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Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  1,526 ratings  ·  147 reviews
A brilliant weave of personal involvement, vivid biography and political insight, Koba the Dread is the successor to Martin Amis’s award-winning memoir, Experience.

Koba the Dread captures the appeal of one of the most powerful belief systems of the 20th century — one that spread through the world, both captivating it and staining it red. It addresses itself to the central
Paperback, international, 306 pages
Published September 9th 2003 by Vintage (first published January 1st 2002)
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There has never been a regime quite like it, not anywhere in the history of the universe. To have its subjects simultaneously quaking with terror, with hypothermia, with hunger – and with laughter.

The first jokes about communism in Russia have surfaced almost immediately after the Revolution of 1917. In one, an old woman visits the Zoo in Moscow and upon seeing a camel for the first time laments: "look what the Bolsheviks did to that horse!" The usual characteristics of such jokes was their dead
Nov 27, 2008 rated it liked it
Amis on Stalin. Not a scholarly work, as many people have pointed out, and is it still necessary to debunk Stalin? But I thought it was a successful book. You think you know how bad Stalin was, but, in fact, most people don't. At least, I didn't, and I've read Solzhenitsyn.

My favorite part was the section on Stalin's incredible popularity. ("It's painful to write this", says Amis). He describes the belief, widely held by ordinary citizens, that Stalin was quite unaware of all the terrible thing
Feb 20, 2013 rated it liked it
Amis is a fine writer, and the personal touches he brings to his recounting of the crimes committed by Stalin(ism)—more or less the musings about a family raised under the strong left leanings of his father, Kingsley, and the troubling political and ideological shoring-up they were forced to undertake as the murderousness of the Soviet regime began to crystalize with a definition that only the most fervent fellow-traveler could wish away—provide a principal ingredient of what makes this book wor ...more
Peter Tillman
Jul 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Martin Amis's "Koba the Dread" is his personal account of Stalin the mass-murdering monster, and of the obstinate blindness and stupidity of Western intellectuals who continued to argue that, even if it had "problems," Soviet Communism had its heart in the right place, really.... Which Martin got to view firsthand, as Kingsley Amis's son -- his dad was an old CPUK comrade, turned virulently anti-communist in his old age.

Robert Conquest memorably began his history of Stalin's Terror-famine: "abou
[First, a note about Goodreads star ratings: Some people on Goodreads don't really "get" the one-star review. A single star means simply that for whatever reason, you didn't like a book. That's all. Not that you hated it, not that you loathed it—a single star is not a black hole of antipathy—but just a note that a book didn't satisfy you in some deeper sense. It's not an objective rating of quality, but all about subjective response. So when I give a book one star, it's not that I think I'm spea ...more
Erik Graff
Apr 10, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Stalin admirers
Recommended to Erik by: John Elkin
Shelves: history, biography
It is unfortunate that Vintage lists this as "Memoir/History" as it isn't history in any serious sense. Amis is no historian. While indexed, the book lacks both bibliography and substantiating footnotes. Amis' primary sources as cited in the text, lean, as he admits, to the right.

The book is, however, partly a personal memoir and mostly an polemical essay or series of essays attacking the Soviet system in general and Stalin in particular. On the personal side, it is interesting that Amis is an o
May 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Peterb by: Jessica Rae
Shelves: reviewed, history
"It was...a symmetrical convenience – for Stalin – that a true description of the Soviet Union exactly resembled a demented slander of the Soviet Union."

Martin Amis opens his very personal history of Josef Stalin, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million with a quote from Robert Conquest's book on the the Terror-Famine.

We may perhaps put this in perspective in the present case by saying that in the actions here recorded about twenty human lives were lost for, not every word, but every
Jun 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020, non-fiction
Part memoir and part mind boggling account of the career and life of Stalin and his contemporaries.

Amis rightly has a reputation for incredibly convoluted language, so have a dictionary to hand.

Otherwise it’s a brilliant analysis and research on the Great Terror.
Muhammad Ahmad
This is a book about Stalin's reign of terror that, unlike Orwell, is unsparing towards Lenin and Trotsky as well. The author wonders why people are revolted by Nazism, but Stalinism gets such an easy pass. Indeed, it is common in the west for Soviet nostalgia among intellectuals to not be considered an evil on par with Nazi sympathies. Many young people equally ignorant of Soviet history see communism as an edgy, aesthetic affectation. This book would be useful in disabusing them of such romant ...more
Jonathan Maas
Feb 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A Semi-biography of Stalin, concentrating less on the historical details, and more on a meta-analysis of the events themselves.

This was my first foray into the world of Martin Amis, and it was intense.

