Amis's two previous undertakings of this kind were reviewed ungenerously in some quarters, either because they seemed presumptuous in taking a familiar subject and presenting it as if for the first time, or because they relied a little too much on a senior source (Jonathan Schell in the first case, and Primo Levi in the second). To this I would respond rather as Winston Smith does when he has finished reading the occult "inner-party" book in Nineteen Eighty-Four: "The best books ... are those that tell you what you know already." Amis understands that cliché and banality constitute a menace to even the most apparently self-evident truths. "Holocaust" can become a tired synecdoche for war crimes in general. Before one knows it, one is employing terms like "nuclear exchange" and even "nuclear umbrella," and committing the mental and moral offense of euphemism. One must always seek for new means of keeping familiar subjects fresh, and raw.
Stalinism was, among other things, a triumph of the torturing of language. And, unlike Nazism or fascism or nuclear warfare, it secured at least the respect, and sometimes the admiration, of liberal intellectuals. Thus Amis's achievement in these pages is to make us wince again at things that we already "knew" while barely wasting a word or missing the implications of a phrase. Here is a short section titled "Rhythms of Thought":
Stalin's two most memorable utterances are "Death solves all problems. No man, no problem" and (he was advising his interrogators on how best to elicit a particular confession) "Beat, beat and beat again."To that second paragraph Amis appends a footnote, saying:
Both come in slightly different versions. "There is a man, there is a problem. No man, no problem." This is less epigrammatic, and more catechistic—more typical of Stalin's seminarian style (one thinks of his oration at Lenin's funeral and its liturgical back-and-forth).
The variant on number two is: "Beat, beat, and, once again, beat." Another clear improvement, if we want a sense of Stalin's rhythms of thought.
If Stalin had been a modern American he would not have used the word "problem" but the less defeatist and judgmental "issue". Actually, when you consider what Stalin tended to do to his enemies' descendants, the substitution works well enough.That is excellent: dry without being too detached. Next I would instance Amis's citations from the various cruelties and torments documented by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
This reader has endured none of them; and I will proceed with caution and unease. It feels necessary because torture, among its other applications, was part of Stalin's war against the truth. He tortured, not to force you to reveal a fact, but to force you to collude in a fiction.Here is his close reading of the last paragraph of Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky's closing stave reads,
The language of the civilised nations has clearly marked off two epochs in the development of Russia. Where the aristocratic culture introduced into the world parlance such barbarisms as tsar, pogrom, knout, October has internationalised such words as Bolshevik, soviet, and piatiletka. This alone justifies the proletarian revolution, if you imagine that it needs justification.Amis's first comment on this ensues directly. He adds to Trotsky's bombast the words "Which leaves you wondering if piatiletka is Russian for 'summary execution,' perhaps, or 'slave camp.'" There follows a footnote. (Like Gibbon, Amis seems to like to reserve the best for the footnotes.)
I searched without success for piatiletka in five end-of-monograph glossaries. Its clinching "internationalisation," then, didn't last (although Hitler, and later Mao, took it up). Piatiletka means "five-year plan."There is a very slight waste of words here, because the mordancy of Amis's second observation makes the first one seem merely taunting and sarcastic. But lapses of this kind are infrequent. When Amis summarizes a crux, it stays summarized. One doesn't have to have suffered torture and solitary confinement to get the point that is being made here:
The confession was in any case merely part of a more or less inevitable process. When it was their turn to be purged, former interrogators (and all other Chekists) immediately called with a flourish for the pen and the dotted line.One also wouldn't absolutely have to know which regime was under discussion: the potency of that aperçu derives from its disclosing of our animal nature. Indeed, and as in his other work on murder and tyranny, Amis has a better than approximate idea of what we as a species might get up to if given a chance. "Arma virumque cano, and Hitler-Stalin tells us this, among other things: given total power over another, the human being will find that his thoughts turn to torture."
