Joseph Stalin made Martin Amis laugh four times.
Amis reports that he read "yards" of books about Stalin to write Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (Miramax), a meditation on the monstrousness of Stalin and the consequent historical vulnerability of a left that has never fully dealt with its past complicity in mass murder. Indeed, much of the left is still able to laugh nostalgically about the Soviet Union despite its unspeakably horrific past, and that, thinks Amis, makes it morally guilty.
"Nothing Stalin did makes you laugh," writes Amis. Rather, it's the things Stalin was capable of saying, "as if he were a comic creation going through his hoops." Amis laughs "undisguisedly and with warmth" when Stalin blames a 1927 grain shortfall on "a kulak strike," because the dictator so sure-handedly combines a pair of scapegoat categories into a single conspiratorial event. He laughs when a rueful Stalin bemoans Hitler's double cross, saying, "Ech, together with the Germans we would have been invincible." It's what's packed into that Ech that gets Amis.
Amis laughs a third time when Stalin speaks of the miserable Pavel Morozov. A teenage peasant, Morozov was a Soviet icon, a hero renowned for turning his father in to the authorities. Stalin himself exalted the boy, though he was heard to say privately, "What a little swine, denouncing his own father."
Finally, Amis cannot help but laugh at Stalin's reaction to the German invasion of Russia, on learning of "the true dimensions of his own miscalculation, paralysis, willed myopia, and lack of nerve." "Lenin left us a great inheritance," said Stalin, "and we, his heirs, have fucked it all up."
Did you laugh? If not, perhaps your heart is not sufficiently filled with despair. Reading accounts of Stalin by the yard will fix that, and then you can laugh along with Amis. He's distilled a good deal of the horror he has encountered in the works of Robert Conquest, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and the many other historians of, and witnesses to, utter dread.
Amis offers the haunting scene of Arctic prison camps where everyone has frozen to death—prisoners, guards, dogs, everyone. Many of them doubtless perished in a moment known to inmates as "the whispering of the stars," a last breath frozen in midair, the icy cloud breaking audibly on the frozen ground. There is the evocation of the Ukraine withering with intentional starvation. There are even scenes where the Russians, stupefied by the inanity of their lives, are themselves reduced to helpless laughter.
A Stalinist "election," for example, where the "ballots" feature not merely a single "candidate" but even a mark already placed next to the single name. "Voters" emerge from the "polls" doubled over with laughter.
Of course, this laughter of hopelessness contrasts badly with the nostalgic smiles and titters of an aging left that still thinks itself perched on moral high ground. Martin Amis, whose famous novelist father, Kingsley, spent decades as a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, wants to arrest the left's laughter so as to indict the left's memory.
It appears to be too late, however, and the evidence is those very shelves of books that Amis studied to prepare his indictment. They've been there for years, offering testimony of a sustained brutality that is hard to credit, much less rationalize. But the material of history is one thing; the demands of memory another. Confront Stalin for what he really was, and the superstructure of the left's intellectual and cultural heroes—the generation of men and women who served him and rationalized him—collapses on its base. Thus, when the appalling Black Book of Communism appeared in 1999, it was dismissed as propaganda in such publications as Le Monde and The Atlantic.
Stalin was reportedly fond of a certain saying: "There is a man, there is a problem. No man, no problem." The left, to save the history it wants to embrace, has removed Stalin from it. Despite countless testimonials from Louis Aragon, Lillian Hellman, Pablo Neruda, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others, he wasn't really of the left, it turns out; he was merely an "aberration." No Stalin, no problem.
Amis is wrong about one thing, however: Some of the things Stalin did can indeed force you to laugh. For example, he'd frequently screen a Hollywood film for himself, commanding the presence of a translator. For years, Stalin watched his favorite movies—especially Tarzan epics—as the translator babbled away. Yet in all that time, the translator was so afraid of saying anything that might displease Stalin that he avoided translating anything. Instead, he limited himself to describing the visual action that Stalin could see for himself.
How long do you suppose it was before Stalin caught on? Yet he let it continue. Perhaps even he was laughing.