Amis & Stalin
Amis’s humor and sense of irony were well employed in his exchanges with fellow panel members, Robert Conquest and Simon Sebag Montefiore. The discussion took place in a large and spartan lecture hall on UCLA’s campus. Amis opened with a tale of a 1937 visit between Stalin and his mother. The author of the Great Terror asked his mother why she had beaten him so much as a child. “But that’s why you turned out so well,” she replied. Amis’s spare delivery of the surprise punch line drew laughter.
Responding to moderator Raymond Steele’s question about biography as a means of understanding a monstrous tyrant, Amis equated Stalin’s making the people love him with a “pedophiliac act of totalitarian indoctrination of the mind.” He thinks this loss of individual freedom of thought was “one of the worst things that Stalin did.” Stalin was a “most literary and intelligent dictator…, complicated and soulful in his own way.” He contrasted Stalin’s early sense of a dictator’s disembodied image—separate from himself and like an icon paraded through Red Square—with Stalin’s later loss of “all historical self-consciousness.” Amis cited as evidence of this loss Stalin’s planning of a Jewish extermination in the Soviet Union—this from a man who had once clearly understood that the idea of their leader nurtured by his captive subjects was distinctly separate from the flesh-and-blood person.
Robert Conquest, too, drew conclusions from Stalin’s reign of terror, but by contrast with Amis, Conquest, spoke more of documented facts. He labeled Stalin “a large golem…subhuman…a calm monster who fooled people,” and who was able to enforce his will due to his central drive. He spoke of Stalin’s shooting thousands of Polish soldiers and civilians who were eventually buried in Katyn, and of his requiring schoolchildren to publicly denounce their parents. And yet, in spite of honing his skills via countless foul acts, according to Conquest, Stalin’s top men did not think their leader able to meticulously plan his Great Terror. Perhaps their leader had become lost among the trees in the forest of inhumanity.
Conquest showed us the monster, but it was Amis who led us to consider the meaning behind the Great Terror. And, had it not been for Martin Amis, Robert Conquest might not have had the opportunity to illustrate the horrific deeds of Joseph Stalin. Raymond Steele, although an excellent moderator by any measure, occasionally seemed to overlook Mr. Conquest, perhaps in the way that the elderly are often overlooked, in favor of questioning the other two authors. It was Amis who directed questions to the senior panel member and drew him out, to the great benefit of the audience. (Thank you Mr. Amis.) It was a privilege to hear Robert Conquest speak about Stalin.
To be sure, not everything that Amis said was new. He resurrected phrases and ideas, again referring to “Islama-fascism” and the “story of the human race” being an “attempt to outgrow God and ideology.” I’ve thought a number of times since hearing Amis about his claim that sexual deviancy induced by the mandatory celibacy that is peculiar to radical Islamic fundamentalism caused the terror strikes on the World Trade Center towers. Since the torture of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison has come to light, I have also often wondered whether or not Martin Amis ascribes the sexual abuse of Iraqis to a sexual deviancy peculiar to Americans. Does Amis see a singular cause at the root of this heinous case too?
During the panel’s conversation, however, Martin Amis spoke about what’s been on his mind and the conclusions he has reached about the general features of tyranny. He had begun to talk not only about the “how” and the “why,” but also—more significantly—about the meaning lurking behind the event. But what is the work of a satirist if not to examine the human meaning behind acts of monstrous horror?