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.
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.
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.