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Koba the Dread

2005-02-01 16:39:26.487314+00 by Dan Lyke 4 comments

My parents have always had friends from Eastern Europe, so as I was growing up I had a reasonable diet of tales from the other side of the Iron Curtain. But in the intervening years, especially since the wall came down, it's been easy to forget what government gone horribly wrong can be. I finished Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million[Wiki] last night. It's a look by Martin Amis[Wiki] at the reign of Iosef Vissarionavich Stalin[Wiki]. But Amis was the son of another famous novelist, Kingsley Amis[Wiki], and came of age knowing Christopher Hitchens[Wiki] and other famous lefties, so it's also a memoir an reaction to the apologists for the Soviet Union that came out of the 1960s. The last two chapters are a letter to Hitchens and Amis the elder, and in the letter to Hitchens he recounts an episode where Hitchens was giving a speech an referred to someone as "an old comrade". Amis picks up the story:

Afterward I asked Conquest, "Did you laugh?"

"Yes," he said.

And I said, "And so did I."

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, 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 iea 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.

I was originally going to take this critique off into pointing out that while graphically illustrates, drawing on all sorts of sources, the horrors of the Soviet Union, he doesn't do anything to illuminate why a nation would allow that sort of evil to occur. One man didn't put 5% of the population in slave labor camps, didn't kill and punish by quota. It took the coordinated efforts of many people to deliberately screw up harvests, to starve many countries under that huge nation, and then when the United States stepped in to help, to make sure that those supplies didn't get distributed either.

But as I was retyping that quote above, I realized that maybe he did.

I was going to tie this whole thing together in one long distrusting bit, pointing out that not all of the alleged brutalities of, say, Uday Hussein occurred as they were originally reported but that we have pretty strong record of such things happening elsewhere. I was going to balance that by mentioning that buyying into false realities created by politicians who deliberately pervert and change language is also a recipe for disaster.

But I don't have a conclusion. I can, however, recommend the book as a great shit-stirrer.

[ related topics: Politics Books Psychology, Psychiatry and Personality History moron Sociology Dictators ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2005-02-01 16:56:20.204484+00 by: Dan Lyke

I think this is also a moment to re-read Eason Jordan's statement about CNN's Iraq reporting (originally from here) and think about what it means when a news organization is willing to alter its reporting to "get the story".

#Comment Re: The Black and the Red made: 2005-02-01 23:31:44.533222+00 by: Greg

I've thought a bit about the differences between the war against facsism and the (Cold) war against communism, and - in relation to how the present right-wing 'blogging punditry express their hatred for the latter political system while pushing aside the relevance of any mention of the former (or using it to label their opposition) - it appears to me that there is a sense that facism had to be fought actively in order to be suppressed, but communism fell apart by itself in the end, affording us all with great relief from the pressures we'd felt under the threat of mutually assured destruction in a nuclear war. We can laugh about communism now, despite China, despite Putin's increasing level of tyrannical behavior, but the Nazis and the Facists remain (despite the younger members of the British monarchy) threatening, because of what it took to remove that threat. It's irrational, as you point out, given Stalin and 50 years of the arms race, but that's the impression I get.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-02-02 00:13:20.132561+00 by: Dan Lyke

I also wonder about that attitude in light of the "Reagan won the cold war" rhetoric we see flying around: that's an amazingly low opinion of the failures of communism if they totally believe that. At least give credit to Mikhail Gorbachev[Wiki], who managed to walk that fine political line very delicately.

And, yeah, Putin scares me, and is part of the reason that I to some fairly large extent believe you can't save a population from its government.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-02-02 15:29:06.802854+00 by: petronius

I do give credit to Gorbachev, but mostly for being a weak Leninist at exactly the correct moment. Her's my take: The internal contradictions and general unworkability of Bolshevism were beginning to catch up with the Soviets. However, they were starting to win the war of words, with influential elements of Western society talking about giving them a break, with things like the Nuclear Freeze campaign or the neutralization of Germany, and basicly regularizing their domination of Eastern Europe. Then Reagan comes along and articulates the neocon insight: the Commies are a paper tiger, they are in far more distress then they let on, and that we can win both the the Cold War and the war of ideas. Reagan begins to rearm, scares the pants off the Russians, who somehow end up with a lawyer in charge instead of an ex-secret policeman. Gorby tries to both rearm and make nice with the West, but his economy can't handle it. He shows the first sign of weakness and the floodgates open. When the 50 hour Coup arrests him and the throngs gather in Red Square, nobody with the conjones to just napalm the crowd is left (Stalin wouldn't have hesitated a minute, nor Kruschev). and the whole thing unravels like a cheap suit. Gorby needed reagan to be open to some new ideas, and Reagan and Bush #1 needed Gorby to wimp out at the crucial moment.