is not convinced of this ends-justify-the-means argument, arguing that at most the Nazi Holocaust against Jews and others was merely more precise than the holocausts in the Soviet Union (the gulag, the famines, the political trials and executions) which were, he argues, more random but no less deadly. For Amis, both regimes were equally immoral. Yet why have not the twenty million Soviet victims had equivalency with the Holocaust dead in the public mind and record?
Amis believes the answer is a willful failure of Western intellectuals to accept it, claiming that one illustration of this failure is humor. He points out that it has long been acceptable, both within the Soviet Union and elsewhere, to joke about the failures of the Soviet system, such as the fact that exploding television sets was the leading cause of fire in the Soviet Union. Another joke was, why is the Soviet Union the same as America? Because in the Soviet Union one can joke about America and in America one can joke about America. More pointed, for Amis, is not just the humor of the general population but the humor, or lack of it, among intellectuals like himself and Hitchens toward Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Amis relates that back in their New Statesman days, he questioned Hitchens about the famines of the 1930’s in the Soviet Union, and Hitchens responded that there were no famines, only “shortages,” a comment that Hitchens denies ever making. Again, in a 1999 London debate over the European Union, Hitchens, addressing the assembly, commented that he knew the venue of the meeting hall well, having been there often with many “an old comrade,” a remark that engendered much laughter. Amis questions whether there would have been the same response if Hitchens had identified himself as a former fascist, and doubts it. One laughs at—or ignores—the crimes of the Big Mustache but not those of the Little Mustache.
“Letter to a Friend,” the final section of Koba the Dread, begins with a long letter to Hitchens (over ten pages in length in the text) written while on a holiday in Uruguay. After humorous references to Gregor Samsa (from Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella Die Verwandlung, or The Metamorphosis, 1936), Hamlet, the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, and Friedrich Nietzsche, Amis, again humorously, addresses Hitchens as Comrade Hitchens. Still continuing the long dialogue between them, he asks “Why you [Hitchens] 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. These two men did not just precede Stalin. They created a fully functioning police state for his later use.” Without disowning them, Amis claims, Hitchens implicitly condones the policy of terror which resulted in the death of millions of innocent victims. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Amis argues, was not a Revolution which ultimately failed; rather, it was a counterrevolution which succeeded only too well.
Koba the Dread begins with a brief description of Amis’s life in the 1960’s with his father, Kingsley, and the book ends with a postscript addressed to his father: “Afterword: Letter to My Father’s Ghost.” In it, he tells his father of the recent death of Sally, Kingsley’s daughter and Martin’s sister. He then compares the novels written by father and son, contrasting the subject matter, which was perhaps due to the generational differences between them. Most significantly, however, Amis notes that his father was ideological and he is not, and “probably to my detriment, I never felt the call of the political faith (and probably one should feel it, one should be zealous, for a while).” The letter and the book concludes, “Your middle child hails you and embraces you.”
The postmodernist mixture of the individual and the personal with the historic and the public in Koba the Dread can be criticized as overly confessional and self-indulgent or be regarded affecting and involving, depending upon the response of the reader. However, the issues Amis raises about the failure of the intellectuals to condemn the disastrous Soviet experiment might resonate in greater depth with British rather than American readers. The United States differs from Britain in history and culture. There is nothing in American society that quite compares with the power and influence that the Oxford and Cambridge elite and the city of London exert upon political and intellectual Britain, the possible claims of America’s Ivy League universities, New York City, and Washington, D.C., to the contrary. Amis is addressing Britain’s intellectual community, a community which does not exist in the diverse and largely ahistorical America where Stalinist intellectuals played little role in public policy and perception.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic Monthly 290 (September, 2002): 144.
Booklist 98 (May 1, 2002): 1442.
Commentary 114 (October, 2002): 71.
Library Journal 127 (June 1, 2002): 169.
London Review of Books 24 (October 17, 2002): 21.
New Statesman 131 (September 2, 2002): 12.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (July 28, 2002): 7.
Publishers Weekly 249 (May 20, 2002): 55.