“Koba the Dread,” by Martin Amis

Martin Amis calls out Christopher Hitchens and other friends on the left for not giving full weight to the 20 million victims of Stalin's terror.

Topics: Books,

The left’s romance with Stalinism ended decisively 30 years ago with the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago.” For the true believers, things have only gotten worse. The onset of glasnost in the ’80s saw the release of official documents that not only confirmed but exceeded the numbers of dead the historian Robert Conquest had claimed in his 1968 book “The Great Terror.” When Conquest set about preparing a new edition of the book using those documents (it appeared in 1990 as “The Great Terror: A Reassessment”), his publisher asked whether he thought a new title would be appropriate. “How about, ‘I Told You So, You Fucking Fools’?” Conquest responded.

For Martin Amis, in his new book “Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million,” the fools were people like the philosopher A.J. Ayer, whom Amis recalls in conversation with Amis’ father, Kingsley Amis:

“In the USSR,” Ayer argued, “at least they’re trying to forge something positive.”

“But it doesn’t matter what they’re trying to forge, because they’ve already killed 5 million people,” Amis said.

“You keep going back to that 5 million,” Ayer complained, unconsciously echoing Stalin’s remark that the death of one person was tragic, the death of a million “a statistic.”

Stalin was shrewd enough to grasp the limits of a sane person’s credulity. The stories laid out in “Koba the Dread” — like those told in “The Great Terror,” in the historian Catherine Merridale’s recent “Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia” and in Eugenia Semenovna Ginzburg’s 1967 “Journey Into the Whirlwind,” her memoir of 18 years in Stalin’s prisons and labor camps — are, in the truest sense, unimaginable. A country deliberately forced into famine so bad (in 1932 and ’33) that parents ate their children. So many dead that the bodies were stacked in the streets, only to be frozen in the Russian winter whose snow turned, in the spring thaw, into infected water that ran through the streets and killed even more. A 1937 census, commissioned by Stalin, uncovered statistical proof of those who had died and therefore caused the census takers to be shot. Were this the stuff of fiction, it would be pulp horror or the most callous absurdism.

Despite the fact that it can be plausibly argued that true communism has never been achieved, by now it’s clear that every state that has attempted it has perpetrated totalitarian outrages. In the end we find that the differences among all the variations on the theme are less striking than the similarities of the experiences of those who had to live under those regimes. More unites than separates voices like Josef Skvorecky and Milan Kundera in Czechoslovakia, Peter Schneider in Germany, Reinaldo Arenas in Cuba and the Chinese students in the Tiananmen Square documentary “The Gate of Heavenly Peace.”

“Koba the Dread” is an adumbration of the incidents that Amis has gleaned from “several yards of books about the Soviet experiment.” Woven through the book are his own experiences in the arguments about communism, arguments conducted with his father (a communist for 15 years before becoming a devoted anti-communist), and with his friend Christopher Hitchens. It encompasses his friendship with Robert Conquest (whom he has known since he was a child).

Amis’ tone doesn’t match the earned belligerence you find in Conquest’s revised post-glasnost version of “The Great Terror.” His prose gives off a sense of appalled wonder. Underneath the steady accumulation of facts and horror stories, Amis is asking how anyone in his or her right mind can still consider Marxism as a means to a more just world; how people (like his pal Hitchens) can joke about their communist past without invoking the horror that someone who joked about his fascist past would; how the apologists for Stalin, despite having plenty of evidence as to the truth of Soviet Russia before glasnost, can be thought of any differently from Holocaust deniers.

Part of the answer, of course, is that the public face of anti-communism has been that of buffoons like Joseph McCarthy or the John Birch Society. For many of us on the left, anti-communism has so often led to the excesses of the right that it became an ideological taint to avoid. Who, for instance, would want to believe in Alger Hiss’ guilt when that meant finding oneself on the same side as Richard Nixon? But neither McCarthyism nor the execution of the Rosenbergs (who were, of course, guilty) is an adequate excuse for denying the facts of Stalin’s terror, or Mao’s Great Leap Forward, or — on a lesser scale — Castro’s persecution of homosexuals, among other groups. (The catastrophic failure of Castro’s revolution has increasingly become the subject of Cuban crime fiction, including Josi Latour’s “Outcast” and Daniel Chavarrma’s wonderful “Adios Muchachos.”)

Anti-communism has, in some essential way, never been accepted as the moral equivalent of anti-fascism. When Paul Mazursky’s film “Moscow on the Hudson” came out in 1984, a friend of mine, a Canadian who has lived in the United States for years, praised it in print only to have friends back in Canada ask him, “What’s happened to you there?” — “there” being Reagan’s America. His acceptance of even Mazursky’s gentle portrait of a USSR with all sorts of shortages and the KGB menacing citizens who didn’t toe the party line was seen as succumbing to grotesque capitalist propaganda.

Amis comes close to explaining the enduring allure of communism in the letter to his late father that ends the book. Quoting his father’s essay “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right,” he finds this sentence about the elder Amis’ goodbye to the faith. “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.”

As Amis the younger points out, that sentence embodies the naiveté that leads many to communism in the first place. “Just what this Just City?” he asks. “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?)” Amis is saying that the desire for an “ideal” society is, of course, a desire for the totalitarian state. And that desire is the first step toward a willingness to put ends before means.