This is an insight of extreme, frigid bleakness, amounting almost to despair, but it also involves a minor waste of words. We knew this, after all, before we knew of Hitler or Stalin. Again to cite Orwell, there is a tendency for all stories of cruelty and atrocity to resemble one another. For this reason some overfamiliar or recycled accounts provoke boredom or disbelief, and can be made to seem propagandistic. (The classic example is the way the British fabrication of German outrages during World War I had the paradoxical effect of turning skeptics into cynics when they heard the initially incredible news of Nazi innovations in that terrible sphere.) Orwell was on guard against this blunting tendency. He thought it probable that given moral breakdown, the same hellish desires would replicate and repeat themselves. He also believed the worst about Stalin's system, and much earlier than most "enlightened" people, precisely because he found its public language so crude and brutal.
In a particularly luminous and funny passage on the correspondence between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, Amis puts his entire trust in Nabokov's ability to employ language with care and discrimination, and shows that Wilson's journeyman prose practically rigged itself to trap him, and others, into a more comforting "explanation" of the titanic misery and failure of the Stalin years. (Amis doesn't make as much as he might of the fact that Nabokov produced his diamond-hard phrases in English, whereas his first language was Russian, while Wilson offered in return some thoughts about Russia that were trudging even in English.)
Stalin was no fool when he said that the death of one person is a tragedy, whereas the death of a million people is a statistic. Marx and Engels had always shuddered at the gross, enormous crudity of the steppe and the taiga, the illimitable reserves of primeval backwardness that they contained; and European liberalism had long been mesmerized by the Asiatic horror of Russian autocracy. This howling wilderness and boundless hinterland were themselves factors of "historical materialism." So, "in the execution of the broad brushstrokes of his hate," as Amis phrases it, Stalin "had weapons that Hitler did not have":
He had cold: the burning cold of the Arctic. "At Oimyakon [in the Kolyma] a temperature has been recorded of-97.8 F. In far lesser cold, steel splits, tires explode and larch trees shower sparks at the touch of an axe ..."In making the inescapable comparison with Hitler, who killed many fewer people (and even killed many fewer Communists) than Stalin, Amis is guided mostly by the view of Robert Conquest. He also relies, in varying degrees, on Martin Malia, Richard Pipes, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In Conquest's opinion, the visceral reaction to Nazism entails a verdict that it was morally worse than Stalinism, even if its eventual hecatomb was a less colossal one. This distinction rests on the sheer intentionality and obscenity of the Shoah, or Final Solution. Those who were killed in Ukraine, by a state-sponsored famine, were not killed as Ukrainians in quite the same way as the Ukrainian Jews of Babi Yar were later killed as Jews. The slave system of the gulag did not have as its primary objective the turning of living people into corpses. The huge callousness of the system simply allowed vast numbers to be treated as expendable.
He had darkness: the Bolshevik sequestration, the shockingly bitter and unappeasable self-exclusion from the planet, with its fear of comparison, its fear of ridicule, its fear of truth.
He had space: the great imperium with its eleven time zones, the distances that gave their blessing to exile and isolation...
And, most crucially, Stalin had time.
The distinction is certainly worth preserving. As Amis phrases it, "When I read about the Holocaust I experience something that I do not experience when I read about the Twenty Million: a sense of physical infestation. This is species shame." To this one might add that Germany was a literate, democratic, and advanced civilization before the Nazis got to it, whereas Russia at the time of the 1905 revolution was in a condition more like that of Turkey, or Iran, or even (in some areas) Afghanistan today. It did have a "Westernized" industrial and intellectual element, but it was from exactly this stratum that Marxism drew most of its followers. And many of them regarded the mass of the Russian people in much the way that a British official in early colonial Bengal might have viewed the benighted natives. Probably, if we look for explanations for the indulgence shown toward Stalinism by men like George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, we will find part of the answer in the quasi-eugenic and quasi-anthropological approach they took to most questions. (Fabian socialism, in the same period, emphasized the progressive aspects of social engineering in the British Empire.) But Amis, who briefly mocks the gullibility of the Bloomsbury and New Statesman tradition, also forgets that the grand prix for prescience here belongs to the atheist, socialist, and anti-imperialist Bertrand Russell, whose The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920) was the first and in many ways the most penetrating critique.
