HISTORY: by Max TeichmannNews Weekly
When we dead awaken
, October 5, 2002
British novelist Martin Amis has written a short history of Communist rule in Russia from the Revolution until Stalin's death in 1953. Max Teichmann here reviews
Koba the Dread (Random House), a book which not only examines the mindless brutality of the regime, but asks questions of the Western intelligentsia, members of which acted as willing apologists.Martin Amis, known only to most of us as a novelist, has produced, within the covers of one volume, what are really two books: one retelling the story of Russian communism from 1917 to 1953 and the death of Stalin, with the unbelievable barbarities which occupy so much of that time.
The other section is a confrontation with his old friends, in particular, Christopher Hitchens, and the matter, as Amis sees it, of their long addiction to communism and its works, an addiction, which he
suspects has not really gone away. (Perhaps only in remission?).Literary row
Most of the reviews and much of the extramural commentary appearing, at least in the British media, concentrates upon this row between Amis and his Left literary colleagues.That
is a pity - for it is by far the less interesting part. We know
about his old Left friends. Every second English reviewer of this book could have penned his current piece in the 1930s. Depressing.
Amis set out to write about the "Gulag Society", that reified Reign of Terror which set the whole tone of Russian society - the Secret Police State; the All-Intrusive Propaganda Machine; and the destruction, not simply the transvaluation, of all human values - which occurred under the Soviets.
And he wants to remind us of what the Communist leaders said
from the very onset of their having seized power.
What they said of their opponents, but also of their loyal supporters, and of human beings in general.
How they lauded the use of terror as a permanent, and desirable, means of rule; their contempt for, amounting to their hatred of, democracy, of intellectuals, of independent free spirits, of religious people and their creations, of conventional morality ... all this was there to be easily discovered from the beginning.
Thus, from 1917, divorce was encouraged (just send a postcard - that's enough), while incest, adultery, bigamy and abortion were decriminalised.
Actually, Australia hasn't done badly; there only remains incest off limits, and one is aware of the quiet lobbying for bestiality on behalf of some of our distinguished, avant-garde philosophers.
Unfortunately, the massive loss of Russian lives due to famine, civil wars, gulag mortalities and a collapsing birth rate, forced the state to tighten up on all this sexual libertarianism, lest the whole system break down even sooner than it did.
But the burning brand of those 1917 Russian radical reformers has been retrieved, and is being carried through our
society, by very similar people - torching many an old-growth social institution and value system.
So Amis has very little patience for his old cobbers, and others, who still speak of a failed "experiment" as though such an organised monstrosity could be called an experiment.
Or those who speak of the disappointment or betrayal of a "noble ideal" - for there is nothing noble about this scenario, nor could there be and it is torturing the language to use the term "ideal".Awakening
Our author traverses much of the same ground earlier covered by Solzhenitsyn, and people might ask why? Those three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago
cover 1800 pages. Surely enough? The reason given by Amis for returning to the scene is that the New Statesman
, for which Amis once worked, reviewed Volume Two of the Gulag
. The review by V.S. Pritchett, was entitled "When We Dead Awaken".
Pritchett ended: "Solzhenitsyn is not a political; he is without rhetoric or double-think; he is an awakener
." (My italics) Amis thought - that is the next thing now ... and it hasn't happened. In the general consciousness, the Russian dead sleep on.
So Amis has tried again, with a shorter version, and much new material to awaken Western consciousness.
He runs through the succession of horrendous famines - some due to monumental bungling, but others directed at particular groups, especially the Ukrainians and the Kulaks. Whereas one million children died in the Holocaust, about three million children died in the terror famine of 1933.
Not only was it a capital offence to steal grain to stay alive (or keep some you'd grown) ... but to use the word "famine" to describe one's condition (p. 240).
One of the forces which drove these famines was the requisitioning of grain, not for distribution to other parts of Russia, but for export to buy the industrial goods required for the breakneck industrialisation which Lenin and Stalin desired. Russia would by these means become a great industrial power, hence a great military power.
China was to follow this example with even more spectacular results. Perhaps 30 millions dead and a general collapse in production, followed. These dictators don't care
about such trifles, for their gaze is fixed on some place way down the road - not the suffering people at their feet. And similarly with their apologists in the West.Denunciation
Amis has a section entitled "Poison Pen" which concerns the practice of denouncing people to the government. It already had a long history in Old Russia - thus under Ivan the Terrible (1533-84), it was almost institutionalised. "Spy or die", was more or less the oath you swore, writes Amis.