“Don’t fall for moral equivalence,” Hitchens warns his friend when Amis tells him he’s wondering about the distance between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Inevitably, Amis’ attempt to put the latter on a moral par with the former comes up against the question of “Which was worse?” Too often, the answer has been decided by tallying up the dead. By that measure, Stalin’s 20 million wins handily over Hitler’s 6 million Jews (the number rises significantly if you add in the rest of the Nazi’s victims). But morally, counting bodies is a mug’s game.

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It wasn’t so long ago that the loaded number of 6 million was used to argue that the killing going on in the former Yugoslavia wasn’t as bad as it could have been and therefore didn’t merit American intervention; it was bad enough, and beyond a certain point, scale is irrelevant. Amis quotes Robert Conquest, who was asked in an interview if he thought the crimes of the Holocaust were worse than the crimes of Stalin. “I answered yes, I did, but when the interviewer asked why, I could only answer honestly with ‘I feel so.’” Amis writes: “In attempting to answer the question why, one enters an area saturated with qualms.”

After some unsatisfying (though not irrelevant) preliminaries (Marxism appealed to the intellect, Nazism “yellow, tabloidal, of the gutter,” appealed to “the reptile brain”), Amis comes up with as good an answer as any. 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.

It seems insane, given two nearly incomprehensible events, events that take place outside of the accepted notions of what it is to be human, to say which is worse. Instead, Amis attempts to get at the particular character of each terror. It was easier, for example, in Nazi Germany to know who the enemy was. Describing one of the interrogations recorded in “Journey Into the Whirlwind,” Eugenia Ginzburg writes, “A communist held by the Gestapo — I would have known exactly how to behave. But here? Here I had to determine who these people were who kept me imprisoned. Were they fascists in disguise? Or victims of some super-subtle provocation, some fantastic hoax? And how should a communist behave ‘in prison in his own country,’ as the Major had put it?”

“Nazism,” Amis writes, “did not destroy civil society. Bolshevism did destroy civil society.” When 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 Russia are best summed up by the slogans of “1984″ — “WAR IS PEACE,” “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,” “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” — representing as they do the complete eradication of meaning.

The subtitle of Amis’ book is “Laughter and the Twenty Million.” The query that runs through the book, never fully answered, is how is it that we can laugh at Bolshevism but not at Nazism? That premise isn’t entirely sound. Though their crimes weren’t funny, the Nazis lent themselves to ridicule, being humorless, dogmatic and possessing accents that could easily be adapted for comic effect. And Jewish writers and comics have made much of the Holocaust as the latest episode in the endless, cosmic suffering of Jews. Perhaps only a Jew could have come up with Mel Brooks’ peerless definition of the difference between comedy and tragedy: “Tragedy is I cut my finger. Comedy is if you fall into an open manhole and die.” (A friend who has many family members who died in the camps and some who survived had among the latter an uncle who, faced with something like a cut finger or a hangnail, would exclaim, “First the Holocaust, and now this!”)

“It seems,” writes Amis, “that the Twenty Million will never command the sepulchral decorum of the Holocaust … It would not be so unless something in the nature of Bolshevism allowed it to be so.” I’d like to suggest that this has something to do with the inversions exemplified by Orwell’s slogans, the total annihilation of meaning, of even the ability to define which side you are on.

The black humor of the terror is present throughout “Journey Into the Whirlwind.” It’s the absurdity reserved for true believers betrayed. Ginzburg is not the only inmate in Stalin’s prisons who, at first, can’t help but believe that her fate is a mistake that will soon be rectified by the party. Another prisoner even attempts to get her to give up the names of all those she knows who oppose Stalin, reasoning that the more names the party possesses of people who are against Stalin, the quicker the party will be to realize that all these good, loyal communists can’t be wrong. (Ginzburg refuses.) At one point Ginzburg is told by a fellow inmate that she was right not to answer some questions from other inmates because “Who knows which of them is really an enemy, and which are the victims of a mistake, like you and me?” It would, as Oscar Wilde said, take a heart of stone not to laugh.

It would be false optimism to detect any hope in that sort of laughter. But perhaps this bleak mirth does indicate that, even in Stalin’s Russia, there was the possibility of some sort of truth-telling, however covert. And above all, what Amis is trying to do in “Koba the Dread” is to clear the mental decks, to synthesize what various sources have to tell us about the reality of a major episode of 20th century history and to disdain any attempt to apologize for it or explain it away. That he does not consider himself especially political may be why his tone is so even (though firm), why he’s without either the guilt or the fury that ex-believers feel in having allowed themselves to be deceived. Amis is asking if we can finally talk about this as logical, sensible, morally sentient adults.

You could fill books with the literary friendships that have broken up over arguments about communism. It may be that Amis’ friendship with Christopher “Lenin was … a great man” Hitchens is one of them. Toward the end of the book is a long open letter to “Comrade Hitchens” in which Amis writes, “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.”

The letter is not without affection. But it is also very sly, Amis having chosen to air this disagreement with his friend in public. No doubt Hitchens’ hatchet job lamenting his friend’s inadequate grasp of history, theory, the horrors of capitalism, ad nauseam, is still to come. But the question Amis asks him — “Do you admire terror?” — is not easily ducked. And it’s the question that Amis is asking of all the apologists, all the infatuated.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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