The complete title of Martin Amis’s blistering history of Stalin is, “Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million”. The ‘twenty million’ are the Russians whom Stalin murdered; but what part could ‘laughter’ play in that? Amis explains:
‘[I]t 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 … In the Soviet case, on the other hand, laughter intransigently refuses to absent itself.’
Consider these examples, gathered from Amis’s book and from other sources:
There is something funny about the prolonged standing ovations that were called for in honor of Stalin—prolonged because no one wanted to be the first to stop applauding. There is something funny about Solzhenitsyn’s futile debate with a Marxist scholar while on board a prisoner transport. ‘In arguing with them,’ Solzhenitsyn observed, ‘you wear yourself out, unless you accept in advance that the argument is simply a game, a jolly pastime.’ And it was funny to enter a voting booth during Soviet elections and find only one name on the ballot, marked beforehand. The presence of Soviet judges at the Nuremberg Trials was rather comical … or maybe just hypocritical: Russian Communists passing judgment on German Nazis for (1) using civilians for slave labor and (2) persecuting and murdering people because of political or religious beliefs. Finally, it is very funny that Christopher Hitchens judged V.I. Lenin to be “a great man”—yet Mother Teresa was a villain.
But horror more than anything else permeates Amis’s history of the Soviet Union. He gives readers a nightmarish overview of a little-known and enforced famine that ended the lives of some five million people. Torture extracted bogus confessions from legions of political prisoners. And in the Siberian slave camps to which the “guilty” were sent, inhumanly hard labor trudged hand-in-frozen-hand with minimal nourishment.
Almost as horrifying, these Communist abominations were ignored, denied or rationalized by scores of Western intellectuals. Thankfully, Martin Amis convinced one, Christopher Hitchens, to re-think some of his positions vis-à-vis the Soviet Communists. Though Hitchens protested against the claim that Stalin’s Russia was as bad as Hitler’s Germany, Amis noted that this alone indicated progress:
‘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.’
Martin Amis’s “Koba the Dread” can’t match the epic stature of Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago”; nor does it presume to try. But it is, in its own right, a great book. And as a brief introduction to Communism’s toxicity, it cannot be topped.