“What surprised me most about Stalin’s library was his high regard had for Trotsky’s writings, especially the defence of Bolshevik authoritarianism in Terrorism and Communism (1920) – a book that Stalin read with relish and gushing agreement!”
WHAT: “Stalin, an avid reader from an early age, amassed a surprisingly diverse personal collection of thousands of books, many of which he marked and annotated revealing his intimate thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Based on his wide-ranging research in Russian archives, Roberts tells the story of the creation, fragmentation, and resurrection of Stalin’s personal library. As a true believer in communist ideology, Stalin was a fanatical idealist who hated his enemies―the bourgeoisie, kulaks, capitalists, imperialists, reactionaries, counter-revolutionaries, traitors―but detested their ideas even more.”
WHO: “Geoffrey Roberts is an historian, biographer, and political commentator. A renowned specialist in Russian and Soviet foreign and military policy and an expert on Stalin and the Second World War, his books have been translated into Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Estonian, Greek, Finnish, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish.
His latest book is Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books (Yale University Press 2022) – selected as a Book of the Year by The Australian, History Today, and India’s Open magazine.
He is Emeritus Professor of History at University College Cork and a Member of the Royal Irish Academy.”
Why Stalin’s Library?
Because the remnants of his personal book collection – especially the hundreds of books that he marked and annotated – is such a fantastic source. Nowadays we have many confidential sources about Stalin’s life and career but none so personal, spontaneous and revealing as the evidence of his private library. My book explores the books Stalin read, how he understood them and what they taught him. Stalin’s books – those he wrote and edited as well as those he read – allow us to glimpse the world through his eyes. We get to wear his spectacles, so to speak.
Stalin amassed more than 20,000 books in his lifetime. Are they all still together in one collection?
I estimate that by the time Stalin died in 1953 there were about 25,000 items in his personal library. Mostly books but also pamphlets and periodicals. It was a working library, scattered about his office and living spaces, but from the mid-1930s the bulk of the library was housed at a newly constructed dacha for Stalin on the outskirts of Moscow. Nicknamed ‘nearby’ because it wasn’t too far from the Kremlin and easily accessible by a fast road, one of this mansion’s biggest rooms was the library, a place in which Stalin spent a lot of time. Indeed, that was the room in which that he suffered a fatal stroke.
Stalin’s book collection was broken up after he was denounced as a brutal dictator by his successor as Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, at the 20th party congress in 1956. But a remnant of 5,500 books survived this purge of Stalin’s personal effects, including about 500 texts that he had written in. These latter books are kept in an archive in Moscow, while the unmarked texts – most of which bear his ex-libris stamp – are housed in the city’s main historical library.
Was Stalin an intellectual?
Indubitably. Nothing was more important to Stalin than ideas. He spent most of his life reading, editing and writing. Stalin believed that ideas, when allied to revolutionary practice, could shape not just people’s consciousness but human nature itself. He sought and used power ruthlessly but that was a means not an end, He wielded power in the service of communist ideas.
Importantly, Stalin felt the ideas he believed in – he was an emotionally engaged intellectual. It this feature of his intellectuality that screams at you from the pages of the books he marked.
Stalin made many notes in the margins of his books. Are there any signs that Stalin ever fundamentally challenged any of his intellectual, spiritual, or moral assumptions?
Stalin read to learn, and he derived his ideas and information from any useful source, including the writings of his enemies.
Stalin was a fanatic with no secret doubts. In all the thousands of pages of books that he marked there is not even so much as a whisper of a hint of doubt about his Marxist ideology and communist beliefs. That does not mean that Stalin’s ideas did not change during the course of his lifetime. Stalin adapted his belief system to practical realities, whether that be in relations to strategies for revolution, the problems of building the world’s first socialist society, the requirements of military strategy or the changing nature of international politics.
Stalin was blinkered by his dogma but not blinded by it. He could see out and beyond the Marxist canon when he needed to. But that never led to any fundamental reappraisal of his basic beliefs.
Who are the most surprising authors to have been read and admired by Stalin?