The Bolsheviks were expected to move on this Tsarist barbarity, and in December 1918, Lenin proposed, without success, that false denouncers be shot. Instead it was agreed they would get one or two years.
But collectivisations, the famines, and the opposition of the peasants to confiscation changed all that. Poorer peasants were urged to denounce the richer. As Vasily Grossman wrote: "It was so easy to do a man in. You wrote a denunciation. You did not even have to sign it."
As terror moved into the cities and towns, the press hailed denunciation as "the sacred duty of every Bolshevik, party and non-party". Denunciation, "then went through the roof".
People were approached by the secret police to become a "writer" - of denunciations - an offer very hard to refuse. After his release from the Gulag and just as he was discovering himself as a real writer, Solzhenitsyn came under "extremely menacing pressure" to become a writer
, in the secret police sense. In an average office, one in five employees reported to the Cheka.Suffer little children
On April 7, 1935, a decree was passed which rendered children of 12 and over subject to "all measures of criminal punishment" including death. The French Communist Party - in the midst of universal consternation - argued, in defence, that children under socialism became grown ups very soon. (I'm sure Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beavoir and Yves Montand would agree.)
Amis sees the Soviet purposes as two-fold: to tame the multitude of feral and homeless orphans created by the regime. The other motive, to break the spirits of old oppositionists, Zinoviev and Kamenev, who had children of eligible age. They were soon to fall and to be interrogated.
There were millions of orphans and feral children - often in gangs - roaming Russia: survivors of the Revolution, the Civil War, the famines and the destruction of the Kulaks. Many of these teenage gangs were ferocious.
Michael Scammell, in his biography of Solzhenitsyn believes a great many of these orphan boys and ferals became guards in the Soviet jails and labour camps.Stalin had their number
There was a National Census in 1937, the first since 1926 when the population was given as 147 millions. Stalin said he expected, extrapolating from the 1920s, a new figure of 170 millions. The Census Board reported a figure of 163 millions - reflecting the results of Stalin's actions. He had the Board arrested and shot.
The result was never disclosed, but the Board was denounced as a "nest of spies and wreckers". The Board was shot for "treasonably exerting themselves to diminish the population of the USSR".
The next Census in 1939 achieved 167 millions which Stalin raised to 170 millions.
The notion of the nest of spies, saboteurs and wreckers (usually Trotskyists) became very widespread in official pronouncements - explaining why so many things went wrong or became disasters. Canals that didn't work (e.g., the White Sea Canal costing 150,000 lives but too shallow for most ships); endless mine and industrial accidents (as in China now); failures in food deliveries; grave shortages in consumer goods; etc., etc. - all were due to human malice and design, not monumental incompetence.
This mindset of explaining everything away helped Russia to perform even worse than it need have. But it also bred a race of executives and managers living in fear - shirking decisions, faking statistics; covering up and ready to blame (i.e., denounce) anyone else as responsible.
Thus was born the New Soviet Man - the apparatchik ... to be reproduced around the communist world.
After the fall of Communism they have remained - wearing different coats - in positions where they continue to siphon off the various pathetic social products and help sustain the culture of corruption, and cynicism, and illegality, that was omnipresent in Communist states when the wall came down. Ex-Communist countries have not really de-communised themselves.
Russia itself is not only a failed state, but a failed society. The people have had the stuffing kicked out of them. The expectancy of life is more than a decade lower than the West - lower than those of many developing countries.
Infant mortality and health figures are abysmal: female health, worsened by repeated abortions - is also alarming. All these trends were in place before
the Wall came down - along with ubiquitous alcoholism. Now - 50 per cent of Russian men die drunk.
I for one publicised all this over the ABC in 1980. Now
, Martin Amis' old Left friends are saying that this situation is due to the IMF and that the death toll of Solzhenitsyn and Amis' "Cold War mentor", Robert Conquest, are wrong.
The founder of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky, which killed two million opponents of the Bolsheviks in the first three years, had his statues removed. There is now a proposal to re-erect the big one in its old prominent place in Moscow. Putin is sympathetic.
Amis was quite right to write this book and everyone should read it. But don't expect its contents to appear in our school histories, or anything but abuse and denial from our Left true believers. "What about the Belgian Congo!" I've just read in a review in the Guardian Weekly