Koba the Dread captures the appeal of one of the most powerful belief systems of the 20th century — one that spread through the world, both captivating it and staining it red. It addresses itself to the central lacuna of 20th-century thought: the indulgence of Communism by the intellectuals of the West. In between the personal beginnings and the personal ending, Amis gives us perhaps the best one-hundred pages ever written about Stalin: Koba the Dread, Iosif the Terrible.
The author’s father, Kingsley Amis, though later reactionary in tendency, was a “Comintern dogsbody” (as he would come to put it) from 1941 to 1956. His second-closest, and then his closest friend (after the death of the poet Philip Larkin), was Robert Conquest, our leading Sovietologist whose book of 1968, The Great Terror, was second only to Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in undermining the USSR. The present memoir explores these connections.
Stalin said that the death of one person was tragic, the death of a million a mere “statistic.” Koba the Dread, during whose course the author absorbs a particular, a familial death, is a rebuttal of Stalin’s aphorism.
About the Author
Date of Birth:August 25, 1949
Place of Birth:Oxford, England
Education:B.A., Exeter College, Oxford
Read an Excerpt
KOBA THE DREAD
LAUGHTER AND THE TWENTY MILLION
By Martin Amis
talk miramax books
Copyright © 2002 Martin Amis.
All rights reserved.
Here is the second sentence of Robert Conquest's The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine:
We may perhaps put this in perspective in the present case by saying that in the actions here recorded about twenty human lives were lost for, not every word, but every letter, in this book.
That sentence represents 3,040 lives. The book is 411 pages long.
"Horse manure was eaten, partly because it often contained whole grains of wheat" (1,340 lives). "Oleska Voytrykhovsky saved his and his family's ... lives by consuming the meat of horses which had died in the collective of glanders and other diseases" (2,480 lives). Conquest quotes Vasily Grossman's essayistic-documentary novel Forever Flowing: "And the children's faces were aged, tormented, just as if they were seventy years old. And by spring they no longer had faces. Instead, they had birdlike heads with beaks, or frog headsthin, wide lipsand some of them resembled fish, mouths open" (3,880 lives). Grossman goes on:
In one hut there would be something like a war. Everyone would keep close watch over everyone else.... The wife turned against her husband and the husband against his wife. The mother hated the children. And in some other hut love would be inviolable to the very last. I knew one woman with four children. She would tell them fairy stories and legends so that they would forget their hunger. Her own tongue could hardly move, but she would take them into her arms even though she had hardly the strength to lift her arms when they were empty. Love lived on within her. And people noticed that where there was hate people died off more swiftly. Yet love, for that matter, saved no one. The whole village perished, one and all. No life remained in it.
Thus: 11,860 lives. Cannibalism was widely practicedand widely punished. Not all these pitiable anthropophagi received the supreme penalty. In the late 1930s, 325 cannibals from the Ukraine were still serving life sentences in Baltic slave camps.
The famine was an enforced famine: the peasants were stripped of their food. On June 11, 1933, the Ukrainian paper Visti praised an "alert" secret policeman for unmasking and arresting a "fascist saboteur" who had hidden some bread in a hole under a pile of clover. That word fascist. One hundred and forty lives.
In these pages, guileless prepositions like at and to each represent the murder of six or seven large families. There is only one book on this subject: Conquest's. It is, I repeat, 411 pages long.
I am a fifty-two-year-old novelist and critic who has recently read several yards of books about the Soviet experiment. On December 31, 1999, along with Tony Blair and the Queen, I attended the celebrations at the Millennium Dome in London. Touted as a festival of high technology in an aesthetic dreamscape, the evening resembled a five-hour stopover in a second-rate German airport. For others, the evening resembled a five-hour attempt to reach a second-rate German airportso I won't complain. I knew that the millennium was a non-event, reflecting little more than our interest in zeros; and I knew that December 31, 1999, wasn't the millennium anyway. But that night did seem to mark the end of the twentieth century; and the twentieth century is 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). I had hoped that at midnight I would get some sort of chiliastic frisson. And I didn't get it at the Dome. Nonetheless, a day or two later I started to write about the twentieth century and what I took to be its chief lacuna. The piece, or the pamphlet, grew into the slim volume you hold in your hands. I have written about the Holocaust, in a novel (Time's Arrow). Its afterword begins:
This book is dedicated to my sister Sally, who, when she was very young, rendered me two profound services. She awakened my protective instincts; and she provided, if not my earliest childhood memory, then certainly my most charged and radiant. She was perhaps half an hour old at the time. I was four.