As a Marxist, Stalin believed his ideology was an all-encompassing framework for understanding human history and its social dynamics. Most of his library’s books were written by Marxists or other varieties of socialist. His favourite and most-read author was Vladimir Lenin, the founder of Bolshevism, and Stalin’s role model as an intellectual and political leader. His favourite historian, however, was Robert Vipper, a non-Marxist who wrote lively narratives about ancient Rome and Greece and the history of early Christianity. Vipper also published a study of Ivan the Terrible – a book that was enormously influential in shaping Stalin’s view of Russia’s history, especially the various Tsars’ struggles to build a strong Russian state that would defend its peoples from foreign attack. While Stalin had a lot of time for the Terrible, Peter the Great and other Tsars, mostly he looked upon them with disdain and thought that he and his comrades could do a better job defending the country.
What surprised me most about Stalin’s library was his high regard had for Trotsky’s writings, especially the defence of Bolshevik authoritarianism in Terrorism and Communism (1920) – a book that Stalin read with relish and gushing agreement!
Stalin’s personal split with Trotsky came much later than most people think. The political rivalry began in earnest after Lenin’s death in 1924 but not until the the late 1920s was Trotsky expelled from the USSR, supposed because he was an ‘anti-party’ element. In the 1930s Stalin increasingly saw Trotsky as not just a political rival but a personal enemy who was allied with Nazis and Fascists and attempting to overthrow the Soviet socialist system.
In 1940 Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico by a Stalinist agent. Yet Stalin didn’t think Trotsky was all bad, telling a private gathering of creative workers that even enemies of the revolution should be painted in complex human colours.
Did Stalinism have any unique or innovative intellectual features or was it an entirely derivative worldview?
Stalin contributed ideas about nationalism to the Marxist canon and propounded the damaging theory – which he derived from Lenin -that the stronger Soviet socialism became the more desperately its enemies would seek to undermine it – an idea that was key to Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s when many millions of innocent people were deemed enemies of the revolution and perished in a maelstrom of political violence.
While Stalin had his own spin on Marxist theory, his greatest strength as an intellectual was the simplicity and clarity of his thinking and articulation. He was a hugely effective populariser of Marxist ideas. He was also enormously attractive to fellow intellectuals. As the Austrian Marxist art critic, Ernst Fischer wrote in his memoirs, intellectuals ‘succumbed’ to Stalin because of the dictator’s ability to combine ‘the critical reason of the thinker with the élan, the all or nothing of the man of action.’
If you could own one of Stalin’s books, which would it be?
There was a Russian translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf that Stalin may well have read. It would be interesting to see if Stalin marked the book in any way, but no such copy is known to exist. There is also a lot of speculation about whether or not Stalin read Machiavelli’s The Prince and took on board its realpolitik precepts. Some people claim they have seen Stalin’s marked copy of this book but there is no actual evidence. Personally, I think Lenin and Trotsky, not Machiavelli were Stalin’s teachers when it came to power politics. Also, influential was that master of realpolitik, the ‘Iron Chancellor’, Otto von Bismarck, whose books Stalin certainly did read and engage with.
But the book I would really like to own would be Stalin’s copy of The Bible when he was a seminary student. It would be fascinating to see how he marked that book!
Stalin turned his back on Christianity as a rebellious teenager when he embraced Marxism and revolutionary socialism. By all accounts, the boy Stalin was a dedicated reader and emotionally attached to his Christian creed – a habit and sensibility that he transferred to his new-found secular socialist faith.
If you could ask Stalin anything (and not end up in a gulag) what would it be?
I would like know to what extent Stalin really believed that Trotsky and his other former allies in the Bolshevik party were guilty of the conspiracy, treason and subversion that they were accused of at the Moscow show trials of the mid-1930s.
But I can’t think of a way posing the question to Stalin that would have kept me out of the Gulag!
If you were going to gift Stalin a book published after 1953, perhaps as a birthday present (and you knew he would read it), what would you give him?
Stalin’s Library, of course– in the hope that he would pepper it with his favourite annotation – NB, indicating that I really had discovered what made him tick. More likely, though, is that he would utilise his second-favourite annotation – the derisive ha ha!
What are you currently working on?
A book called Stalin’s Peacemakers – a history of the communist-led peace movement after the Second World War. The experience and lessons of that movement’s valiant efforts to avert nuclear Armageddon have never been more relevant.
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