top of page
  • E.G. Maladroit

'Koba The Dread': The Reality TV of Biographies?

Martin Amis’ book ‘Koba the Dread’ is a recent read for me, despite having been given it quite a while ago. It is a striking book, as I mentioned in my review of ‘The Last Great Tsar’, as it is more of an alienating polemic than any type of reliable historical reading. Though one would like to be slightly more impartial when it comes to reviewing, the book is in no way an unbiased history – it is an argument, and a categorically uninteresting one at that.

As a polemic the book acts as an almost autobiographical feud between Amis and his Father, and against the Stalin defenders who he had close relationships with. With this in mind the baseline bias of the book is understandable, and not wholly condemnable. We can all agree that defending Stalin’s bloody aspects is not a respectful way to go, though it is arguably a rather one note analysis to simply talk about the gulags and such issues – these alone hardly create an actual understanding of his character, or the way he ruled over the Soviet Union.

The book is divided into three parts, the first of which is entitled ‘The Collapse of the Value of Human Life’. As the name implies, it focuses mostly on a horror-movie-style depiction of all the most violent and bloody conditions of the soviet union and the communist revolution – with an interesting tendency to spend most of the time quoting other people’s novels or testimonies. This is the beginning of the glorified reading list aspect of Amis’ book – that most of the time he provides no more than a retelling of other peoples writings, adding little except an extremely mono-tonal narrative, and not a fresh or new one at that. On top of this, the sensationalist way that horrific acts are listed for emphasis feels like a primary school understanding of how to form an argument mixed with rubbernecking, or car-crash journalism. However, it is somewhat refreshing to see the horrors many citizens of the Soviet Union faced given a pedestal, considering the disconnect between public obsession with the holocaust verses the overwhelming ignorance on the gulags or purges.

My biggest issues with the first section were mostly the odd views peppered throughout, and the overwhelming lack of primary sources (barring retelling testimonies). Though me listing them might come across as odd nit-picking, during the reading process they are so frequent that the narrative is almost polluted and off-putting. I might end up providing the whole list on another date, or at the end, but for now the issues that struck me most:

· Page 27 – references Lenin ruling over the whole country after his stroke (which left him incapable of even basic multiplication) – misleading to not mention Lenin was barred from politics soon into his strokes and had little to no influence or control (more than being a figure head) during this time.

· Page 31 – calls religion ‘human nature’, whilst later going on to call bolshevism ‘idiocy’ – perhaps a matter of personal preference (and perhaps a nit-pick), but I see both as being ideologies, so this is an interesting insult.

· Page 56 – the annoying sensationalist tactics again, he can’t simply say it’s bad to murder – instead he has to label everyone ‘sociopaths’.

· Page 83 – Uses the Stalin caused 40 million deaths figure – this is a highly unsubstantiated figure, not used by respectable historians who write on Stalin’s era. Snyder only puts 9 million deaths directly on Stalin, whilst Montefiore attributes 20 million at most.

Part two – ‘Iosif the Terrible’ – is as one sided and cookie-cutter as it sounds. In the guardian’s 2002 review it is accurately labelled the ‘weakest’ part of the book, as it quickly highlights the lack of skill Amis has in the era. Falling into all the repetitive tropes of writing about Stalin’s life, his influences are transparent (like in the first part, he is often just quoting other biographies). The most annoying of these was the ‘grey blur’ trope – a reference to one part of Stalin’s revolutionary life – which I cannot seem to go a biography without reading. I understand it is a very clever reference, well done, but could the self-aggrandising tone each biographer introduces this phrase with please cease? That aside, this section is skim-readable at best – the only interesting bits being Amis’ laughably empty characterisation of Stalin as ‘profoundly crazy’ (a direct quote, page 173). This is an empty and unconvincing narrative, especially because Amis’ reasoning for Stalin’s successes is that he randomly became lucid – something which seems wholly improbable. There were a couple of other issues – such as the annoyingly overdone ‘first man to stop clapping was shot’ story, and a very interesting phenomenon where despite stating that a ballot counter (so the most reliable source) put the number of votes placed against Stalin at 150 (which Stalin later covered up), Amis instead later repeats Khrushchev’s figure of 300 votes placed against Stalin (despite Khrushchev’s clear bias). As poorly as I worded that issue, what I mean to emphasise is that Amis transparently will run with less reliable statistics without qualm, all to sensationalise his writing (sensationalise is clearly the word of the day).

Lastly for this part, I have the odd nit-picks of him calling Peter the Great a failure at reform (unsubstantiated and questionable), and the fact he called Stalin’s popularity ‘wholly manipulative’ whilst Hitlers was only ‘partly’ – despite them being equally involved in shutting down opposition, and both having genuinely dedicated fans. I am not entirely sure where he pulls this idea from.

The third part is almost not worth mentioning – back to him arguing against the people in his life with two long letters, which held little interest, though they might to an Amis fan. I'm likely too callous in this analysis, as it may come across as a touching and personal addition - but as someone who came to the book for history, it was less to my taste.

Overall, with the lacklustre second and third parts it feels almost as if the first part being solely emotional and disturbing was a shield, so if you disagree or find the book devoid of all worth you feel morally implicated in defending the earlier listed atrocities. Really, it is obvious that there were horrible crimes committed – but simply stating them, then expecting to be praised? Not entirely convincing. The book is not worth reading for genuine history fans, and for most even reading out of appreciation for Amis the constant bragging about how many books on Stalin he read will be enough to make you want to put the book down. It does not provide any particular insight, and if you want to revel in how bad Stalin was then the personal witness testimonies are far more interesting. Or read Snyder’s books – he actually makes convincing and interesting points, whilst definitively opposing Stalin. The book really is a Reality-TV take on a biography – shocking, not entirely unentertaining, but annoyingly clearly constructed around a reactionary narrative, and most of all: unscholarly.


bottom of page