It feels necessary to record that, between Millennium Night and the true millennium a year later, my sister died at the age of forty-six.
In 1968 I spent the summer helping to rewire a high-bourgeois mansion in a northern suburb of London. It was my only taste of proletarian life. The experience was additionally fleeting and qualified: when the job was done, I promptly moved into the high-bourgeois mansion with my father and stepmother (both of them novelists, though my father was also a poet and critic). My sister would soon move in too. That summer we were of course monitoring the events in Czechoslovakia. In June, Brezhnev deployed 16,000 men on the border. The military option on "the Czech problem" was called Operation Tumor.... My father had been to Prague in 1966 and made many contacts there. After that it became a family jokethe stream of Czechs who came to visit us in London. There were bouncing Czechs, certified Czechs, and at least one honored Czech, the novelist Josef Skvorecky. And then on the morning of August 21 my father appeared in the doorway to the courtyard, where the rewiring detail was taking a break, and called out in a defeated and wretched voice: "Russian tanks in Prague."
I turned nineteen four days later. In September I went up to Oxford.
The first two items in The Letters of Kingsley Amis form the only occasion, in a book of 1,200 pages, where I find my father impossible to recognize. Here he is humorlessly chivvying a faint-hearted comrade to rally to the cause. The tone (earnest, elderly, "soppy-stern") is altogether alien: "Now, really, you know, this won't do at all, leaving the Party like that. Tut, tut, John. I am seriously displeased with you." The second letter ends with a hand-drawn hammer and sickle. My father was a card-carrying member of the CP, taking his orders, such as they were, from Stalin's Moscow. It was November 1941: he was nineteen, and up at Oxford.
1941. Kingsley, let us assume, was sturdily ignorant of the USSR's domestic cataclysms. But its foreign policies hardly cried out for one's allegiance. A summary. August 1939: the Nazi-Soviet Pact. September 1939: the Nazi-Soviet invasion-partition of Poland (and a second pact: the Soviet-German Treaty on Borders and Friendship). November 1939: the annexation of Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia, and the attempted invasion of Finland (causing the USSR's expulsion, the following month, from the League of Nations). June 1940: the annexation of Moldavia and Northern Bukovina. August 1940: the annexation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia; and the murder of Trotsky. These acquisitions and decapitations would have seemed modest compared to Hitler's helter-skelter successes over the same period. And then in June 1941, of course, Germany attacked the Soviet Union. My father rightly expected to participate in the war; the Russians were now his allies. It was then that he joined the Party, and he remained a believer for fifteen years.
How much did the Oxford comrades know, in 1941? There were public protests in the West about the Soviet forced-labor camps as early as 1931. There were also many solid accounts of the violent chaos of Collectivization (1929-34) and of the 1933 famine (though no suggestion, as yet, that the famine was terroristic). And there were the Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38, which were open to foreign journalists and observers, and were monitored worldwide. In these pompous and hysterical charades, renowned Old Bolsheviks "confessed" to being career-long enemies of the regime (and to other self-evidently ridiculous charges). The pubescent Solzhenitsyn was "stunned by the fraudulence of the trials." And yet the world, on the whole, took the other view, and further accepted indignant Soviet denials of famine, enserfment of the peasantry, and slave labor. "There was no reasonable excuse for believing the Stalinist story. The excuses which can be advanced are irrational," writes Conquest in The Great Terror. The world was offered a choice between two realities; and the young Kingsley, in common with the overwhelming majority of intellectuals everywhere, chose the wrong reality.