I don't know if it was at this point or a slightly later one that I realized that Amis was exhibiting a tendency to flail. There is certainly merit in restating Stalin's exorbitant and lustful criminality, which stands comparison to that of the most paranoid and sanguinary moments of antiquity as well as of modernity. (The title Koba the Dread is an amalgam of Stalin's nickname and the more straightforward Russian meaning of "the Terrible," as in Ivan.) But we have grown up reading Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Berger, Eugenia Ginzburg, Lev Kopelev, Roy Medvedev, and many other firsthand chroniclers of the nightmare. Names like Vorkuta and Kolyma are not as familiar to most people as Treblinka or Birkenau, but the word "gulag" (one of the many hateful acronyms of the system) does duty for the whole, and is known to everybody. Amis appears to deny this when he says that a general recognition of the toll of Stalinist slavery and murder "hasn't happened," and that "in the general consciousness the Russian dead sleep on." He should have hesitated longer before taking the whole weight of responsibility for this memory, and our memory, on his shoulders.
The clue to this hubris comes in the second part of his title, with its allusion to mirth. Amis is acutely, vibrantly sensitive to the different registers of laughter. He knows that it can be the most affirming and uniquely human sound, and also the most sinister and animalistic one. He understands every note of every octave that separates the liberating shout of mirth from the cackle of a bully or the snigger of a sadist. (Nabokov's title "Laughter in the Dark" provides a perfect pitch here.) So he's in confident form when he describes the servile laughter that greeted Stalin when he was "forcibly" induced to take the stage at the Bolshoi Theater in 1937, and modestly agreed to be a candidate in the upcoming "election." Here is some of the transcript, according to Dmitri Volkogonov:
Of course, I could have said something light about anything and everything. [laughter] ... I understand there are masters of that sort of thing not just in the capitalist countries, but here, too, in our Soviet country. [laughter, applause]...Many surviving eyewitnesses of many tyrannical courts have told us that the most exacting and nerve-straining moments come when the despot is in a good mood. Stalin had perhaps the most depraved and limited humor of the lot. In addition to being a grand-opera widow-and-orphan manufacturer, and widow-and-orphan slayer, he was a sniggerer and a bad chuckler. Amis observes of the foul scene above:
Ground zero of the Great Terror—and here was the Party, joined in a panic attack of collusion in yet another enormous lie. They clapped, they laughed. Did he laugh? Do we hear it—the "soft, dull, sly laugh," the "grim, dark laughter, which comes up from the depths"?However, Amis also refers to laughter of a somewhat different sort, and here, having called attention to the splendors of this little book, I am compelled to say where I think it fails. And by "compelled" I suppose I must mean "obliged," since it appears on the author's own warrant that the book's shortcomings are mostly my fault. In the fall of 1999 Amis attended a meeting in London where I spoke from the platform. The hall was one of those venues (Cooper Union, in New York, might be an analogy) where the rafters had once echoed with the rhetoric of the left. I made an allusion to past evenings with old comrades, and the audience responded with what Amis at first generously terms "affectionate laughter." But then he gives way to the self-righteousness and superficiality that let him down.
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. Is that the difference between the little mustache and the big mustache, between Satan and Beelzebub? One elicits spontaneous fury, and 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 Solovetski.George Orwell once remarked that certain terrible things in Spain had really happened, and "they did not happen any the less because the Daily Telegraph has suddenly found out about them when it is five years too late." Martin Amis can be excused for coming across some of the above names and numbers rather late in life, but he cannot hope to get away with accusing others of keeping these facts and names from him, or from themselves. He tells me that this fairly unimportant evening was what kick-started his book, and in an open letter to me on the preceding pages he contemptuously, even proudly, asserts his refusal even to glance at Isaac Deutscher's biographical trilogy on Leon Trotsky. Well, I have my own, large differences with Deutscher. But nobody who read his Prophet Outcast, which was published more than three decades ago, could possibly be uninstructed about Vorkuta or Yezhov. In other words, having demanded to know "Why is it?" in such an insistent tone, he doesn't stay to answer his own question, instead replacing it with a vaguely peevish and "shocked, shocked" version of "How long has this been going on?" The answer there is, longer than he thinks.
