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Monday, 9 April 2007

The Old Man's Back Again...

I finally get around to reading "Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million". [A big thank you, incidentally, to Gentleman Mike for procurement services...]

It starts like this:

"Here is the second sentence of Robert Conquest's The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectization and the Terror-Famine:

We may perhaps put this in perspective in the present case by saying that in the actions here recorded about twenty human lives were lost for, not every word, but every letter, in this book.

That sentence represents 3,040 lives. The book is 411 pages long."

The first part of Amis' book is titled "The Collapse of the Value of Human Life" and that, for the most part of the next 260 or so pages, is pretty much what we are asked to bear witness to. Amis quotes Conquest's reply to his publisher when asked to supply a new title to the revised edition of his book, The Great Terror: "How about, I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?"

It's hard not to squirm oneself when recalling all those dutifully composed "well, I suppose so, in the long run, kind of - yeah....on balance.....whatever..."-type essays one coughed out to order in answer to all those GCE and A-Level questions along the lines of The Five Year Plans: Did the Ends Justify the Means? The answer to all such questions is here, and it is is unequivocally, "No". Indeed, the one sliver of justification we callow, would-be leftist examinees could cling to in it all was that Russian industrialisation, without which no Russian re-armament, had been decisive in defeating Hitler.

It was indeed. But as Amis points out, had it not been for Stalin's (by then) delusional belief that Hitler (whose Mein Kampf, remember, could almost have been subtitled Why I Will Invade Russia in 1941, such was its anti-Bolshevism) could be trusted and would honour the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact. Russia's subsequent repulsion of the Wehrmacht, despite multiple self- (or rather, Stalin-) inflicted hinderances (e.g. general unpreparedness for war, the mildly inconveniencing pre-(and mid-) war purging of its best officers, the ongoing resettlements of 'troublesome' ethnic groups and a return of the notorious blocking crews first used in the Civil War - if you attempted to retreat from the aggressor, the blocking crews would shoot you anyway...) suggests that a properly prepared and disciplined Red Army could have defeated Hitler in *very* short order. The impact such an event would have had on the century's other mass extermination campaign almost doesn't bear thinking about.

As Amis points out in one of two astonishing letters with which the book concludes, this to his friend and erstwhile Trotskist, (or is it -ite? I can never remember...) Christopher Hitchens:

the gravamen ('essence, worst part, of accusation')* runs as follows: under Bolshevism the value of human life collapsed.

As page after page attests. And yet, pursuant of Koba's subtitle: Laughter and the Twenty Milion, there is a humour - black, discordant, perhaps - that persists in discussion of this savage, terrible, inept and deceitful regime whereas the very thought of the comedic is deemed entirely inappropriate when considering Hitler's National Socialism and the Holocaust. And there *is* humour - logic-defying, Kafka-esque, Gumby-esque humour - in the absurdity of Stalinism's "Negative Perfection". To quote one example:

Increasingly, as the Terror-Famine gripped, peasants stole grain to stay alive. A new law politicized this crime...all such pilferers were to be treated as enemies of the people and would receive the 'tenner' or 'super' [tenner = ten years in the gulag....]... Using the word 'famine' carried the same penalty...In essence, people were being killed, quickly, for the capital crime of saying that they were being killed slowly.

Perhaps only a novelist - a *comic* novelist, at that - could make the following observation so telling and deeply instructive as this one of Amis's on Lenin is:

...I groaned with deep recognition when I learned that he couldn't pronounce his r's: not a good start, I think, for a Russian revolutionary...

So, 260 or so pages that give a hint at the extent of the barbarity, 'the weight of Russia' under Stalin and bear out, it would seem, his assertion that "one death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic".

And then this, the Afterword: Letter to My Father's Ghost:

Dearest Dad,

I experimented with 'Dearest Kingsley', in recognition of your changed status; but I spend a lot of time in your mental company - and why break the habit of a half lifetime?

If you could so much as glance at the dedication page of my last book you would know at once that the thing you greatly feared is come upon you, and that which you were afraid of is come unto you. The Dedication page reads:

To Kingsley
and Sally

For these are my Amis dead.

After 270 pages of Koba, it took these two paragraphs to make me cry - I welled re-typing this, if truth be told. On the surface, you could take this as an affirmation of that dreaded Stalinism: "One death is a tragedy..." "But pity and self-pity can sometimes be the selfsame thing. Death does that. Don't you find?" Amis goes on,

...while every death is a tragedy...the second half of the aphorism is of course wholly false: a million deaths are, at the very least, a million tragedies....In fact, every life is a tragedy too. Every life cleaves to the tragic curve.

One death reminds us of all deaths.

L.U.V. on y'all,


*It's heartening to see that he doesn't expect his mates to understand all the big words he uses either...

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  1. The sheer mention of the phrase "Hammer & Sickle" inflicted fear and dread into the enemies of communism.

    Oops, I didn't mean to mention the word "Hammer"...sorry Bob.

  2. t's amazing how Western intellectuals managed to overlook Stalin's excesses. The end justifies the means was the thinking I guess. Or maybe they just wanted to be cool.