The century just gone was, in Robert Conquest’s telling phrase, a ‘ravaged’ one. It bore witness, as did millions of people, to some of the most extreme political conditions, most devastating wars and most evil figures in the history of the world – and I believe that word is justified. But more evil, more extreme and more ravaged by war than any other state and nation was the Soviet Union, a creation of the early 20th century which did not survive its close. If anything stands to symbolise those hundred years – more so than the Nazi regime which lasted for a mere twelve – that particular entity, Ronald Reagan’s ‘evil empire’, should do it.
And the figure who most personifies that Soviet spirit – and the very crushing of the individual which was the hallmark of the Soviet system – is Joseph Stalin, the man of steel, whose titanic edifice bestrides Europe and Asia, the arguable victor of the Second World War, and one of the century’s most effective and brutal mass murderers.
In his book Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, Martin Amis provided a deeply personal and powerfully emotive meditation on the nature of Stalin’s historic importance. It’s not a measured work; it is not a volume which seems balanced, with all brought to mind. There is not the customary distance between historian and subject, chronicler and the chronicled. The recent past, as Alan Bennett has his iconoclastic teacher Irwin say in The History Boys, is dead ground; and the thing is denied the truly historical treatment precisely because of its uncomfortable proximity. But unlike in that example, where the lesson transmitted is a message urging the boys to distance themselves, Amis’s book is not distant; it is shockingly, frighteningly personal. And any and all readers benefit from its positively unbalanced nature.
After all, who can, as Amis describes, read several yards of books about the Gulags and the Great Terror and the man-made famines of the 1930s and not cry out? Who can read about the indiscriminate murder, and the calculated destabilisation of civilian life, and the perversion of art and literature to make culture itself the tool of tyrants, and not feel instinctive revulsion? Who does not sicken to read of such cruelty?
One of Amis’s most emotionally wrenching themes does not concern the starving on the black earth of the Ukrainian countryside; it does not deal with the families of those who had displeased Stalin, who were frequently either murdered for retribution or incarcerated as human collateral; its rage is not directed against the Stalinist useful idiots in the West who, when asked years later if the evil that had been done in the Soviet Union would have been worth it if the promised paradise had come about, said a few million deaths would have represented a price worth paying.
Instead, the subject is even more essential: the politicisation of sleep – the very death of sleep. As is noted, in Macbeth the eponymous character – a tyrant in his own right and a frightful visage by the end of the play – speaks with great fear and regret and anguish about his own sleep becoming fragmentary and diminished; the ‘chief nourisher in life’s feast’ has been denied to him, not least because of his crimes – in murdering King Duncan – against God and man.
Stalin’s sleep was not disturbed by the transportations or the camps; after signing death warrants he happily watched films – chiefly, and ironically, American westerns (at least for a time). He slept the sleep of the righteous; and his chief nourishment was power. For others, however, things were not so rosy. The NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) and assorted Chekists could come for you at night; in fact, they actively waited until night-time, even in Russia’s northernmost regions, to shake any sense of inviolability acquired from the darkness.
The politicisation of sleep was not the logical end point for a regime which treated citizens as expendable, as raw material; it was not logical, but it was an end point of sorts – a kind of moral denouement. And, as Amis posits, it was only a matter of time. Some of the intellectuals so scornfully – and justifiably – invoked, and criticised for their apologia for Stalin, offered similar paeans of praise for Lenin. And though his case is a little more arguable – he did exhibit personal bravery of a sort the aforementioned almost certainly lacked – many still revere Trotsky, who helped to lay the grim foundations for Stalin’s terror, as ‘the Old Man’ and ‘the prophet’. (Such reverence is due, for it seems many still regard Trotsky not as a hardened ideological warrior but a viable and preferable alternative to Stalin’s excesses and evils. This thinking seems rather unhelpful.)
This stuff – this morbid stuff – goes deep. And when they took people away – and when the secret police declared their families ‘enemies of the people’ – Shakespeare’s phrase ‘the death of each day’s life’ took on a whole new meaning. The Chekists and NKVD goons sure knew about death all right – death was their business; and it was their business to know.
One aspect of which Amis makes much is the Hitler–Stalin comparison: the central question of whether the crimes of each is equal to or morally worse than the other. His writing on this subject is a little vague; he does not effectively attempt the question, merely providing aperçus on the two of them and how he simply knows, or rather feels, that the atrocities of Hitler were the worse; some of these phrases are noteworthy and valuable in and of themselves; a pointed example includes the following: ‘Hitler-Stalin tells us this, among other things: given total power over another, the human being will find his thoughts turn to torture’.
But it must be stated that there is something missing here: a definitive answer to the question. As Timothy Snyder’s book Black Earth has recently argued, Hitler and Stalin both engaged in ‘state destruction’ which sought to eradicate the very essence of citizenship in order to crush dissident elements. This was not written when Amis’s book was published, but the very idea is not entirely new. In any case, something of a recognition of this fact (especially when the crimes of Hitler’s which most sicken and repulse are quite obviously echoed in Stalin’s regime) or at least a recognition of the field of reference, of comparison, would be of some value.
Regardless, this exercise is not a futile one; it is not in vain; and Amis has succeeded with regard to the emotive and intellectual terms he set himself. This book – or rather this polemic – stands testament to the true value of history as it is seen through literary eyes; and sometimes that perspective – the high flown, the eminently literary, the deliberately cultural – is more effective than a thousand historians, whose perceived duty remains the dry organisation and statement of the known facts.
History can be restrictive, and the confines of the academy can be stifling. Not that an acknowledgement of this should allow anyone to write history – such things could be taken too far. But the very personal aspect of all this – including Amis’s relationship with Conquest and with his own father, Kingsley – cannot be overlooked; after all, the personal – and personhood itself – was the declared enemy of the Stalinist idea, in which the weight of the state and the weight of the reality created the leader combine, all the better to crush and to smother.
There will not, it seems, be a reckoning – in the near future or ever – when it comes to the crimes of the Soviet Union in general and the Stalin era in particular; he is simply too popular, perversely, and the current government of Russia is all too keen on his rehabilitation. (And in any case, though Isaiah Berlin called for a kind of condemnation in the course of historical writing of crimes committed in living memory, such things can be rather easily – and stuffily – denied or ignored in the course of more elevated enquiries; that is to say, they can be, and will be, forgotten.) But that does not mean these crimes did not occur; it does not mean the dead do not have names. Amis’s book, in a very real sense, does something towards reclaiming those names.
Though there will never be a time ‘when we dead awaken’ (to borrow a motif of Amis’s, derived from the Ibsen play), that does not mean ignorance or apologism is acceptable or moral or justified. The century just gone was, in Conquest’s telling phrase, a truly ‘ravaged’ one. It did bear witness, and so did millions of people, to some of the most extreme political conditions, most devastating wars and most evil figures in the history of the world. Joseph Stalin was one of them, and as long as books like that of Amis are written and read, his power will not be total, and his own sleep (figurative or literal) will not be entirely undisturbed.