Everybody knows of Himmler and Eichmann. Nobody knows of Yezhov and Dzerdzhinsky.
Everybody knows of the six million of the Holocaust. Nobody knows of the six million of the Terror-Famine.
With infinitely more distress I have to add that Amis's newly acquired zeal forbids him to see a joke even when (as Bertie Wooster puts it) it is handed to him on a skewer with béarnaise sauce. The laughter in that hall was slightly shabby, I am quite prepared to agree. But it was the resigned laughter that "sees" a poor jest, and recognizes the fellow sufferer. In related anecdotes that are too obviously designed to place himself in a good light, Amis also recounts some aggressive questions allegedly put by him to me and to James Fenton in our (James's and my) Trotskyist years, when all three of us were colleagues at The New Statesman. The questions are so plainly wife-beating questions, and the answers so clearly intended to pacify the aggressor by offering a mocking agreement, that I have to set down a judgment I would once have thought unutterable. Amis's want of wit here, even about a feeble joke, compromises his seriousness.
I would be as solipsistic as he is if I persisted too long with this, so I redirect attention. In the excerpt above has he made up his mind about the moral equivalence between Stalin and Hitler? Or has he reserved the right to use the cudgel according to need? When he speaks of Ivan the Terrible and Joseph Stalin, does he mean to say that there was something comparable in their "Great Russian" ancestry? When he dilates upon torture and forced confessions, or upon the practice of eliminating even the families of opponents, is he suggesting that such terror was unknown to humanity before 1917? He states at one point, "Until I read Man Is Wolf to Man: Surviving Stalin's Gulag I had never heard of a prisoner, en route, lying crushed and ground on a section of rough wood and receiving a succession of monstrous splinters up and down his back." One would not need to refer him to the Nazi transports from Salonika or Vichy. An allusion to the Middle Passage, or to the hell ships that populated Australia's "Fatal Shore," would be enough. Moral equivalence is not intended here. But moral uniqueness requires a bit more justification.
I do not mean these to sound like commissar questions, or wife-beating questions either. On the first and perhaps most important one posed by Amis, for example, I find that I never quite know what I think myself about this moral equivalence. Nor did I quite know when I was still a member of a Marxist/post-Trotskyist group, when such matters were debated from dawn until dusk, often with furious or thuggish Communists. However, I do know from that experience, which was both liberating and confining, that the crucial questions about the gulag were being asked by left oppositionists, from Boris Souvarine to Victor Serge to C.L.R. James, in real time and at great peril. Those courageous and prescient heretics have been somewhat written out of history (they expected far worse than that, and often received it), but I can't bring myself to write as if they never existed, or to forgive anyone who slights them. If they seem too Marxist in tendency, one might also mention the more heterodox work of John Dewey, Sidney Hook, David Rousset, or Max Shachtman in exposing "Koba's" hideous visage. The "Nobody" at the beginning of Amis's sentences above is an insult, pure and simple, and an insult to history, too.
History is more of a tragedy than it is a morality tale. The will to power, the will to use human beings in social experiments, is to be distrusted at all times. The impulse to create, or even to propose, what Amis calls "the perfect society" is likewise to be suspected. At several points he states with near perfect simplicity that ideology is hostile to human nature, and implies that teleological socialism was uniquely or particularly so. I would no longer disagree with him about this. Corruptio optimi pessima: no greater cruelty will be devised than by those who are sure, or are assured, that they are doing good. However, one may come to such a conclusion by a complacent route or by what I would still dare to call a dialectical one. Does anybody believe that had the 1905 Russian Revolution succeeded, it would have led straight to the gulag, and to forced collectivization? Obviously not. Such a revolution might even have forestalled the Balkan wars and World War I. Yet that revolution's moving spirits were Lenin and Trotsky, defeated by the forces of autocracy, Orthodoxy, and militarism. Excuse me, but nobody can be bothered to argue much about whether fascism might have turned out better, given more propitious circumstances. And there were no dissidents in the Nazi Party, risking their lives on the proposition that the Führer had betrayed the true essence of National Socialism. As Amis half recognizes, in his en passant compliment to me, the question just doesn't come up.
