Sunday, 19 December 2010

Koba the Dread by Martin Amis

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.


Ed said...

One thing Hitchens is now is a better speaker than Tony Blair - did you hear their debate on religion?

zungg said...

I was watching that "debate" last night Ed. Hitchens was excellent as you'd expect; Blair was shockingly poor! All he could do was bang on anecdotally about his recent visit to Africa. You expect a barrister, who was PM for a decade, putting a case he presumably believes in, to be at least slightly convincing... but he was shite. He just kept serving them up for Hitch to slap over the boundary.

Joe said...

Sounds good, if only to watch TB getting beaten round the ring. But I do think debating the existence of god is like dancing about architecture. When someone's arguing on behalf of faith, the game's a bogey. You're not playing by the same rules of reasoned argument.

I'm kind of divided here. I'm an unshakeable atheist certainly, but I've got an unhealthy and growing attraction to the Catholic Church. I've asked around and unfortunately belief in god is a prerequisite. I thought maybe a blind eye could be turned, like on contraception.

zungg said...

It wasn't about the existence of God. The proposition was something like "religion is a force for good in the world".

Joe said...

Of course, much richer ground for debate.

I've read the transcript now, and it's pretty good stuff. Hitchens is always great at that stuff, but I thought Blair did a not bad job considering he's got a tougher brief (maybe he's less convincing when you have to watch his always punchable face as he makes his points) And you've got to admire his brass balls for talking about religion "bridging the divide" in Northern Ireland.

He touches on an intersting point re Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, the Kims. He thinks this is the flipside of religion; it shows the kind of society you can get when religion is banned. And actually I would agree with that, but I'd also say that from an atheist viewpoint all religions are man made - communism is just a particularly bad one which happens to have an idea or a person (or the idea of a person) at the top instead of a deity.

It's hard to argue against religion as a force for good when you look at the history of the abolition of the slave trade in the Atlantic, slavery in the US and the civil rights movement in America. All led by committed Christians arguing from scripture.

Even today, those mugs who got to the world's hellholes to help people are most often doing it out of religious conviction. Atheists like me don't generally give a shit.

Bryce said...

I would agree that religion has generally been force for good (even if it is a by product of controlling the masses)... but it is still a positive. However, it is outmoded. More efficient and effective ways to do good have been developed; without the need to bring God into it.

Joe said...

Perhaps.....the Iron Fist of Bryce?

Joe said...

Correction on the Dzhurma information. Looks like the story, and certainly the 12,000 number, is something of an urban legend.

Reference here

Noyus said...

Yeah, fuck utopians. Never trust anyone who thinks they know what's right for everyone else.

I dipped in to that Hitchens/Blair thing, and yes, Blair was crap - that's a debate I used to do with my philosophers and critical thinkers (that exact question) and there's masses of examples of religion motivating people to resist the will of corrupt shits and go out of their way to help folks - but just as many examples of ignorant, violent, bigoted twattery justified by religion.

In the end, I'd always sum up with the point that religion is simply a catalyst to bolster what people would do any way - some people are angry, bigoted spiteful shits, others are kind, nice contemplative types. Religion is merely the tool to spur these folks on.

Carl Jung was big on the "communism as religion surrogate" thing - cos religion gets in the way of the infallible authority of any cult-of-personality state - Stalin et al are basically Caesar/Pharaoh, the divine God-ruler in a different guise. Same old power-stomp shit, new terminology.

"I thought maybe a blind eye could be turned, like on contraception." - or, apparently, touching children.