The book is a study of the depredations of the regime of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union from the s to the s. The title alludes to Stalin's nickname "Koba", and the estimated 20 million deaths in the Soviet Union during Stalin's rule due to starvation, torture, gulags , and the purges and confessions of Stalin's Great Terror. The estimate of deaths under Stalin comes from Robert Conquest 's work, a key source for Amis. The book received a mixed reception. In The New York Times , critic Michiko Kakutani described the book as, "The narcissistic musings of a spoiled, upper-middle class litterateur who has never known the kind of real suffering Stalin's victims did. Along with the laughter it offers the reader unfamiliar with Stalin's legacy a number that is the first step in understanding Russia's modern tragedy.
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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. 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 heads—thin, wide lips—and some of them resembled fish, mouths open" 3, 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, lives. Cannibalism was widely practiced—and widely punished. Not all these pitiable anthropophagi received the supreme penalty.
In the late s, 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, , 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, pages long. I am a fifty-two-year-old novelist and critic who has recently read several yards of books about the Soviet experiment.
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 airport—so 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, , 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 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, men on the border. The military option on "the Czech problem" was called Operation Tumor My father had been to Prague in and made many contacts there.
After that it became a family joke—the 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, 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. My father was a card-carrying member of the CP, taking his orders, such as they were, from Stalin's Moscow. It was November he was nineteen, and up at Oxford. 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 the Nazi-Soviet Pact. June the annexation of Moldavia and Northern Bukovina.
August 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 , 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 ? There were public protests in the West about the Soviet forced-labor camps as early as There were also many solid accounts of the violent chaos of Collectivization and of the famine though no suggestion, as yet, that the famine was terroristic.
And there were the Moscow Show Trials of , 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. 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, , 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, , 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, , 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 story—the truth—was entirely unbelievable. It was in the following summer of , 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. In retrospect that sounds almost staid, for Anyhow, I said, "Get thee to a monastery.
'Koba the Dread'
In his superb memoir, Experience , Martin Amis almost casually expends a terrific line in a minor footnote. Batting away a critic he describes as "humorless," he adds, "And by calling him humorless I mean to impugn his seriousness, categorically: such a man must rig up his probity ex nihilo. Amis has won and held the attention of an audience eager for something very like this in reverse—a synthesis of astonishing wit and moral assiduity. Even the farcical episodes of his fiction are set on the bristling frontiers of love and death and sex. With his other hand, so to speak, he has raised the standard of essayistic reviewing, mounting guard over our muscular but vulnerable English language and registering fastidious pain whenever it is hurt or insulted.
Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million
It is largely political while remaining personal. It addresses itself to the central lacuna of twentieth-century thought: the indulgence of communism by intellectuals of the West. The author's father, Kingsley Amis, though later reactionary in tendency, was 'a Comintern dogsbody' as he would come to put it from to Amis's remarkable 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
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. 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 heads—thin, wide lips—and some of them resembled fish, mouths open" 3, lives. Grossman goes on:. In one hut there would be something like a war. Everyone would keep close watch over everyone else