This is an angry book by a very well read Martin Amis who uses his knowledge to challenge communist supporters both living and dead. It starts by questioning why his own father has communist sympathies wen there was easily enough information around to reveal the true monstrous nature of Stalin's regime. As a result it keeps a memoir type feel but there is also a history lesson being given here by a teacher that is positive he is right and that intends drilling the facts into you until you nod in agreement.
Given the popularity of Stalin's regime amongst the liberal left in the 1930s, when the Gulag was well into its terrible stride and the show trials and red army purges had been publicised in the West Amis has to ask how anyone could sympathise with the Russian regime. He recalls how his father had a communist soft spot for around 12 years and how he used to have interesting conversations with anti communists including friends who were historians. Martin Amis was to mimic those debates with his own generation, particularly Christopher Hitchens. But the real story here is the constant drumming in of the facts about the show trials, horrors of the Gulag and the scant regard for human life not just felt by Stalin but also by Lenin, who some of the liberals also held up as a great role model. It ends with the argument having been proved by the details that have come out since the death of Stalin and the breaking down of communism but there still continues to be a lingering determination by some to use the phrase comrade and glorify the past.
Is it well written?
Most history books are dry, fail to get off the fence until the conclusion and rarely if ever make it personal. This book does all three and shows that it can be done. At the time of its publication I recall seeing Amis interviewed by people quite happy to take a pop at the way this book had been written along with the content. But you have to doff your cap to him he has done his research, throws quotes galore at you and is quite capable of defending his corner. It is a horrifying read because of the facts and figures but the possibility of ending by recalling his own sisters death and talking about his daughter shows just how well the memoir and the historical have been combined.
Should it be read?
As an example of how wider history can weave into family histories this is a great example that deserves to be consumed. As a book showing just how history can rouse anger this is one of the most enjoyable I have ever come across. But the problem is that is comes with the name Amis on the cover and like all major brands people either like him or loathe him. If you can remain indifferent, if that is possible, and put to one side the occasional arrogance and name dropping, then this is a solid attack on Russian sympathisers for a regime that consigned millions to their deaths.
Whether it's twenty million or more there can be no doubt that Stalin was a monster.