This was a rather grim read, as the title might suggest.
This book looks in some detail at the massacres of the civil war, the famine of 1922, the collectivisation of agriculture and the dekulakisation, which ended in the Terror Famine of 1933, the great purges of 1937-38, the show trials, the living death of the Gulag and – after the “Great Patriotic War”- the “rancid, crapulent phase” of Stalinism which ended with the dictator’s death as he prepared to launch an exterminatory purge against the Jews.
Martin Amis is something of an intellectual snob looking down on Stalin as uneducated and anti-intellectual, Stalin for all his faults was an avid reader and auto-didact. Trotsky was also a snob who looked down on Stalin at his peril.
The Soviet Union under Lenin or Stalin wasn’t a place for talented writers as Amis observes :
“he wanted writers to be under his rule. He didn’t understand that talented writers cannot go against their talent and survive, that they cannot be engineers. Talentless writers can, or they can try; it was a very good thing to be a talentless writer in the USSR, and a very bad thing to be a talented one. (p15)”
Martin Amis is writing this book with his father, Kingsley Amis and his friend Christopher Hitchens in mind. Both had an interest and attraction to communism. Kingsley Amis was a member of the Communist party from 1941 to 1956 but ended up being a Tory. Hitchens was never a Stalinist, but he stayed loyal to an intellectual Trotskyist view of the Bolshevik revolution, praising Lenin and blaming Stalin for what happened. Martin Amis argues “The differences between the regimes of Lenin and Stalin were quantitative, not qualitative. (p32)” In that Lenin was equally ruthless, for example in his dealings with the Russian royal family, who he had shot in a basement, unlike Charles I or Louis XVI, who had public trials and executions.
He argues that the revolution was really a counter revolution in that the people weren’t freed but subjected to rules that were worse even than those of the tsars.
There are comparisons with Hitler, Amis talks of the big moustache (Stalin) and the little moustache (Hitler), he argues the Holocaust is well known but the terrors under Stalin much less known.
Everybody knows of Auschwitz and Belsen. Nobody knows of Vorutka and Solovetsky.
Everybody knows of Himmler and Eichmann. Nobody knows of Yezhov and Dzerzhinsky.
Everybody knows of the six million of the holocaust. Nobody knows of the six million of the Terror-Famine.
Martin Amis looked at the Holocaust in his novel “Time’s Arrow”, where the plot went backwards bizarrely to make sense of the craziness of the situation.
Martin Amis is good at looking at the terror of Stalin’s “reign”, drawing particularly from Robert Conquest’s ground-breaking book “The Great Terror” and Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago”. Martin Amis is less good at drawing out the personality of Stalin. Montefiore in “Young Stalin” does this much better. Amis has the idea Stalin was mad, an uneducated loner, driven to homicidal ruthlessness by his thirst for power.
The twenty million of the subtitle is the estimate of the number of victims of Stalin’s regime, the laughter is the deeds of Stalin (and Lenin) can be subjects for humour as well as horror, unlike those of Hitler. It is acceptable to laugh at an ex communist (like Hitchens) addressing them jokingly as “comrade” but not an ex-Nazi as a blackshirt, Amis argues.
I read the book because living in Georgia, it is useful to know about their most famous countryman. Sadly, Stalin hated Georgia, in 1921 with Stalin’s full support Lenin re-annexed the newly independent Georgia through invasion. Stalin urged the Bolshevik leaders “You will have to break the wings of this Georgia.” while Lenin favoured a softer line, Stalin pushed for maximum force. When his son Yakov was captured by the Germans in the war, Stalin denied having a son.
“Stalin hated Yakov because Yakov was Georgian. Yakov was Georgian because his mother was Georgian; Yakov was Georgian because Stalin was Georgian; yet Stalin hated Yakov because he was Georgian.” (p164)
Stalin had come to see himself as Russia personified, a successor to Peter the Great, and hated reminders of his Georgian roots.
There are some photos in the book but the last of cannibals in 1920, though gruesome seem irrelevant to the book, being related to the Russian Civil War not Stalin’s Terror.
My rating 3.5 out of 5