Amis says he doesn't wish that World War II had gone the other way, which is good of him (though there were many Ukrainians and Russians who took their anti-Stalinism to the extent of enlistment on the Nazi side). However, it would be nice to know if he wishes that the Russian civil war, and the wars of intervention, had gone the other way. There are some reasons to think that had that been the case, the common word for fascism would have been a Russian one, not an Italian one. The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion was brought to the West by the White emigration; even Boris Pasternak, in Doctor Zhivago, wrote with a shudder about life in the White-dominated regions. Major General William Graves, who commanded the American Expeditionary Force during the 1918 invasion of Siberia (an event thoroughly airbrushed from all American textbooks), wrote in his memoirs about the pervasive, lethal anti-Semitism that dominated the Russian right wing and added, "I doubt if history will show any country in the world during the last fifty years where murder could be committed so safely, and with less danger of punishment, than in Siberia during the reign of Admiral Kolchak." Thus "the collapse in the value of human life," as Amis describes the situation in post-revolutionary Russia, had begun some time before, perhaps in the marshes of Tannenberg, and was to make itself felt in other post-World War I societies as well.
Some confrontation with this line of thinking—I hesitate to use the word "context"—is essential if one is to avoid the merely one-dimensional or propagandistic. It might be concluded that upon reflection and analysis, the Bolshevik Revolution was the worst possible of the many available postwar outcomes, none of which (unlike Germany in 1933) included the prospect of parliamentary pluralism. It might also be concluded that Stalinism was the ineluctable and even the intended outcome of 1917, though this would involve some careful reasoning about whether things are or are not products of "historical inevitability." Yet Amis simply evades the question with a couple of sneers, saying that my argument "would have more weight behind it if (a) there had been a similar collapse (i.e., total, and lasting thirty-five years) in any other combatant country, and if (b) a single Old Bolshevik had spent a single day at the front, or indeed in the army." Well, even the collapse of postwar Germany into the arms of first the Freikorps and then their successors doesn't seem to meet his first exacting condition, at least in point of duration (though the enforced shortening of the Nazi period did involve some fairly harsh decisions about the value of human life). As for the second sneer, is Amis telling us that he hasn't read, for example, Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry? Bolshevism was in some ways a product of the hard-line front fighters. Indeed, its very militarization was one of the several reasons for its ugliness.
Hard work is involved in the study of history. Hard moral work, too. We don't get much assistance in that task from mushy secondhand observations like this one:
Accounting, as a Catholic, for his belief in evil as a living force, the novelist Anthony Burgess once said, "There is no A.J.P. Taylor-ish explanation for what happened in Eastern Europe during the war." Nor is there.Oh, yes. And what might the Catholic explanation be? The Church is still trying to find new ways of apologizing for its role in these events, and for things like the Nazi puppet regime in Slovakia, which was actually headed by a priest. Of course, original sin would be just as persuasive a verdict as any other the Church might offer. But tautology is the enemy of historical inquiry: if we are all evil, then everything becomes a matter of degree. Amis for some reason has a special horror of Bolshevik anti-clericalism, and writes as if the Czarist Russian Orthodox Church was some kind of relief organization run by nuns. If he would look even at the recent performance of state-sponsored militant Orthodoxy in Bosnia ... Incidentally, do not the Churches also insist on trying to perfect the imperfectible, and on forcing the human shape into unnatural attitudes? Surely the "totalitarian" impulse has a common root with the proselytizing one. The "internal organs," as the Cheka and the GPU and the KGB used to style themselves, were asked to police the mind for heresy as much as to torture kulaks to relinquish the food they withheld from the cities. If there turns out to be a connection between the utilitarian and the totalitarian, then we wretched mammals are in even worse straits than we suspect.
