STALIN: KOBA THE DREAD II
(another book review)
Here's another review of KOBA THE DREAD, a book exposing life in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Remember, this is the man our western leaders comraderly referred to as "Uncle Joe" and by whose side we fought in WWII. ~ Jackie Jura
Evil Incarnate and Widely Ignored
by J.P. AVLON, New York Sun, Jul 30, 2002
In what is still his masterpiece, 1989’s “London Fields,” Martin Amis wrote “Watching the children in the park … it occurs to me as I try to account for childish gaiety, that they find their own littleness essentially comic. They love to be chased, hilariously aware that the bigger thing cannot help but capture them in time.”
In his new book, Mr. Amis continues to examine the presence of laughter against the backdrop of looming oblivion. But the canvas is now fact, not fiction. And death does not appear as a benign if inevitable force; it is accelerated by the machinery and policies of an evil paranoiac with unlimited power. The reality of Stalin’s Russia puts imaginary nightmares to shame for their clinging sentiment and lack of cruel innovation. In “Koba the Dread,” Mr. Amis sifts through the corpus of Stalinism (“several yards” of books). Here is “the surreal moral gangrene of Stalinism”: the story of “a mad gymnast of multiple deceit” amid “a typhoon of unreason” that he unleashed.
This was life under Stalin: orphans were shot en masse and 4 million children were killed during collectivization — in every sense a mini-Holocaust that quietly occurred between 1929 and 1933. The 1937 census board was ordered put to death for “treasonably exerting themselves to diminish the population of the USSR.” Even the secret police were jailed and killed, in Mr. Amis’s words, to “terrorize the terrorizers, to pile terror upon terror.”
Here’s how Stalin treated his hometown crowd: of the 644 delegates to the Georgian party congress in May of 1937, 425 were either shot or sent to the gulag. And the founder of the state had his eyes plucked out and his eardrums perforated while his wife was forced to watch.
On October 10, 1937, a woman named Lyubov Vasilievana Shaporina wrote in her diary: "The nausea rises to my throat when I hear how calmly people say it: he was shot, someone else was shot, shot, shot. The words resonate through the air. People pronounce the words completely calmly, as though they were saying, ‘he went to the theater.’”
Stalin advanced “the notion that mercilessness is a virtue” by killing more than 20 million of his own people during his quarter-century reign of terror. No single ethnic or religious group was singled out for execution exclusively. Stalin’s enemy was humanity. “No man,” he said, “no problem.”
And somehow Stalin emerged from this bloodbath … loved — in the words of one contemporary, the historian Dmitri Volkogonov: “to exterminate millions of his own countrymen and receive in exchange the whole country’s blind adoration.”
And, not just within Russia, but also abroad — within the western democracies — because of the rhetoric of idealism that communism shamelessly employed.
Imagine the German chancellor proposing to place Hitler’s face on the currency — that is what Vladimir Putin has done for Stalin. Imagine a room full of presumably thoughtful academics and journalists sharing a good laugh over a speaker’s Nazi-past — that is what Mr. Amis faces when his Trotsky-admiring friend Christopher Hitchens takes the podium at a conference and fondly reminisces about his college-age communist sympathies. The innocence associated with communism remained somehow intact, despite the mountains of bodies — laughter and the 20 million.
Most authors would not attempt to retell a history of mass murder by rooting it in a family narrative, but Mr. Amis pulls off this stunt with some success. Since the publication of his last novel, “Night Train” more than four years ago, the previously prolific novelist has offered up only a premature memoir, “Experience.” In both that book and subsequent interviews, his relationship with his late father, the novelist Kingsley Amis, seems to have taken centerstage in his consciousness.
Here too, it appears that wrestling with Kingsley’s ghost — as well as absorbing the death of a beloved sister — has catapulted Mr. Amis toward his subject. “Koba the Dread” attempts to understand his father’s brief but enthusiastic membership in the Communist Party during the 1940s.
Kingsley Amis was part of the generation of educated British that gave us Kim Philby. Communism was fashionable, the next big idea, and eminently preferable and more sophisticated than the bland awkwardness of liberal democracy and the more obvious brutishness of fascism. Indeed, Soviet sympathies were aroused at the time (and Soviet agents courted at Oxford and Cambridge) by the moral imperative to appear stridently anti-fascist. This environment gave rise to conversations like the following, between Kingsley Amis and his friend A. J. Ayer:
“In the USSR, at least they’re trying to forge something positive.”
