Koba the Dread

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Front cover, American edition

Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million is a 2002 non-fiction book by British writer Martin Amis.


Koba—the Russian Revolution-era nickname for Soviet leader Joseph Stalin—is a study of the depredations of a single communist regime. The "Twenty Million" of the title are the alleged Russian citizens lost to starvation, torture, gulags, and the purges and confessions of Stalin's Great Terror.


The book was well-received upon publication. In The New York Times, critic Michiko Kakutani wrote, "Mr. Amis is at his best in using his arsenal of literary skills to create a compelling narrative, summarizing vast amounts of information and presenting them in a lucid, accessible form. In this respect, 'Koba the Dread' may well serve a useful purpose: it may make readers unfamiliar with the serious scholarship on the subject aware of the magnitude of suffering sustained in the Soviet Union during the first half of the 20th century."[1] Publishers Weekly found that Amis "relates passionately a story that needs to be told, the history of a regime that murdered its own people in order to build a better future for them."[2] The Leningrad-born American writer Gary Shteyngart called Koba "harrowing and strangely funny" in the Washington Post, explaining, "'Koba the Dread' is not easy to forget. Along with the laughter it offers the reader unfamiliar with Stalin's legacy a number that is the first step in understanding Russia's modern tragedy. That number, once again, is twenty million."[3] In The New York Times Book Review, writer and critic Paul Berman called the work "one of the oddest books about Stalin ever written, indignant, angry, personal and strangely touching...[Amis's] book carries a punch, artfully delivered—a punch that comes from looking at death and finding in it nothing but pain, cruelty, sadness, pointlessness and loss, a punch that comes from gazing at the indescribably horrific prison camps of the Soviet Union, or that comes from watching one's father and sister die."[4]


The book occasioned a public schism between Amis and fellow writer and close friend Christopher Hitchens, especially in the pages of The Atlantic.[5] The break was later mended.[6]

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  1. ^ Kakutani, Michiko, "Recounting the Suffering of Russia Under Stalin," The New York Times, 26 June 2002.
  2. ^ "Koba The Dread," Publisher's Weekly, May, 2002.
  3. ^ Shteyngart, Gary, "Gallows Humor," The Washington Post, 21 July 2002.
  4. ^ Berman, Paul, "A Million Deaths is Not Just a Statistic," The New York Times, 28 July 2002.
  5. ^ Hitchens, Christopher, "Lightness at Midnight," The Atlantic, September, 2002.
  6. ^ Amis, Martin, "Amis On Hitchens," The Observer, 24 April 2011.