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Koba the Dread by Martin Amis

history, Talk Miramax Books (Hyperion)  (Hardcover), 2002, 306 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

I watched last year's Superbowl with two Jewish friends at their home.  One had invited a fourth viewer, a 90-year-old semi-retired stand-up comic.  Somehow, the subject of the Holocaust came up.  I opined that we should not forget the Jews killed in the Soviet Union by Stalin and his gang.  The comic, an old Stalinist, it turned out, interrupted me with a scathing denunciation: "The Soviets never killed any Jews.  Anti-Semitism is prohibited by the Soviet constitution."  I only desisted from a counter-attack because I didn't want to raise his blood pressure to catastrophic heights and possibly cause a death before half-time.

Now comes Martin Amis, one of my favorite novelists, with KOBA THE DREAD, billed as "a memoir, a history, and a meditation on Stalin and his legacy."  Amis raises a difficult question: Why do Westerners know so much about the Holocaust and so little about the Great Terror?  Where are the Primo Levis and Elie Wiesels of the USSR?

The short answer is that they are all dead.  Their observations died with them.  The Great Terror killed at least twenty million individuals, perhaps as much as double that.  Peasants, kulaks, Jews, Georgians, Chechens, other ethnic minorities, White Russians, Mensheviks, even non-conforming Bolsheviks, all faced quick execution or the slower death of internal exile to the Siberian gulags.  And the spying and snitching, encouraged by the state, that made the Great Terror possible, killed something else as well: the humanist dream of socialism and the entire notion of truth.

Astronomers disappeared because Stalin disapproved of their sunspot research.  Linguists vanished unless they agreed that language was a class phenomenon.  Biologists felt the axe unless they confirmed the semi-literate ravings of Trofim Lysenko.  Socialist historians were discredited and silenced if they wrote footnotes on Joan of Arc or the Midas legend; these were considered criminal deviations from the Moscow line.

Even if one buys into the twisted logic of political correctness (which I do not), it is hard to figure out why Stalin purged his own military (8 of 9 fleet admirals, 13 of 15 army commanders, 98 of 108 members of the Supreme Military Soviet, inter alia).  Had the Soviet military been at full strength in 1941 when the Nazis attacked one day after Stalin predicted they never would, might the German expansionist threat have been nipped in the bud, before the Final Solution was implemented?  We'll never know, but it is a fair question.

Amis has scoured the relevant literature and considered these arguments in this short volume, which is elegantly written, as is his norm.  It deserves the widest possible readership, because it illuminates a subject that has been under-appreciated in the West, Solzhenitsyn notwithstanding.  And it is a subject with contemporary relevance.  There are still dictators in the world, and people from all societies and points of view who would stretch and deform the truth for their own privatistic purposes.

P.S.  This review does not begin to list the incriminating details that Amis adduces.  These details alone are worth the price of admission.

Moral of this tale:  I should have counter-attacked.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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