- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 25, 2002

KOBA THE DREAD: LAUGHTER AND THE TWENTY MILLION
By Martin Amis
Hyperion, $24.95, 306 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY ARNOLD BEICHMAN

Martin Amis' extraordinary memoir about Stalin & Co. reminded me that the hip night spot in Manhattan today is to be found in New York's gentrified slum, the East Village. Writers come on the weekends and do readings; publishers come looking for the next Bellow, Wouk or Grisham. The place, a second floor smoke-filled, 800-square foot room located right off the Bowery,isjammed to the rafters night after night but most of all on Sundays when it's reading time.
The only things oddabout this night spot are its name, "KGB Bar," and its corporate symbol, the hammer-and-sickle. KGB was the name of the Soviet secret police which began its inhuman existence as the Cheka under V.I Lenin. It prospered as the NKVD under Joseph Stalin, the mass murderer, under Yuri V. Andropov as the KGB (Committee of State Security) and enjoys a half-life under President Vladimir Putin as the FSB (Federal Security Service).
I did a little Web search for other KGB rubrics and discovered that there are KGB T-shirts, KGB mugs, KGB tote bags and even a KGB acoustic trio (King, Ginsburg, Bartley) which does gigs in the Seattle area. KGB a gag, a joke, about one of the most monstrous organizations in modern history, was guilty of torture, executions, genocide. One New York guidebook in reviewing the nightspot, titled its review, "The Iron Curtain has never been more fun." Kirkus Reviews says KGB Bar "has established itself as one of New York's literary epicenters."
The parent KGB specialized in torturing and killing writers and artists. You wonder ifthe owners and patrons ofthe "KGB Bar" ever read "The Gulag Archipelago" and Alexander Solzhenitsyn's descriptions of the horrifying brutalities visited by the KGB on millions of innocent people? Or Robert Conquest's "The Great Terror"?"KGB" is now part of popular culture, a Web Home Page. A simple question here:
How long would a New York night spot last if its name were "Gestapo" and there were posters of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Theriesenstadt and portraits of such Nazi worthies as Julius Streicher, Hermann Goering or Heinrich Himmler plastered on its walls and a big swastika on the entrance? If such a night club even got a municipal permit to open, think of the picketing, the fire-bombing, the stink-bombs and the number of violations the Department of Housing and Buildings would find. A "Gestapo" night spot would have no defenders except, of course, for the American Civil Liberties Union. Who except skinheads would patronize such a place?
And yet something called the "KGB Bar" prospers, blessed by a long New York Times feature article. Can you picture the New York Times writing admiringly about a watering-hole called "Waffen-SS Bar"?
Martin Amis' shattering"memoir" is an inquiry into the double standard about totalitarianism in democratic societies, a standard willingly created by Western intellectuals. Mr. Amis spares no one including his friend, Christopher Hitchens, an admirer ofLeon Trotsky. Mr. Amis describes Trotsky as a terrorist and a liar and co-founder with Lenin of the police state. He cannot understand, Mr. Amis tells Mr. Hitchens, "your reverence for Lenin and your un-regretted discipleship of Trotsky." Mr. Hitchen's political history reminded me of George Orwell's mordant observation, that "the sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onwards is that they have wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian."
As for new material out of Soviet archives, there isn't any. A large part of the book are selections by Mr. Amis excerpted from the works on the Soviet Unionby noted historians like Conquest, Solzhenitsyn, Richard Pipes, Martin Malia and modern Russian novelists, like Vassily Grossman and Varlam Shalamov. Mr. Amis has strung these excerpts together in brilliantly readable fashion with his ironic commentary reminding us of Stalin's horrors committed in the name of socialism. (The "twenty million" in the book title refers to the Soviet holocaust).Stalin's anti-Semitism became part of Soviet "law"and, says Mr. Amis, Stalin (Koba was a childhood nickname) was the first "Holocaust denier."
So what is this book? I look at "Koba the Dread" as a movie script or an opera libretto composed in episodic style about a monster who surpassed Adolf Hitler in evil. And it's about time Hollywood shucked off its anti-anti-communism and saw in the fall of the Soviet empire and the reign of Koba the Dread the same kind of horror drama that it has found in films like "Schindler's List."
Hollywood is preparingmore movies about Hitler. As Maureen Dowd wrote recently about today's Hollywood: "Fifty-seven years after he swallowed a bullet instead of Europe, Hitler is still a hot property." CBS is planning a Fall miniseries about the young Hitler and "there are at least two other Portraits of the Fhrer as a Young Man in the works," writes Ms. Dowd. She quotes CBS's president, Leslie Moonves, as saying that a miniseries about the young Hitler was"a very timely subject about how bad guys get into power and how it affects the rest of the world." Perhaps one of these days, Mr. Moonves will read Martin Amis's "script" and plan a miniseries called "Springtime for Stalin." After all, wasn't Koba the Dread a bad guy?

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.


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