“But it really 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.”
Of course, at least four times that number can be found.
In time, Kingsley left not only the Communist Party, but also Britain’s Labour Party and became a vocal supporter of Margaret Thatcher. That his father was briefly duped into defending mass murderers is not nearly as troubling to the younger Amis as the persistence of the romantic myth of communism among people who have no excuse not to know better. This is a parallel conversation, held 50 years later, between Mr. Amis and his friend Christopher Hitchens.
“I’m wondering about the distance between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany”
“Oh don’t fall for that Mart. Don’t fall for moral equivalence.”
“Lenin was … a great man.”
“This is going to be a long conversation.”
It has been. And the conversation is, distressingly, still far from over. But as Mr. Amis notes, “progress has already been made. The argument, now, is about whether Bolshevik Russia was ‘better’ than Nazi Germany. In the days when the New Left dawned, the argument was about whether Bolshevik Russia was better than America.”
“Koba the Dread” is a valuable addition to this long conversation. It will reach a wider and far different audience than previous epic contributions such as David Remnick’s “Lenin’s Tomb” or Robert Conquest’s “The Great Terror.” Mr. Amis disabuses apologists of the notion that the early Bolshevik years were pure and principled. He points out that the policies of mass murder as a social tool were engrained in the foundations of the Soviet state; this was an evil empire from its very beginnings.
Trotsky offered pronouncements such as, “We must rid ourselves once and for all of the Quaker-Papist babble about the sanctity of human life.” This sentiment was made policy by Lenin, who praised one duplicitous and murderous scheme as “A beautiful plan. Under the guise of Greens (and we will pin it on them later) we shall go forward … and hang the kulaks, priests, and landowners. Bounty: 100,000 rubles for each man hanged.” Lenin was sure that he knew the value of a human life. Stalin elevated this line of reasoning to its terrible conclusion: “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”
But what of the laughter? Why is communism — whose death toll farout-stripped that of Nazism — still considered something of a quaint parlor-piece when compared to the unambiguous sin of National Socialism?
“One elicits spontaneous fury, the other elicits spontaneous laughter. And what kind of laughter is it? It is, of course, the laughter of universal fondness for that old, old idea about the perfect society. It is also the laughter of forgetting. It forgets the demonic energy unconsciously embedded in that hope. It forgets the Twenty Million. This isn’t right. Everybody knows of Auschwitz and Belsen. Nobody knows of Vorkuta and Solovetsky,” he writes.
Martin Amis deserves great credit for using his talent and profile to draw more attention to 20 million souls who were murdered and then largely ignored in the name of moral relativism. Fueled by Mr. Amis’s bracing voice — at turns humorous, compassionate and mercilessly exact — “Koba the Dread” moves briskly through painful territory without doing a disservice to the legions of victims.
This is an odd addition to the Amis catalogue, and those of us who admire his writing might hope that the dark and lyrical career-encapsulating novel will be next. But “Koba the Dread” is brave and welcome and ultimately a generous act of remembrance from one of our great writers.
http://www.nysun.com/sunarticle.asp?artID=91 - The New York Sun, Jul 30, 2002
Thaw uncovers Gulag bones (no memorial because those who caused it still in power). NewYorkTimes, Feb 24, 2004. Go to 7.Systems of Thought & 42.The Party Tells 'Why' & GULAG'S HAUNTING LEGACY
COMMUNISM'S TRUE BELIEVERS, by Robert Fulford
MY JOURNEY THROUGH FAMINE STRICKEN RUSSIA, 1933, by Whiting Williams
EXPERIENCES IN RUSSIA, 1931, A DIARY, by H J "Jack" Heinz
SOVIET UNION FAMINE EXPOSURE, 1930-1933, by Gareth Jones
NO ESCAPE FOR GULAG PRISONERS, by Julius Strauss
STALIN'S LIAR IN NEW YORK (got Pultzer Prize for denying Soviet starvation & gulags). CalgarySun, May 20, 2003. Go to 17.Falsification of Past & ORWELL'S PUBLISHING PROBLEMS
Go to STALIN: KOBA THE DREAD I
Go to COMMUNISM BY ANY OTHER NAME...