Illustration by Bill Smith
IT WAS ON PAGE 24 OF THE ADVANCE UNCORRECTED proofs of Martin Amis' Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, a study of Bolshevism, Stalinism and fellow travelers in the West, that I thought, surely, this must be a misprint, I should call the publisher and check. The section that brought me up short ran as follows:
So on the phone, the other day, I said to Christopher [Hitchens], “We'll have to have a long talk about this.”
“A long talk.”
“Because 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.”
Hitchens can't have said this the other day, I thought to myself. Thirty years ago, when he was a 20-something follower of Leon Trotsky, I could understand — just about — but now? Re-reading the passage carefully, I realized there was no mistake. Not only was Hitchens calling Lenin a great man, he was arguing that to compare Hitler's Germany with Stalin's Russia was to lapse into moral equivalency. As if there were something good you could say about life under Stalin.
Still, as Amis notes dryly, progress has 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 (“Koba” was Stalin's childhood nickname) is about what Amis calls the “chief lacuna” of the 20th century: the failure of Western intellectuals to condemn the grotesque horrors perpetrated in the USSR even as they were happening, and their reluctance to fully repudiate some of their communist sympathies since. (To put this in perspective, the horrors include the murder of some 20 million people and the misery of almost everybody else.) For Amis, the rot set in pretty much from day one — November 1917 — with Lenin and Trotsky setting up a “fully functioning police state” for Stalin's later use.
Like Experience, Amis' last book, this one is also a memoir, though much more glancingly so. This time, the emphasis is political. His father, the late novelist Kingsley Amis, was a communist as a young man, before making a sharp turn to the right in the 1960s. Likewise, Amis' own youthful circle was left or far-left, and he recalls a conversation in which the young Hitchens (who, considering he's Amis' best friend and has been slowly making his own rightward turn, gets treated pretty roughly here) described the genocidal state-enforced famines in the USSR as “shortages.” This, if you want to be blunt about it, is not radically dissimilar from calling the Holocaust “a detail of history” à la Jean-Marie Le Pen. The difference being that those who denied the Soviet reality have not seen their reputations suffer for it. When Austria's Freedom Party leader, Georg Haider, praised one of Hitler's employment policies, Amis writes, “Europe spat him out like a bad oyster.” But Vladimir Putin praises Stalin, proposes to mint coins bearing his image, and then visits 10 Downing Street and has tea with the queen. The asymmetry of this response bothers Amis, and in the spirit of fair play he has set out to correct it.
The book's centerpiece (“Iosif the Terrible: Short Course”) is a powerful treatise on the almost unbelievable monstrosity of Stalin's 30-year rule. As history, there is little new here, except that the history is being written by a superb novelist and stylist. From the ghastliness of Bolshevik poetry (“Our party has served long enough/as the target for spent politicians!/It's time at last/to put an end to this outrage!”) to the terrors of Bolshevik life (“Don't you understand,” Amis quotes poets Anna Akhmatova saying to Nadezhda Mandelstam, “that they are now arresting people for nothing“), the book does a brilliant job of rubbing the left's face in the mountains of corpses that resulted from its favorite political philosophy. That it has been done more thoroughly before isn't quite the point, since those who did it, most notably Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the historian Robert Conquest, are still sometimes seen as reactionary while a Marxist historian like Eric Hobsbawm is given an adulatory press.
As well as being taken up by history, Amis' book is taken up by a theory. Namely, that something in the nature of the Soviet experiment — unlike the Nazi one — can make it seem blackly hilarious. For instance, when the 1937 Census Board informed Stalin that the population of the USSR was 163 million as opposed to the expected 170 million, mainly because so many people had been murdered, Stalin had the Census Board shot for “treasonably exerting themselves to diminish the population” — and thereby diminished the population still further. The Bolsheviks promised paradise and delivered hell. They boasted of massive gains in productivity while the entire country starved. They trumpeted the “freest elections in the world” when there was only one candidate — and he was a mass murderer. This “gap between words and deeds,” Amis believes, is fertile ground for humor, and has allowed the horror of that time to be laughed off in a way the Nazi era could never be.
One knows what he means, but Amis' theory about the “laughter and the 20 million” feels dangerously close to sophistry. To bolster his argument, he quotes from the diary of Lyubov Vasilievna Shaporina, the founder of the Leningrad Puppet Theater (“Quelle blague! I went into the booth, where supposedly I was going to read the ballot and choose my candidate for the Supreme Soviet — 'choose' means you have a choice. There was just one name, already marked. I burst out laughing uncontrollably, right there in the booth . . .”) and concludes that “There â has never been a regime quite like it, not anywhere in the history of the universe. To have its subjects simultaneously quaking with terror, with hypothermia, with hunger — and with laughter.” But this “laughter” sounds more like hysteria to me, and even if it was funny, I bet it was funny about once every 20 years. Take a walk in Plummer Park sometime and check out the older Russians there. Lack of hilarity is engraved in their faces.
AT THE END OF THE BOOK, AFTER A long open letter to Hitchens (“Comrade Hitchens!” it begins, deliciously), Amis writes of going to see Hitchens debate his conservative brother, Peter, at Conway Hall in London:
At one point, reminiscing, Christopher said that he knew this building well, having spent many an evening in it with many “an old comrade.” The audience responded as Christopher knew it would (his remark was delivered with a practiced air): the audience responded with affectionate laughter.
Afterwards I asked [Robert] Conquest, “Did you laugh?”
“Yes,” he said.
And I said, “And so did I.”
Why is it? Why is it? If Christopher had referred to his many evenings with many “an old blackshirt,” the audience would have . . . Well, with such an affiliation in his past, Christopher would not be Christopher — or anyone else of the slightest distinction whatsoever.
Pondering the meaning of that laughter, Amis decides that it is born of the “universal fondness for that old, old idea about the perfect society.” It is also the “laughter of forgetting”: While everyone knows the names of the Eichmanns and Belsens, no one knows the names of their Russian equivalents. “Yet I know, and I laughed,” writes Amis. “And Conquest laughed. Why won't laughter do the decent thing? Why won't laughter excuse itself and leave the room?”
As someone who was in the room when Hitchens made his remark, I think I can say that the answer to that last question is rather prosaic. Why did they laugh? Because they were all friends. You had only to glance at the audience inside Conway Hall (Rushdie, McEwan, half the BBC) to know that they all belonged to the same milieu, and that sympathy for the socialist cause was part of their shared history. This is true even of the Cold Warrior Conquest, who was a close friend of Amis' father and whose most recent book, Reflections on a Ravaged Century, carries a laudatory blurb from Hitchens. In other rooms, in front of other audiences — former citizens of the USSR? Descendants of the victims of the gulag? — Hitchens' nostalgia might have been met with hisses and boos (as it deserved to be), and Amis' theory would have collapsed as quickly as a Soviet-made soufflé.
Still, despite his myopia on this one point, Amis deserves credit for raising the question. How is it that leftists who so eagerly besmirch others for the least trace of elitist, sexist, racist, Fascist, imperialist, colonialist, you-name-it thinking have for so long been permitted to ignore the gulag-sized blot on their own?
KOBA THE DREAD: LAUGHTER AND THE TWENTY MILLION | By MARTIN AMIS | Talk/Miramax Books | $20 | 304 pages