I read about him in the New Yorker recently, and quickly forgave myself for not having read him before. To quote Stephen King and many others - so many books so little time. If you find you've been oblivious to a great writer, forgive yourself, go to the library, get his or her work - and then move
Jun 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Stalin's "experiment." I am stunned. Hitler murdered 6 mil Jews and other assorted ""misfits" but Stalin "bested" that more than 3 times over. Now I am trying to understand why there is in Russia today, nostalgia for the "good ol' days." Who can explain this to me? I am re-reading this book because it is rich beyond words if one is to understand the Russian mind. Regarding the Ukraine, it was described as one "vast Belsen" in Stalin's day, so why the loyalty to Russia there today?
Sep 06, 2009 rated it really liked it
This book was incredible.

First the critiques:
The book suffers a bit from pedantry; Martin Amis is very much an intellectual and not afraid to pick works that will have you running to the dictionary (to look up esoteric words) and the encyclopedia (to look up obscure 19th century russians) every other page.

2) To me the book also suffers from a lack of cohesion. Throughout the book I could only occasionally detect the thread of his narrative or memoir. Usually, I just read on, finding what I was
Michael Burnam-Fink
Apr 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2017, history
From an official list of declassified Soviet jokes prepared by the CIA (no kidding)

"A train bearing Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev stops suddenly when the tracks run out. Each leader applies his own, unique solution. Lenin gathers workers and peasants from miles around and exhorts them to build more track. Stalin shoots the train crew when the train still doesn't move. Krushchev rehabilitates the dead crew and orders the tracks behind the train ripped up and relaid in front.
John McNeilly
Dec 21, 2010 rated it it was amazing
A fierce moral accounting of the murder of millions by Stalin. Amis takes to task those apologists of Soviet communism and its leaders, including his novelist father (Kingsley) and best friend, the infamously cantankerous and former lefty Christopher Hitchens.

Amis argues that Hitler's supreme evil doubly victimized humanity by marginalizing Stalin's own "satanic arrogance" and blood-lust. It didn't help that Stalin also became a necessary evil to defeat the Nazis, even though his already monstro
Stewart Home
Dec 27, 2011 rated it did not like it
Martin Amis is a man in trouble. He gets big advances for his books, but in the UK he is overshadowed by the popularity of younger writers such as Irvine Welsh. Amis is thus under pressure to maximise his media profile as a means of moving product. Hardly surprising then that Amis should frame his absurdly late denunciation of Stalin as a snub to his ‘friend’ Christopher Hitchens; public spats being peculiarly popular with UK newspapers. As a publicity stunt this manoeuvre worked well enough, ge ...more
John Struloeff
Feb 03, 2009 rated it it was amazing
An amazing book. A powerful, unusually constructed exploration of Stalin's regime, his life and death. Highly researched. I had read Time's Arrow (which is a novel written backwards, from a man's death, reverse aging, to his birth) and found it interesting. I found this one riveting, though. Amis is incredulous that this story hasn't been more widely told, and I am, too, after reading this book. The scale of oppression, suffering, and atrocity is behemoth, far greater than the deaths caused by t ...more
Tyler Malone
Feb 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Probably the best angriest book about a historical figure I have ever read. Amis stomps on Stalin's grave, but how could he not? His father embraced Stalinism and his good friend Christopher Hitchens will take Marxism to his grave. His whole life his un-Communist beliefs have been questioned and this book is his response. Amis rarely asks a reader to listen to his own opinions because he laces his book's pages with sources. A fine book written by a fine writer, and more importantly, ideas from a ...more
Nov 01, 2016 rated it liked it
Too polemical for my taste, and too dependent on right-wing anti-communists like Robert Conquest, whose numbers re Stalin's crimes have not withstood the numbers constructed after the opening of the archives in 1989. Not nearly as good as Zone of Interest
Jul 26, 2009 rated it it was amazing
A devestating portrait of Stalin's rule. Best read 8-10 pages at a time. Any faster and the horror gets to be too much.
Jun 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
I learned a few things from this book! Though it is not an actual biography of Stalin it has bits and pieces (quotations from other books) enough to get an idea of what kind of “human” he was. I enjoy the references about some Soviet authors, again pieces, but enough to peak the interest and read even more. I have read a novel by Vasily Grossman, couldn’t forget it for days, he is included here in this book, some of his description of what it was like, must read Archipelago (I read I-II) to also ...more
Oct 07, 2008 rated it it was ok
British novelist Martin Amis ponders the question, `why is it that one never laughs about Hitler's Holocaust which claimed the lives of 11 million, while members of the left are able to laugh about Stalin's rule, which claimed the lives of over 20 million?' This is an examination of the socio-historical-political facets that underlie Soviet style communism, and seeks to provide explanation for its broad support among the European intellectual elite of the 1950's, including Amis' father Kingsley. ...more
Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly
Ivan the Dread was a Russian leader of old who was known for his extreme cruelty. "Koba" was one of Josef Stalin's childhood nicknames. Twenty million was the approximate number of people who died under Stalin's reign due to famine, exile and execution. "Laughter" was the seemingly inexplicable ability of the Russian people to laugh at, or despite, their horrible sufferings.

