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Martin Amis - Koba The Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (Jonathan Cape)

Laughter?! The first, and only, laugh comes some two hundred pages in. Relatives of Red Army POWs in the Second World War, we are told, as a punishment for the shame their family member brought upon the Motherland, lost the right to vote. The Right to Vote! Here's how Lubov Shaporina voted in the 1937 Soviet election:

I went into the booth, where supposedly I was going to read the ballot and choose my candidate for the Supreme Soviet. There was just one name, already marked.

The election campaign in Leningrad itself was characterised by sleepless nights. Every hour or so you would be woken by the sound of machine-gun fire as "undesirable elements" were eliminated before the vote.

In Kolyma prison camp, as the temperature got down to -97.8 °F, "your breath freezes into crystals and tinkles to the ground with a noise they call the whispering of the stars". When the blizzards came everyone died. The prisoners died. The guards died. The dogs died.

When Vsevolod Meyerhold displeased Stalin with a play about the Civil War, his wife was murdered by the Secret Police in their apartment. Her eyes were cut out.

A solitary cell in a prison was typically ankle-deep in raw sewage. The concrete "bed" was so narrow you could not lie on your back, only on your side. Facing the wall - covered in slime and christ knows what - was not recommended. Either way, you didn't sleep.

In the 1937 "Great Purge" solitary cells, by now knee-deep, were crammed so tight, with up to 60 prisoners per cell, that you couldn't move your arms. In-mates started talking to themselves. Soon, one would start screaming. This would be contagious - quickly, everyone would be screaming.

If people died on the chain gang, Commander Kurilko would make a prisoner "suck the snot from the corpse".

The total death toll from the Stalinist period, including Collectivisation, the 1931 state-induced famine and the Great Terror, but excluding World War Two casualties, seems to have been around 20 million. Hitler killed 6 million. Mao, 60 million.

Amis's thesis, in Koba the Dread, is that Stalin has not been adequately vilified for these appalling atrocities. And the reason for this is that the bulk of the intelligentsia were themselves fellow comrades. Amis's father was a party member in his youth. His best mate - lefty firebrand Christopher Hitchens - advocated a complex mixture of political philosophies as a Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist. The British newspapers, and indeed the cabinet (Jack Straw, no less), are riddled with ex-Party members. Let me first address the merits of the theory and then the book.

I would say Amis is right. We have all heard of Auschwitz. Who has heard of Kolyma? The number 6 million is understood. But the 20 million? I knew the WW2 Eastern Front losses were of that magnitude, but these are the dead from the 1930s. (And we are going to want to make more noise about China's 60 million, we are not going to accept government suppression of protest next time the Chinese leadership visit.) Why isn't the Soviet Union denigrated to the same extent as Nazi Germany. It seems to me that it is because the theoretical philosophies of Communism are undoubtedly more appealing that those of Nazism. The eradication of the class system is sound. Racism is not. And that's about it. Were the purges, the terror, the camps an inevitable consequence of October 1917? I would offer a cautious "yes". Communism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, requires the total support of the populace. Debate, differing views, democracy: these are fatal to Communism. The survival of the Communist state depends on their suppression. So, Marx and Engels offered admirable theories and principles. Their implementation, under Lenin and Stalin was worse than a nightmare.

This is an uncomfortable conclusion. Amongst other things a re-think on Korea and Vietnam are required.

Finally, is the book any good? Here we have an unqualified "No"! What is it supposed to be? As a history text it lacks the necessary research and rigour. Amis over relies on quotation (almost all of the paragraphs quoted above are in turn themselves quotations). We could reasonably expect Amis's prose to be rise to the subject, but it does not. A familiar trope is the "elephant in the living room", a phrase used by social workers when analysing dysfunctional families, here borrowed to describe Stalin's own horrendous mental problems and the surreal dehumanisation rampant in Russia in the 30s. But does "an elephant" really do? At one point MA tries to expand and comes up with "mammoth". This won't do either. It's 20 million mammoths, all defecating and howling in the Kremlin while the Politburo are in session. And that won't do either. Solzhenitsyn went for length; The Gulag Archipelago stretches to 1400 pages. Why read Koba rather than The Gulag Archipelago?

The book closes with two open letters: one to Hitchens, the other to Kingsley Amis. "Comrade Hitchens!" it opens and still, after 250 pages of horror, the 'Comrade' is thrilling. Why? The Kingsley letter is the best thing in the book, but it shouldn't be: it barely touches on Stalin and Communism. Instead it acts as an appendix to Experience, the 1999 autobiography. It updates us on the death of Amis's sister - and here I had a lump in the throat for the first time - and of the burgeoning Amis family. It is touching and humane, delicately and skilfully written. Amis is at his best when he is dealing with subject matter that he has known first hand.

Koba the Dread serves as an OK primer for the under-read (i.e. a lot of people, myself included), it has forced the subject into the papers for a few weeks, and made a few fat journalists squirm. It makes me want to read Solzhenitsyn and it makes me not want to read Solzhenitsyn. It is not, however, a major work on the Soviet Union. It is certainly not a major Amis work. I think Martin Amis is avoiding the own elephant in his office, sitting on top of his typewriter: writer's block. Once again I am left wondering: where is that new long novel?

Chris Sampson, September 2002

Picture, Nineteen Years of the Soviet Union and the Fight for Freedom and World Peace, Renau.

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