The Oxford Communists would certainly have known about the Soviet decree of April 7, 1935, which rendered children of twelve and over subject to "all measures of criminal punishment," including death. This law, which was published on the front page of Pravda and caused universal consternation (reducing the French CP to the argument that children, under socialism, became grownups very quickly), was intended, it seems, to serve two main purposes. One was social: it would expedite the disposal of the multitudes of feral and homeless orphans created by the regime. The second purpose, though, was political. It applied barbaric pressure on the old oppositionists, Kamenev and Zinoviev, who had children of eligible age; these men were soon to fall, and their clans with them. The law of April 7, 1935, was the crystallization of "mature" Stalinism. Imagine the mass of the glove that Stalin swiped across your face; imagine the mass of it.
On April 7, 1935, my father was nine days away from his thirteenth birthday. Did he ever wonder, as he continued to grow up, why a state should need "the last line of defense" (as a secret reinforcing instruction put it) against twelve-year-olds?
Perhaps there is a reasonable excuse for believing the Stalinist story. The real storythe truthwas entirely unbelievable.
It was in the following summer of 1969, I think, that I sat for an hour in the multi-acre garden of the fascist mansion in southern Hertfordshire with Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest. A scrap of the conversation sticks in my mind, because I pulled off a mildly successful witticism at a time when I was still (rightly) anxious about my general seaworthiness in adult company. Kingsley and Bob (a.k.a. "Kingers" and "Conquers," just as Bob's future translatee, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, would be referred to as "Solzhers"pronounced soldiers), were deploring a recent production of Hamlet in which the Prince was homosexual and Ophelia was played by a man. In retrospect that sounds almost staid, for 1969. Anyhow, I said, "Get thee to a monastery." No great thing; but it seemed to scan.
In 1967 Kingsley had published the article called "Why Lucky Jim Turned Right." The ex-Communist was developing into a reasonably active Labouritebefore becoming (and remaining) a markedly noisy Tory. In 1968 Bob had published The Great Terror, his classic study of Stalin's purges of the 1930s, and was on the way to assembling a body of work that would earn him the title, bestowed at a plenum of the Central Committee in Moscow in 1990, of "anti-Sovietchik number one." Both Kingsley and Bob, in the 1960s, were frequently referred to as "fascists" in the general political debate. The accusation was only semi-serious (as indeed was the general political debate, it now seems. In my milieu, policemen and even parking wardens were called fascists). Kingers and Conquers referred to their own weekly meetings, at Bertorelli's in Charlotte Street, as "the fascist lunch"; here they would chat and carouse with other fascists, among them the journalist Bernard Levin, the novelists Anthony Powell and John Braine (an infrequent and much-feared participant), and the defector historian Tibor Szamuely. What united the fascist lunchers was well-informed anti-Communism. Tibor Szamuely knew what Communism was. He had known them: purge, arrest, gulag.
I didn't read The Great Terror in 1968 (I would have been more likely, at that time, to have read Conquest's poetry). But I spent an hour with it, and never forgot the cold elegance of the following remark about "sources": "1. Contemporary official accounts require little comment. They are, of course, false as to essentials, but they are still most informative. (It is untrue that Mdivani was a British spy, but it is true that he was executed.)" I have recently read the book twice, in the first edition (which I must have successfully stolen from my father), and in its revised, post-glasnost form, The Great Terror: A Reassessment. When asked to suggest a new title for the revised work, Conquest told his publisher, "How about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?" Because the book, itself revolutionary at the time of its appearance, has since been massively vindicated. In the mid-1960s I joined in hundreds of conversations like the following (the interlocutors here are my father and A. J. Ayer):
"In the USSR, 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 five million people."
"You keep going back to the five million."
"If you're tired of that five million, then I'm sure I can find you another five million."
And one can, now. One can find another 5 million, and another, and another.
