Look at this cheeky chap! A face only a mother could trust, although Stalin wasn't very nice to his mother either.
The bulk of this book is a rundown of his horrors. The torture, the gulags, the collectivisation, the famine, the fear. Amis notes that one of Stalin's most reliable tool of terror was the cold. It's much easier to control the people when you've got somewhere as deadly as Siberia to dump them en masse. A number of gulags were wiped out completely in blizzards - prisoners, guards, dogs.
There are lots of chilling accounts from first hand witnesses, laid out expertly by Amis. I hadn't even heard of the slave ships, which crossed back and forth across the Northern Seas, filled with prisoners in chicken coops in a Bosch-like vision of hell. One ship - the Dzhurma - was caught in the ice off Wrangel Island in 1933. All the prisoners on board froze to death. There were 12,000 of them.
This book also has an excellent portrayal of Stalin. Paranoid, cruel, brutal and living in a fantasy land. The big mystery has always been why he trusted Hitler. Those (and there were many) who warned that the Nazis were about to invade were executed as wreckers. Amis argues that Stalin had waged war on truth so succesfully in Russia, he just couldn't conceive of a fact that wasn't his own.
When Hitler's treachery finally sank in, Stalin met with his ministers, expecting his own arrest and execution. But his terror tactics had been so succesful, none had even considered challenging him.
This admirable hatchet job is bookended by an inquiry into why Stalin gets an easier ride from the intelligentsia (then and now) than Hitler. As a communist party member Kinglsey Amis defended him for many years, before turning into an arch-Thatcherite Colonel Blimp. There's also a letter to his friend Christopher Hitchens who at least used to be a lefty (God knows what he is now)
This bit of the book I was most looking forward to, but I would have liked more. There's a whole volume to be written about our apologists and fellow travellers, but this is too short, and barely touches on Shaw and HG Wells. And Hitchens was a Trotskyite, so can't really be labelled a Stalin denier. All a little scattershot.
But I did enjoy this a lot (better than Money, and shorter.) Like Noise, Amis warns us to Beware the Utopians, whether fans of Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin or Hitler. People who say the world can be perfected, if only this or that so called "freedom" didn't get in the way. Idealists of every stripe. As PJ O'Rourke wrote, Big Ideas are almost always bad, as anyone who's been asked "Hey, what's the big idea?" can tell you.