The laughter was not the only thing the author struggled understanding. There was also this fact that what Stalin did recei
Oct 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I'm going to recommend this one strongly (with one caveat which I will get to). First of all, it's Amis, and there might not be a better writer alive (not to go Jack from Minimum Wage on you), so it's very readable.

Second, if you believe that we are doomed to repeat history if we do not know it, there is not many mass-murders like Stalin's, and it is not a period of time people know about. Certainly, many would not guess the magnitude and terror that Stalin caused.

The caveat not to read is for t
Oct 19, 2011 rated it really liked it

This book is a mixture between memoir, history text, and college research paper about one of the most compelling and interesting people in history, Stalin. Amis raises several important questions and supplies lots of answers in addition to telling the recent history of Russia. What is particularly interesting is that, even though Stalin killed 20 million (some historians believe this number to be closer to 40 or 50 million) of his own people, he was still liked and supported (only partly out of
Geoff Mason
Mar 03, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An admittedly one-sided investigation into the Bolshevik terrors upto the end of Stalin's time. Amis considers the grip that the Soviet regime had on the Western intellectual comrades right into the 70s. The horrors detailed under Stalin are known and frequently denounced. The Western comrades tend to describe themselves as Leninst-Marxist or a Trotskyist in an attempt to remove themselves from the stigma of Stalin; what Amis shows is that both Lenin and Trotsky were very much in favour of terro ...more
Ellis Amdur
Jan 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
An book-length essay that wonders how the murderous reign of Stalin was somehow different, both in character, but more importantly, in the eyes of the “free world” than that of Hitler. And, if his character description of Stalin is true, then here we have a picture of how a country would be run were a psychopath to be its absolute ruler. I'm aware that the term psychopath is a cliche, when used to describe megalomaniac dictators - but Stalin exemplifies the superficial intellect, the charm and t ...more
Tom O'Connor
Jan 31, 2014 rated it really liked it
I really liked this book, though of course it got depressing at times (like from the beginning to the end). Very interesting for me personally, as he calls out his friends for supporting Stalin, or at least Lenin and Trotsky, while they denounce other totalitarian rulers. This reminded me of my attempts in college to draw distinctions between USSR's early rulers and other tyrants. Overall a very good primer on Stalin and his excesses, that also clearly states Lenin and Trotsky were NOT likely to ...more
Jul 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A book-length essay on the black farce of Soviet Russia under Stalin, whose brutality was quite boundless. Martin Amis is a wonderful writer and intellectual, and while this isn't a history (more Amis's thoughts on the histories he's read), it pulls things together in a clear, rather jaw-dropping way - despite the slightly meandering nature of the book. The effects of Stalin on the world are more than tragecomedy, and Amis makes some very compelling arguments for thinking of the 20 million-ish d ...more
Dan Walker
May 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I grew up in the 80s believing that the USSR was the evil empire. So I loved reading the frequent jokes in Reader's Digest about the Soviet Union. And I had people tell me jokes about the USSR. I grew up in rural Missouri - how did we know any jokes about Russia? In retrospect it's kind of odd. But honestly I still find them funny.

Now I know that these jokes HAD originated in the USSR and somehow made their way all the way to the Ozarks. The author of this book asks a very insightful question: w
Dec 31, 2018 rated it really liked it
I read this several years ago (after someone dismissing it as a very poor book, though admitting the topic was a worthy one). I found the book to be quite fine, though I have to admit, it did not resolve the burning question: why on earth are people who self-identify as leftists, socialists and communists unable to delve deeply into the actual history not just of the Bolshevik Revolution but into the decades that followed, based, as they were, on crimes of an immense scale that defies all abilit ...more
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Martin Amis is an English novelist, essayist, and short story writer. His works include the novels Money, London Fields and The Information.

The Guardian writes that "all his critics have noted what Kingsley Amis [his father] complained of as a 'terrible compulsive vividness in his style... that constant demonstrating of his command of English'; and it's true that the Amis-ness of Amis will be reco

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“Robert Conquest once suggested that 'a curious little volume might be made of the poems of Stalin, Castro, Mao and Ho Chi Minh, with illustrations by A. Hitler.” 37 likes
“Stalin's mental journey, by 1943, proceeded in the opposite direction to that of Hitler. One moved toward reality; the other moved away from it. They crossed paths at Stalingrad. And as the war turned on the hinge of that battle (and on the new psychological opposition), Stalin might have concerned himself with a "counterfactual": if, instead of decapitating his army, he had intelligently prepared it for war, Russia might have defeated Germany in a matter of weeks. Such a course of action, while no doubt entailing grave consequences of its own, would have saved about 40 million lives, including the vast majority of the victims of the Holocaust.” 35 likes
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