Amis might have profited from studying the novelistic gold standard here, which is Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. Koestler's theory of Stalin's grim success, which was that some of his old Bolshevik victims half feared that "Koba" might be correct after all, is only partly superseded by the "beat, beat and beat again" account, which itself is an insufficient explanation for the actual capitulation of the defend- ants. (A handful of the old comrades, after all, never cracked.) But his theory allowed for a very illuminating fictional dramatization of the relationship of ideas to outcomes. And Koestler put such persuasive words into the mouth of the interrogator Gletkin—his version of the Grand Inquisitor—that some English and French readers (John Strachey most notably) were actually persuaded by them. That unintended consequence was obviously limited. But it points to an essential difference. Koestler exposed the ghastliness of Stalinism by means of a sophisticated deployment of historical irony, whereas Amis—and again I startle myself by saying this—has decided to dispense with irony altogether. (He mentions, with all the gravity of one returning from a voyage of discovery, that the sailors of Kronstadt fought against the Bolsheviks under red flags and with revolutionary slogans. He even italicizes the word "revolutionaries," as if this point were at the expense of the left opposition. As Daniel Bell pointed out decades ago, the only real argument among members of the old left was about the point at which their own personal "Kronstadt" had occurred. Bell was proud to say that Kronstadt itself had been his "Kronstadt.")
Writing toward the very end of his life, a life that had included surprising Stalin himself by a refusal to confess, and the authorship of a novel—The Case of Comrade Tulayev—that somewhat anticipated Darkness at Noon, Victor Serge could still speak a bit defensively about the bankruptcy of socialism in the "midnight of the century" represented by the Hitler-Stalin pact. But he added,
Have you forgotten the other bankruptcies? What was Christianity doing in the various catastrophes of society? What became of Liberalism? What has Conservatism produced, in either its enlightened or its reactionary form? ... If we are indeed honestly to weigh out the bankruptcies of ideology, we shall have a long task ahead of us.In the best sections of this book Amis makes the extraordinary demand that, in effect, the human species should give up on teleology and on all forms of "experiment" on fellow creatures. He is being much more revolutionary here than perhaps he appreciates. Had he allowed himself to ponder the implications, he might have engaged fruitfully with some of his own earlier work on fascism and on thermonuclear gamesmanship—two absolutist theories and practices that had in common the view that Leninism was the main enemy. If it matters, I now agree with him that perfectionism and messianism are the chief and most lethal of our foes. But I can't quite write as if a major twentieth-century tragedy had been enacted to prove that I was correct in the first place. And I don't say this just because I wasn't correct. After all, the most valiant of the historians and the resisters in our own time was undoubtedly Solzhenitsyn, who has now descended into a sort of "Great Russian" spiritual and political quackery, replete with nostrums about the national "soul" and euphemisms about pogroms and anti-Semitism. Amis should be self-aware enough to admit that this is an "ideology" too.
His is a short work, and one cannot ask for a complete theory of modern ideology and the various deathtraps it sets for the body and the mind. However, much of the space that could have been devoted to a little inquiry is instead given over to some rather odd reflections on Amis's family life, featuring some vignettes about his offspring and a meditation on the sadly short term that was set to the life of his younger sister. Few people could be more sympathetic to his children than I am (one of those children is my godson). But what is this doing? A baby daughter screams inconsolably one night and forces her father to summon the nanny.
"The sounds she was making," I said unsmilingly to my wife on her return, "would not have been out of place in the deepest cellars of the Butyrki Prison in Moscow during the Great Terror. That's why I cracked and called Caterina."From darkness at noon to ... lightness at midnight. There's quite a lot more in the same vein. I find it inexplicable, partly because I can easily imagine the scorn with which Amis would write about anyone else who employed the Terror for purposes of relativism. His own purpose, presumably, is to refute Stalin's foul inhumanity by showing that an individual, too, can be a considerable "statistic." But the transition from macro- to micro-humanity is uneasy at its best.
Slightly easier to take is his letter to his late father, who was a believing Communist for many of the Stalin years, and whose irrational dogmatism is set down, probably rightly, to a series of emotional and attitudinal and familial complexes. In Experience, in contrast, we saw old Kingsley as he declined into a sort of choleric, empurpled Blimpishness, culminating in his denunciation of Nelson Mandela as a practitioner of Red Terror. The lessons here ought to have been plain: Be very choosy about what kind of anti-communist you are, and be careful not to confuse the state of the world with that of your family, or your own "internal organs."