Alongside all this there was, in England then, a far hotter debate: the one about Vietnam. A certain urbanity was maintained in arguments about the USSR. It was in arguments about Vietnam that people yelled, wept, fought, stalked out. I watched my father forfeit two valuable friendships over Vietnam (those of A. Alvarez and Karl Miller). For he, and most but not all of the frequenters of the fascist lunch, broadly backed American policy. And this was, of course, the position of a minuscule and much-disliked minority. In my first term at Oxford (autumn, 1968) I attended a demonstration against the resuppression of Czechoslovakia. Some sixty or seventy souls were present. We heard speeches. The mood was sorrowful, decent. Compare this to the wildly peergroup-competitive but definitely unfakable emotings and self-lacerations of the crowds outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, where they gathered in their tens of thousands.
In 1968 the world seemed to go further left than it had ever gone before and would ever go again. But this left was the New Left: it represented, or turned out to represent, revolution as play. The "redeemer" class was no longer to be found in the mines and factories; it was to be found in the university libraries and lecture halls. There were demonstrations, riots, torchings, street battles in England, Germany, Italy, Japan and the USA. And remember the Paris of 1968: barricades, street theater, youth-worship ("The young make love; the old make obscene gestures"), the resurgence of Marcuse (the wintry dialectician), and Sartre standing on street corners handing out Maoist pamphlets .... The death throes of the New Left took the form of vanguard terrorism (the Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof gang, the Weathermen). And its afterlife is anarchistic, opposing itself to the latest mutation of capital: after imperialism, after fascism, it now faces globalization. We may note here that militant Islam cannot be made to fit into this "model"or into any other.
But red wasn't dead, in 1968. During my time at Oxford they used to come to your room: the believers, the steely onesthe proselytizing Communists. One might adapt the old joke. Q: What's the difference between a Communist car and a Communist proselytizer? A: You can close the door on a Communist proselytizer. To glance quickly at a crucial dissonance: it has always been possible to joke about the Soviet Union, just as it has never been possible to joke about Nazi Germany. This is not merely a question of decorum. In the German case, laughter automatically absents itself. Pace Adorno, it was not poetry that became impossible after Auschwitz. What became impossible was laughter. In the Soviet case, on the other hand, laughter intransigently refuses to absent itself. Immersion in the facts of the Bolshevik catastrophe may make this increasingly hard to accept, but such an immersion will never cleanse that catastrophe of laughter....
Excerpted from KOBA THE DREAD by Martin Amis. Copyright © 2002 by Martin Amis. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
What People are Saying About This
“Koba the Dread is filled with passion and intelligence, and with prose that gleams and startles. . . .This fierce little book. . . [has the] power to surprise, and ultimately to provoke, enrage and illuminate.” –San Jose Mercury News
“Koba the Dread is heartfelt. . . . Amis does not shrink from difficult questions about possible moral distinctions between Lenin and Stalin, Stalin and Hitler.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“Riveting. . . .Martin Amis has a noble purpose in writing Koba the Dread. He wants to call attention to just what an insanely cruel monster Josef Stalin was.” –Seattle Times
“Martin Amis is our inimitable prose master, a constructor of towering English sentences, and his life…is genuinely worth writing about.” –Esquire
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Koba is Stalin. The author is the son of Kingsley Amis, who was at a time a British communist, but later became conservative, and a friend of Robert Conquest, who wrote The Great Terror about the collectivization and other terrors of Stalin¿s regime. The book is about the terror, but in a personal way of trying to explain how his father and other intellectuals of the between war periods been attracted to the Soviet Union. The stories of the famine in the Ukraine, and of the camps, are horrific, and the personal asides interesting. The laughter is the concept that the Russian people always regarded the regime as a sick joke.
To tell the truth I am not a Martin Amis fan. I think his father Amis is a far superior writer of whom I have read every book On the other hand, this is the only of his offsprings that I was able to finish to the end. It is an interesting treatise on the variances of fascism, whether of the left or right, attempting to explain those who fall into its spells. If you like this try Vollman's Central Europe